NYTimes Obituary

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By NYTimes Obituary section on Saturday, October 19, 2002 - 12:33 pm:

    Catherine Connelly, 109, Who Escaped Slocum Fire, Dies

    atherine Connelly, who as an 11-year-old in 1904 escaped the inferno that burned the General Slocum, an excursion boat in the East River, died on Thursday at a nursing home in Wilton, Conn. She was 109 and was one of the last two survivors of the disaster, according to a commemorative group.

    Maureen Enright, Mrs. Connelly's granddaughter, reported the death. Kenneth Leib, president of the General Slocum Memorial Association, said that only one General Slocum survivor remains alive: Adella Wotherspoon, 98, a retired teacher in Watchung, N.J.

    "I'm sorry, of course," Mrs. Wotherspoon said in a phone interview. "She had a very long life. She was a very interesting person."

    Mrs. Connelly treasured her family more than anything, and she is survived by her two daughters Jeanne Meehan of Goshen, N.Y., and Elizabeth Reilly of Greenwich, Conn.; 27 grandchildren; 30 great-grandchildren; and 7 great-great-grandchildren.

    She had all but one of her 11 babies at home, and made her own diapers. Mother's Days meant wall-to-wall flowers in the Manhattan apartment where she lived alone until she was 102. Her pleasures included cooking rich food, and her secret for longevity was a banana a day.

    But every year in the weeks leading up to June 15, the anniversary of the disaster New York City's most lethal fire until Sept. 11, 2001 she would become sad. She remembered the boy shouting "fire" over a brass band, mothers and children with clothing on fire leaping into the swirling whirlpools of Hell Gate in the East River, dresses shredded in machinery. When it was all over, 1,021 of the 1,331 passengers on the Sunday School cruise on a sunny day were dead.

    "Sometimes he's very cruel, the man upstairs," Mrs. Connelly said in an interview with The New York Times in 1989.

    Catherine Uhlmyer was born in Manhattan on April 4, 1893. Her father died before she was a year old, and her mother married John Gallagher. His last name became hers.

    She grew up in what was known as Little Germany, an enclave between Houston and 14th Streets on the East Side. Pickles were a penny each, and stacks of rye bread with apple butter were the delicacy of the day. St. Mark's Lutheran Church on East Sixth Street was the place of worship for much of the community.

    The church chartered the General Slocum, a wooden sidewheel steamboat, for the outing. A grocer who belonged to the church gave the Gallaghers, who were Roman Catholics, three tickets. But they needed one more. Mr. Gallagher had to work.

    "I went over to the store crying and they gave me a ticket," Mrs. Connelly said. "I was never on a boat before."

    Nor did she ever set foot on one again.

    The passengers boarded at 9:40 a.m. for the trip to Long Island for a picnic. After catching fire at Hell Gate, the General Slocum put ashore on North Brother Island at 10:40 and burned. Catherine Gallagher was rescued by a tugboat.

    An investigation revealed that life jackets and fire hoses had fallen apart with age; lifeboats were wired in place; and the crew had never conducted a fire drill. Only the ship's captain went to prison.

    In the days after the disaster, Little Germany's doorways were draped in black, and on June 18, 1904, the neighborhood saw 156 funerals. More than 600 households lost loved ones. Mrs. Connelly lost her mother, brother and sister. Mrs. Wotherspoon lost two sisters, two cousins and two aunts.

    Catherine Gallagher first lived with her grandparents, then with an aunt and uncle. She dropped out of school at 13, and at 20 she married Thomas Connelly, a truck driver.

    In Mrs. Connelly's later years, she was interviewed for many articles and television documentaries on the General Slocum, but she never lost her perspective.

    "You know," she said in the interview with The Times, "you don't fully grasp the meaning of everything."


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