Memphis, TN Steamboat HELEN McGREGOR Explosion, Feb 1830


We are indebted to an intelligent gentleman, a passenger on board the Helen McGregor, for the following narrative:–

On the morning of the 24th of February, the Helen McGregor stopped at Memphis to deliver freight and land a number of passengers, who resided in that section of Tennessee. The time occupied in doing so could not have exceeded three quarters of an hour. When the boat landed, I went on shore to see a gentlemen with whom I had some business. I found him on the beach, and, after a short conversation, returned to the boat. I recollect looking at my watch as I passed the gang-way. It was half apast eight o'clock. A great number of persons were standing on what is called the boiler deck, being that part of the upper deck situated immediately over the boilers. It was crowded to excess and presented one dense mass of human bodies. In a few minutes we sat down to breakfast in the cabin. The table, although extending the whole length of the cabin, was completely filled, there being upwards of sixty cabin passengers, among whom were several ladies and children. The number of passengers on board, deck and cabin united, was between four and five hundred. I had almost finished my breakfast when the pilot rung his bell for the engineer to put the machinery in motion. The boat having just shoved off, I was in the act of raising my cup to my lip, the tingling of the pilot bell yet in my ear, when I heard an explosion, resembling the discharge of a small piece of artillery–the report was perhaps louder than usual in such cases–for an explanation was half uttered by me that the gun was well loaded, when the rushing sound of steam, by the rattling of glass in some of the cabin windows, checked my speech and told too well what had occurred. I almost involuntarily bent my head and body down to the floor–a vague idea seemed to shoot across my mind that more than one boiler might burst, and that by assuming this posture the destroying matter would pass over me without touching me.

The general cry of "a boiler has burst" resounded from one end of the table to the other, and, as if by a simultaneous movement, all started on their feet. Then commenced a general race to the ladies' cabin, which lay more towards the stern of the boat. All regard to order or deference to sex seemed to be lost in the struggle for which should be first and furthest removed from the dreadful boilers. The danger had already passed away! I remained standing by the chair on which I had been previously sitting. Only one person or two staid in the cabin with me. As yet not more than half a minute had elapsed since the explosion, but, in that brief space how had the scene changed! In that "drop of time" what confusion, distress and dismay! An instant before, and all were in the quiet repose of security–another, and they were overwhelmed with alarm and consternation. It is but justice to say that in this scene of terror the ladies exhibited a degree of firmness worthy of all praise. No screaming, no fainting; their fears, when uttered, were for their husbands and children, not for themselves.

I advanced from my position to one of the cabin doors, for the purpose of enquiring who were injured, when, just as I reached it, a man entered at the opposite one, both his hands covering his face, and exclaimed, "Oh, God, oh, God! I am lost! I am ruined!" He immediately began to tear off his clothes. When stripped, he presented a most shocking and afflicting spectacle; his face was entirely black–his body without a particle of skin. He had been flayed alive. He gave me his name and place of abode–then sunk in a state of exhaustion and agony on the floor. I assisted in placing him on a mattress taken from one of the berths, and covered him with blankets. He complained of heat and cold as at once oppressing him. He bore his torments with a manly fortitude, yet a convulsive shriek would occasionally burst from him. His wife, his children, were his constant theme; it was hard to die without seeing them. It was hard to go without bidding them one farewell. Oil and cotton were applied to his wounds, but he soon became insensible of his earthly misery. Before I had done attending him, the whole floor of the cabin was covered with unfortunate sufferers. Some bore up under the horrors of their situation with a degree of resolution amounting to heroism. Others were wholly overcome by the sense of pain, the suddenness of the fatal disaster, and the near approach of death, which even to them was evident–whose pangs they already felt. Some implored us, as an act of humanity, to complete the work of destruction and free them from their present suffering. One entreated the presence of a clergyman to pray for him, declaring that he was not fit to die. I inquired; none could be had. On every side were to be heard groans and mingled exclamations of grief and despair.

To add to the confusion, persons were every moment running about to learn the fate of their friends and relatives; fathers, sons, brothers; for, in this scene of unmixed calamity, it was impossible to say who were saved, or who had perished. The countenances of many were so much disfigured as to be passed recognition. My attention after some time, was particularly drawn towards a poor fellow who lay unnoticed on the floor without uttering a single word of complaint. He was at a little distance removed from the rest. He was not much scalded but one of his thighs was broken, and a principal artery had been severed from which the blood was gushing rapidly. He betrayed no displeasure at the apparent neglect with which he was treated–he was perfectly calm. I spoke to him; he said he was very weak; but felt himself going–it would soon be over. A gentleman ran for one of the physicians; he came and declared that if expedition was used, he might be preserved by amputating the limb; but that, to effect this, it would be necessary to remove him from the boat. Unfortunately, the boat was not sufficiently near to run a plank ashore. We were obliged to wait until it could be close hauled. I stood by him calling for help; we placed him on a mattress and bore him to the guards; there we were detained some time from the cause I have mentioned. Never did anything appear to me so slow as the movements of those engaged in hauling the boat.