New York City has had some terrible nautical disasters – including the sinking of the General Slocum steamboat off North Brother Island in 1904 and the capsizing of the Normandie (SS Lafayette) in 1942. But the giant octopus attack that sank the Staten Island Steam Ferry, the Cornelius G. Kolff, in 1963 is not one of them. Yet, there is a monument to it (sometimes) in the Battery in Lower Manhattan and a website that chronicles the history of the event which includes news clippings and even a documentary.
The Staten Island Ferry Memorial Museum and monument is part of an elaborate and hilarious hoax undertaken by artist Joseph Reginella, a Staten Island resident. As the story goes, on November 2nd, 1963, the day of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Staten Island Ferry sailed its usual route from St. George Ferry terminal to Whitehall terminal in lower Manhattan. Over 400 people were on board at the ungodly hour of 4 am, “but they would never reach their destination,” an official sounding documentary voice says on voiceover.
There are interviews with a “marine expert,” and an eyewitness that testifies to screaming, the loud horn of the ship, and massive “arms coming up over the ship.” The marine expert contends, “I have no doubt in my mind it was a f*cking giant octopus. No doubt in my mind.” The memorial website states that the octopus was “half the size of the ship.” The ferry was allegedly pulled down in minutes and there were no survivors. But the mystery continued for decades, with some alleging that it simply hit shallow ground in the harbor.
Pieces of the ferry showed up on shore and photos on the website supposedly show the evidence, which had “large suction cup-shaped” marks on them. Newspapers articles reveal that the NYC Department of Transportation, which runs the Staten Island Ferry, settled a lawsuit in 1979 but admitted no wrongdoing in the “Act of God.”
Supposed pieces of the Staten Island Ferry that washed up on shore
The narrator goes on to claim that “Kennedy’s demise dominated all news coverage and just as a giant Octopus made the ferry disappear the media’s coverage of Kennedy’s death sunk any chance of word getting out about the Staten Island ferry disaster.” The filmmaker for the mocumentary was Melanie Jiuliano, a New Jersey 19-year-old, who used her father and neighbor as the actors for the documentary. A colleague’s husband was the narrator. Jiuliano was the real winner of the the 2014 James Gandolfini Best of Fest” Filmmaking Award at the 2014 New Jersey Filmmakers of Tomorrow Festival.
The octopus disaster story originated when Reginella was taking his 11 year old nephew on the ferry. He tells The Guardian:
“He was asking me all kinds of crazy questions, like if the waters were shark-infested. I said ‘No, but you know what did happen in the 60s? One of these boats got pulled down by a giant octopus. The story just rolled off the top of my head,” he said, and it evolved to become “a multimedia art project and social experience – not maliciously – about how gullible people are”.
Reginella says that the 250 pound memorial had to be moved every few days because the city would potentially take it away but he tells Untapped Cities that it will be back in the Battery this Saturday and Sunday. The monument has a plaque that dedicates it to the “passengers and crew of the Cornelius G. Kloff who lost their lives on November 22nd, 1963 in one of the most mysterious and tragic maritime disasters in American history. Erected by the Staten Island Ferry Memorial Foundation and Chemical Bank.”
The addition of Chemical Bank is a nice touch – in existence from 1896 to 1996, at which point it acquired Chase and took its name. The website and fliers handed out by Reginella direct visitors to the Staten Island Ferry Memorial Museum at an address located across from Snug Harbor Cultural Center which has received a flurry of confused people. The cultural center seems pleased that the prank has brought people out to their museum, although they were initially perplexed.
Joseph Reginella with the model in his studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.
In case you were wondering if anything was real in this hoax, you can actually buy the “Octopus Memorial t-shirts” and pre-order a scale model of the memorial. The Cornelius G. Kloff was a real ferry that was in operation with the NYC Department of Transportation starting in 1951 , after which it became a floating jail that was part of Rikers Island in 1987. It was sold to be scrapped in 2003.
We asked Reginella what his favorite reaction has been to the memorial. He says, “One of my favorite reactions was a woman jogging who stopped dead in her tracks, looked at the monument, read the dedication, looked out into the harbor and walked away with a strange look on her face.” There will be certainly more of those moments this weekend.