In one of my manuscripts, my hero is haunted by a past in which he seems to be constantly surrounded by disaster (in truth, he subconsciously seeks them out). This required me to actually research disasters in the 19th century. Yes, there is actually a book about the history of disasters titled The Pessimist’s Guide to History by Stuart Flexner with Doris Flexner. It chronicles disasters from The Big Bang until 1991, along with some very, very funny commentary. There’s even a timeline of disasters in the back of the book broken out by the kind of disaster. For those of us with a wry sense of humor, this is pretty amusing.
So, without further ado, here are the 10 I chose from the Victorian period. I tried to stay within the boundaries of North America because that’s the area I write about.
I’m putting them in the order more of personal interest than anything else.
1.) 1883, Krakatoa Erupts—August 26th and 27. So explosive was the eruption that it shook houses a hundred miles away, and the most spectacular of the explosions were her 2,900 miles away. Worse, the ferocity of Krakatoa’s eruption induced another 15 volcanoes in the area to erupt. 50 square miles of land sank into the sea, along with 2/3 of the island of Krakatoa. And you know what happens then—a tsunami traveling as far as South America. In the end the volcanoes sent 5 cubic miles of debris into the area for a period of about 2 years, blocking out the sunlight. It was blamed for a drop in temperature in North America during the 19th century.
2.) 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Memphis Tennessee. It broke out in mid-august. 25000 people fled the city. 20,000 stayed behind, of which 5,000 died. Public disorder, resulted. It finally ended in October.
3) Ohio train wreck–1876. A blizzard hit on the night of December 29th, slowing the progress of the Pacific Express, carrying 150 passengers. For all that, it still left Ashtabula Ohio. Around 8:00 pm it crossed a bridge, 160 feet long. The bridge collapsed, plunging the train into Ashtabula Creek. The fall turned over heating stoves, which set parts of the train on fire. The passengers that managed to survive the fall, the fires, the freezing and crawl to safety then had to face the snow storm. 92 people died.
4.) Peshtigo Fire, 1871—The same winds that caused the Great Chicago Fire stirred this one up too. Drought had already caused tiny fires to spring up in the woods and grasslands surrounding Peshtigo Wisconsin. The winds hit, turning the tiny fires into walls of flame, of which the 2000 residents of the city had not warning. Worse, Peshtigo was surrounded by swamp—and swamp gas, methane. When the fire hit the swamp the gas exploded, making the air so hot that anything that was combustible burst into flames. In the end Peshtigo was destroy and about 1400 people died.
5.) Great Chicago Fire, 1871—There are sites and books dedicated to this. It was the most destructive fire in American history, basically burning Chicago to the ground on October 8th and 9th. 90,000 of the city’s 335,000 were left homeless. 17,500 buildings were destroyed.
6.) Explosion of the Sultana 1865—Susan Macatee might know more about this, since the Sultana was a steamboat transporting Union soldiers up the Mississippi after peace was declared. I actually have a book about this and hope someday to blog about it (don’t hold your breath, though—I’ve got quite a few blogs I’ve never done J). Anyway, the Sultana was carrying 2134 soldiers, although it only had a capacity of 376. It left Vicksburg for Cairo Illinois on April 24th. A leak in one of the boilers was repaired at
Memphis. To no avail. It blew on April 27th, 8 miles north of Memphis. Men were crushed under steam stacks, burned or drowned in the water after jumping over board or being pushed. It’s estimated 1,547 died. Ironically many of the passengers had survived as inmates of the infamous Andersonville prison, only to be subjected to this.
7.) 1851-1855 Tuberculosis Epidemic in Britain—I’ve blogged about TB before, the scourge of the 19th century. During this period it killed approximately 250,000 people.
Here’s an interesting fact that I discovered while checking out tuberculosis—Thoreau died of TB at the age of 44. But that’s not really part of the Tuesday Ten.
8.) 1848, The Voyage of the Omega—Lots of ship deaths on the list of disasters. In this specific case the ship, a British emigrant ship, lost its sails during a storm. The passengers were transferred to three other passing ships. One of those sank killing 115 people. Another ran out of water killing 70 of the Omega’s passengers. Interestingly enough, the Omega made it back to port safely.
9.) 1845 Quebec Fire—This is for Jenn who writes about Victorian Canada. On May 28th, a nasty wind whipped up a fire that started in a tanner, spreading it through parts of Quebec. The fire destroyed approximately 1,500 buildings, and killed some people, but exactly how many is not known.
10.) 1841, Hurricane in Saint Jo, Florida—Just because we can’t forget weather as a natural disaster. This one struck in September, destroying all the buildings and killing 4000 people. The town no longer exists.
And just because I found another natural disaster (so this is 11) a couple tornadoes destroyed Natchez Mississippi. One hit in May 1840, killing 317 people. The second one hit on June 16th 1842, killing another 500 people. I guess the 1840’s were not a good time to be living in Natchez.
Other interesting books:
Diesease and History Frederick F Cartwright, Michael D. Biddiss
Viruses, Plagues & History, Michael B.A. Oldstone
Living in the Shadow of Death, Sheila M. Rothman
The Sultana Saga, Rex T. Jackson
Braving the elements, The Stormy History of American Weather, David Laskin