Disasters Old and New

Choose your mayhem or madness. The timing on this entry is in extremely bad taste, but I can’t resist. GenDisasters offers the complete array from natural – hurricanes and floods, earthquakes, to manmade – train wrecks, mine collapses, to the truly gruesome.

One of the worst that I found bore the following headline, “Burned to Death in an Attic: A Colored Children’s Asylum Set on Fire by Crackers.” It was dated July 1882 and added to the site just last month. The boy who died was Joseph Hawkins, “the son of a negress [sic].” The whole sad story is of attempted rescue by his mother, who is a described as “an intelligent negress.” I was looking for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire but maybe it was too big to include.

Closer to home in Connecticut, I like the tornado stories – one from Burnside (part of East Hartford) in 1886, and others from Norwalk in 1899, New Milford 1911, and Huntington, now Shelton, from 1901. Also the 1884 earthquake, which wasn’t local to Connecticut, but contained the great subheadline “A Vibratory Motion from Washington to Maine.”

While on the subject of earthquakes, I was amazed that California had a much bigger list of air crashes at 148 than earthquakes at 12. Of course that could just be a function of what’s been posted on the site. Or it could be that earthquakes are so mundane (sorry for the quasi-pun) that crashes draw much more attention. The best California story was the chain-reaction of an explosion at an oil refinery, which caused elephants at a nearby circus to stampede. One escaped and ran into the courtyard of a hotel a mile away.  

In the unnatural category, I knew about other fires at what is now Connecticut Valley Hospital, but the headline in this version adds much: “Middletown, CT Insale Hospital Fire, Dec 1919.” I think they meant Insane. The circumstances were anything but funny. It seems that one of the wood-frame buildings on the campus burned, killing eight patients, which the NY Times described as the “milder type of insane patients.”

Elsewhere, Louisiana seemed to be plagued, not by hurricanes or floods but with explosions mostly of steamboats, with the odd chemical plant and oil refinery thrown in. The tally at the far right of the page lists them third after fires and air disasters as the main causes for  death and destruction.

My favorite so far, though, is “Hightstown NJ Auto – Cow Accident 1905. It is sad that there was a loss of life, but the cause appeals to my macabre journalist side: “The machine was completely overturned by running into a telegraph pole when [Hinman] Bird, who was driving, turned in an endeavor to avoid striking a cow, which was in the way.”

These stories are so much more satisfying to read than the routine stuff in our daily papers with bank robbery and DWI fatals.

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