The Vault

Bloody Accounts of Steamboat Disasters, Sold to Tourists on the 19th-Century Mississippi 

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Publisher James T. Lloyd’s 1856 book Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory, and Disasters on the Western Waters, is illustrated by 32 woodcuts of explosions, fires, and foundering ships, chronicling a decades-long history of steamboat mayhem. (The whole book is digitally available via the Library of Congress, on the Internet Archive.) 

In his book River of Dark Dreams, historian Walter Johnson writes that the table of contents of Lloyd’s bestseller was “sort of a nightmare poem of alphabetized Americana”: a catalog of 97 major and hundreds of minor boat disasters. Johnson points out that steamboat explosions, caused by faulty boilers, “were the nineteenth century’s first confrontation with industrialized mayhem,” and Lloyd’s prose seemed almost to revel in these horrors. 

Writing about the scene after the explosion of the Louisiana (which blew up in the docks at New Orleans on Nov. 15, 1849), Lloyd wrote:

The body of a man was seen, with the head and one leg off, and the entrails torn out. A woman, whose long hair lay wet and matted by her side, had one leg off, and her body was shockingly mangled. A large man, having his skull mashed in, lay dead on the levee; his face looked as though it had been painted red, having been completely flayed by the scalding water. 

The woodcut illustrations below, which ran small in the book, reveal a repetitive motif when looked at in a larger format: bodies thrown in the air, depicted in flight at the moment of explosion. 

In a seeming paradox of frontier boosterism, Lloyd’s book sold this terrible recent history of the Mississippi as a romantic feature of the area. The Directory padded out the bloody prose of the disaster descriptions and the repetitive awfulness of the illustrations with current business and travel information about the Mississippi Valley. Historian Ann Fabian writes that Lloyd even “peddle[d] his book to the travelers who might soon wind up on the lists of the dead,” who bought it and read it to pass the time on their own steamboat voyages.  

Click on links in the titles below to reach Lloyd’s descriptions of the accidents pictured. 

Internet Archive. 

Explosion of the Steamboat Constitution,” May 4, 1817, Point Coupee, Louisiana.

Internet Archive. 

Explosion and Burning of the Steamboat Teche on the Mississippi River, May 5, 1825.

Internet Archive. 

Explosion of the Helen McGregor, At Memphis, Tennessee, February 24, 1830.

Internet Archive. 

Terrific Explosion of the Steamboat Ben Franklin, at Mobile, Alabama, March 13, 1836.

Internet Archive. 

Explosion of the Oronoko, April 21, 1838,” near Princeton, Mississippi.

Internet Archive. 

Explosion of the Moselle, Near Cincinnati, Ohio, April 25, 1838.

Internet Archive. 

Burning of the Orline St. John,” near Montgomery, Alabama, March 2, 1850.