Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Sinking of the Germania Bank

Illustration shows an old and haggard "Justice" sitting in a chair on a rock in the East River, cobwebs have grown over her sword, scales, and an "Indictment"; in the background, the steamship General Slocum is engulfed in flames (it burned on June 15th 1904 with a loss of over 1,000 lives). from LOC.gov
Illustration is from Puck, a magazine founded by German immigrants, and shows an old, haggard "Justice" sitting in a chair on a rock in the East River, cobwebs have grown over her sword, scales, and an "Indictment"; in the background, the steamship General Slocum is engulfed in flames (it burned on June 15th 1904 with a loss of over 1,000 lives). From LOC.gov

On a sunny, June 15th Wednesday in 1904, a steamboat called the General Slocum carrying parishioners from St. Marks German Lutheran Church to its annual picnic erupted into flames and sank in the East River. Almost all of the 1,021 killed were women and their children.

The Pastor, who survived, described the scene. "Women were shrieking and clasping their children in their arms. Some mothers had as many as three or four with them. Death by fire was to be escaped only by death by water."

Passengers who chose water were horrified to realize that the boat's "life preservers" (which hadn't been replaced since 1895) were filled with ground cork instead of solid. Since most Americans could not swim at the time, many, including the Pastor's wife and daughter, drowned. In the preceding trials, the captain and crew escaped punishment for their part in the greatest loss of life in New York's history (until 9/11/2001).

In the days that followed, the avenues and byways of Little Germany that had for generations been famous for outdoor gaiety were silent. Mourning crepe hung on every door. The windows wept.

"We all knew each other and now--all dead," a grief-stricken resident told the New York Times.

Many attributed the Slocum tragedy to the eventual death of Little Germany itself. But the transition from Kleindeutschland to what we now know as the East Village was certainly hastened by a wave of anti-German sentiment. German bier gartens were the bete noir of the Prohibition Movement, and the onset of World War I brought hatred of Germans to a frothy peak.

The New York Times ran letters defending German-Americans. "Of all the peoples of nations that have come to our shores there are none who have made better or more patriotic citizens," John Crimmins wrote in 1914. "Steady, industrious, sober, [German immigrants] have given to the United States great merchants, manufacturers, and bankers."

Including the bankers of Little Germany's own Germania Bank. Successful since its founding in1869, it drowned in 1918 under the weight of anti-German feeling. When it was apparent that there was no place in America for a bank with German in its name, the well-capitalized and deposit-rich concern changed it.

On April 15th a small corner of the New York Times made the announcement: "Beginning today the Germania Bank will be known as the Commonwealth Bank."

Post Script: The Germania Bank Building survives to this day. Described by New York Magazine as a "72-room Bohemian dream house," the former bank is now the home of photographer Jay Maisel who purchased it in 1966 for $102,000. He still lives there with his wife and daughter, though from the outside it looks vacant. The inside, however, a-mazing. Check it out here.
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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.