2 minute read

Captain William Van Schaick Trial: 1906

Only Van Schaick Is Tried, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: William Van Schaick
Crime Charged: Criminal negligence and misconduct
Chief Defense Lawyers: Terence J. McManus and William M.K. Olcott
Chief Prosecutors: Ernest E. Baldwin and Henry I. Burnett
Judge: Edward B. Thomas
Place: New York, New York

Dates of Trial: January 10-27, 1906
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 10 years in prison pardoned after serving 4 years

SIGNIFICANCE: Captain Van William Schaick was found guilty, but his corporate employer and its board of directors, who bore at least as much responsibility for the tragic death of over 900 people, went scot-free. This trial and other trials of the period, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire trial (see separate entry), illustrate the extreme reluctance that the legal system has had in recognizing that corporations should be held accountable for their actions.

William Van Schaick was the captain of a steamboat, called the General Slocum, which for years traveled the waters of the bay and harbor of New York City. Captain Van Schaick was an experienced seaman, having been a sailor for decades, and was a trusted employee of the Knickerbocker Steamboat Company, which owned the General Slocum.

On June 15, 1904, the General Slocum was traveling New York's East River. Only six weeks previously, the General Slocum had passed federal inspection and gotten a renewal of its sailing permit. For reasons that never became entirely clear, a fire developed on board. The fire spread quickly, and the hundreds of passengers began to panic. They rushed to the lifeboats and life preservers, only to find that the boats were lashed to the ship with wires and couldn't be freed. The life preservers, made of cork, were so old and shoddy that they crumbled in the passengers' hands. The ship's crew couldn't put out the fire because the pumps were old and the hoses leaked. Desperate to escape the flames, over a thousand people jumped overboard and hundreds drowned because they couldn't reach the shore.

The General Slocum disaster shocked New York and dominated the local press for weeks as bodies were fished from the East River. The final death tally was nearly 900 people. The day after the disaster, Secretary of Commerce and Labor George B. Cortelyou ordered a federal inquiry, to be headed by George Uhler, supervising inspector general of the Steamboat Inspection Service, and James A. Dumont and Thomas H. Barrett of the local New York Board of Steamboat Inspections. Meanwhile, Bronx Coroner Joseph Berry ordered an inquest, which was to be the precursor to a criminal trial.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917