This fascinating letter was written by a passenger on board the steamer James Millinger ¹ as she travelled up the ice-choked waters of the Mississippi River in January 1852. Unfortunately, the 4-page letter ends abruptly without an ending or a signature to reveal the identity of its author. It is possible, I suppose, that the letter was never mailed. Yet the content of the letter is nonetheless captivating for it conveys the news of no less than three steamboat fires on the river and in startling detail gives the particulars of the death of one of the badly burned passengers who was traveling on board the steamer Martha Washington, bound from Cincinnati to New Orleans, when she was consumed by flames near Napoleon, Arkansas.
Initial reports of the steamboat disaster, which occurred in the early morning of January 14, 1852 on a very frigid and moonless night, claimed that only five or six lives were lost. Months later, however, it was concluded that about 13-16 lives were lost. Some of those who died, like the young man whose death is described in this letter, died a day or more after the fire that consumed the boat and were not known to those who reported its loss to the authorities. It’s also possible that the loss of human life was intentionally downplayed by the officers and crew of the steamboat — all of whom survived — because it was later revealed by testimony in an Ohio courtroom that the captain, James N. Cummings, and several Cincinnati businessmen purposely had the steamboat set on fire so as to collect on five different insurance policies totaling $300,000. Much of the cargo that was lost was alleged to be bogus — boxes filled with refuse, sawdust, and bricks, etc. Though those thought to have been involved with the scheme were rounded up and brought to trial in December 1852, they were all acquitted of the charges even though most of the citizens who followed the trial in the newspapers felt strongly that the evidence suggested otherwise.
In the aforementioned trial, Mr. McDaniel, a resident of Brooklyn, Kentucky, and a carpenter on board the Martha Washington at the time of the fire, provided testimony for the defense. It was his recollection that, “There were eight lost, as near as we could recognize the number — seven burnt, one jumped overboard and was drowned — a Dutchman, who jumped at the first alarm. There were no houses in the neighborhood. We stayed there about an hour; saw a steamer; she tried to round-to, to take us, but broke her tiller rope. The Charles Hammond then came along and took us. All but four or five went on to New Orleans — four or five came up the next morning this way.” Unfortunately, the names of the northbound passengers were not provided.
Addressed to “My Dearest Maria”
Near Memphis [Tennessee]
January 20th 1852
My Dearest Maria,
Having nearly frozen to death in the Sunny South, I concluded to try a more northern climate, but as yet have gained nothing by the exchange for we are now fast in the ice nearly opposite Memphis and from present appearances, will continue so for some days to come.
We are safe enough, however, as far as plenty to eat is concerned, and tomorrow the ice will probably be solid enough for us to communicate with the shore. It is not so pleasant, however, to be laying here surrounded by the roaring, cracking ice and not knowing at what moment it may make a hole in our boat and give us a ducking in the cold and muddy Mississippi.
But we are all well off in comparison with the situation of hundreds of others during the past week on this river. Near Napoleon [Arkansas], we fell in with the burning wreck of the steamer Martha Washington. A boat bound down[river], however, had been to her assistance before we reached her and had all her passengers on board that had not been drowned or burned to death. It was an appalling sight and one like which I hope it may never be my lot to behold again. The black and mutilated corpses of the dead and the half burned & ___thing bodies of the living who had been snatched from the devouring element only to prolong their tortures, and the destitute condition of all the survivors was enough to move the stoutest heart.
We took some of the sufferers who wished to come back up the river on board our boat. Among them was a young fellow whom I took a particular interest in — he being about my age. I had him conveyed to my stateroom and staid by his side until he breathed his last, which was in about ten hours from the time he came on board. He gave all his effects that had been saved from the wreck into my possession with the request that I would send them to his mother and also a small locket containing a likeness of himself and a young girl to whom he said he was to have been married on his return home. “Take it,” said he, “when my eyes are closed in death and can no more look upon the features of her whose love I value more than my own existence & place it in my coffin. Write to her for me and tell her that my last thought was of her and that her blessed image reposes near my heart. And this,” said he, producing another containing portraits of his widowed mother and only sister, “place beside it. And when you write, tell them their son and brother died happy and will watch for them at the gates of heaven, and welcome them to the land of bliss.”
And thus, about one o’clock in the night he died, pressing his lips to the likeness of her he so deeply loved, and the last syllable he uttered was her name. I have just completed the melancholy but willing task of breaking by letter to them the sad news, for one little knows how soon he may have the same request to make at the hands of others. He was a noble fellow. His own sufferings and situation did not seem to distress him in the least. His only care seemed to be for the feelings of his bereaved friends. I was alone with him when he died, as none of us had any idea he was so near his end. The next day we paid the last tribute of respect to his mortal remains by deposit them in their lonely grave on the dreary banks of the Mississippi.
What was a very singular coincidence, precisely at the same hour that the Martha Washington was burning, the George Washington [steamboat] took fire below Vicksburg [Mississippi] and burned to the water’s edge, destroying about thirty human lives. The preceding night the Tippah — a cotton boat — was burned. She had but few passengers and all except three were saved.
These accidents, though fearful, are common in this country — especially at this season of the year. They keep such heavy fires that it is almost morally impossible for a boat to make a trip without taking fire in some portion of her. It is at such times as these when [a father?] is shut out in a manner from the world around him with scenes of suffering and death still fresh in the memory that one is apt to think more strongly of the joys and comforts of home and the dear ones left behind whose presence there serves to render it doubly lovely. But fate seems to have ordained that I should be a wanderer, [letter ends without conclusion and signature].
¹ The James Millinger was a Pittsburgh based steamer owned by Dunning McNair Foster (1821-1856) — the brother of poet/songwriter Stephen Collins Foster. In January 1852, the steamer was returning from New Orleans on its way back to Pittsburgh where it arrived in February and took on another cargo. It is reported that Stephen Foster and his wife took passage on the steamer on the trip back downriver that immediately followed.
The following newspaper articles were perused (unsuccessfully) in an attempt to identify the fatally burned passenger who died approximately 24 hours after the fire that consumed the Martha Washington while being attended by the author of this letter.
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported on 16 January:
Martha Washington Lost. Memphis, Jan. 15. The steamer Martha Washington, bound for New Orleans, was burned at Island 65 yesterday morning at half-past 1 o’clock. A man, his wife and two children in the ladies’ cabin, a man in the gentleman’s cabin, and one on deck, were all burned to death. The officers and crew were saved. The survivors were taken up by the James Millinger and Charles Hammond, the former bound up and the latter down the river. From the time the boat caught [fire] only three minutes elapsed before she was entirely in flames and the cabin fell in. The boat and cargo, as well as books and papers, are a total loss…
The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reported on 19 January:
Vicksburg, Jan. 15, P.M. The passengers saved from the burning of the Martha Washington at Island No. 65, yeterday morning, have been brought here on the steamboat Charles Hammond. Tn the list of passengers saved and lost, the following are set down as missing since the burning of the Martha Washington: E. Roberts, wife and two children, of Georgia; S. Hanks, of Louisville, Ky.; a young man name unknown, from Indiana (his brother was not hurt); a Hungarian deck passenger unknown, and probably two or three others whose names are also unknown, as the books and papers of the boat have been all lost. The following passengers, besides the officers and crew, were saved: J.C. Walker; D.W.M. Jennings, Jefferson County, Ky.; Edward Richards, Lexington, Ky.; M. Beckwell, Bnnet Carre Church, Louisiana; Christian Book, Kentucky, slightly wounded. Three Italian musicians, also cabin passengers, and a number of deck passengers, names unknown.
Memphis, Jan 16. The Tiphah, with 723 bales of cotton, was burned near Vicksburgh on Tuesday last.
The Daily Atlas, a Boston Newspaper, reported 19 January 1852:
A Coincidence. The boiler of the steamer George Washington exploded on the 14th inst., after which she took fire and was entirely consumed. On the same day, the steamer Martha Washington, bound to New Orleans from Louisvile, was burned to the water’s edge….
Mississippi Free Trader, January 21, 1852:
Lamentable Casualties on the River. Our river was today fraught with woe and disaster. Between one and two o’clock, on Wednesday morning, the Steamer George Washington, with two flats along side laden with upper country produce, exploded, and then took fire and burned to the water’s edge, with a probable loss of human life amounting to between thirty and forty persons. Capt. Irwin, badly scalded, has passed down to New Orleans. This occurred near Grand Gulf. At about the same hour, by a most singular coincidence, the Steamer Martha Washington was burned, on her descending passage above Vicksburg, opposite Island No. 65. Seven persons were lost in this conflagration — E. Roberts, wife and two children, Georgians; Mr. Shanks of Louisville, a young man from Indiana, and a Hungarian deck passenger. The day previous, the Yazoo river Steamer Tippah caught fire below Vicksburg at the head of Diamond Bend and was totally consumed with the loss of the life of the second engineer.