On June 15, 1904, a fire broke out on the General Slocum, a steamboat crossing the East River with over thirteen hundred passengers on board, and it sank. Few of the passengers could swim, most were wearing thick layers of clothes, and the life vests were faulty. An estimated 1,021 people died—the deadliest day in New York City’s history until September 11, 2001.
“If ever a loss at sea fell under the definition, in the terms of a bill of lading, of Act of God,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “this one does, in its magnitude, suddenness, and severity; and in the chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind.” The sentence ends the first paragraph of his 1912 essay “Some Reflections on the Loss of the Titanic.”
After Panama declared independence from Colombia in 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt attempted to quell suspicions that the U.S. had helped foment revolt in order to build the Panama Canal. Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Elihu Root if he had properly defended himself against accusations of wrongdoing. Root reportedly replied, “You certainly have, Mr. President. You have shown that you were accused of seduction, and you have conclusively proved that you were guilty of rape.”