The Oracles

IT WAS A CREDULOUS AGE. One reason people were so quick to believe in the Murrell excitement was that they were eager to believe in anything, no matter how strange, as long as it was bad news. They were particularly fascinated by occult portents of doom. Everybody knew that owls and whip-poor-wills were evil omens, that a dog howling in the night meant somebody was about to die, that prudent people had to carry a tuft of wool tied with thread at all times to prevent being ridden by witches. It was a time of séances and mirror divination and spirit rapping—an era when, as Melville observed in Moby-Dick, “the rumor of a knocking in a tomb will terrify a whole city.”

Many people lived their whole lives in a penumbra of supernatural dread. Calvin Stowe, for example, the husband of Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a down-to-earth and practical man, but he was tormented all his life by visions of weird presences infesting the world. On the streets mingling with ordinary people, he said, was another race “with the human form and proportion, but under a shadowy outline that seemed just ready to melt into the invisible air, and sometimes liable to the most sudden and grotesque changes.” These “rational phantoms,” as he called them, were hunted by yet another supernatural race, which appeared as “heavy clouds floating about overhead, of a black color, spotted with brown, in the shape of a very flaring inverted tunnel without a nozzle.… They floated from place to place in great numbers, and in all directions, with a strong and steady progress, but with a tremulous, quivering, internal motion that agitated them in every part.” And then there were the devils—a great many devils, down every street and in every meeting place. They were “very different from the common representations,” he said. “They had neither red faces, nor horns, nor hoofs, nor tails. They were in all respects stoutly built and well-dressed gentlemen. The only peculiarity that I noted in their appearance was as to their heads. Their faces and necks were perfectly bare, without hair or flesh, and of a uniform sky-blue color, like the ashes of burnt paper before it falls to pieces, and of a certain glossy smoothness.”

People troubled by apparitions like these did not find in the culture at large any kind of reality check. Newspapers in particular were infamous for their shameless romancing of the violent, the bizarre, the occult, and the fantastic. Reporters casually invented the most surreal stories out of thin air; editors hungry to fill blank pages ran them without a second thought. Mark Twain, in his early days as a reporter, was once so desperate for copy that he made up a particularly horrific mass murder; Edgar Allan Poe announced the first successful manned crossing of the Atlantic by balloon. Some of these stories grew into elaborate epics. The journalist Richard Adams Locke became famous for a series of reports describing the remarkable discoveries the astronomer John Herschel had recently made about the moon. Herschel’s new telescope, according to Locke, had disclosed that the lunar landscape was a colorful and rich tapestry of crystal valleys, hills of quartz, and basalt mountains covered with red flowers. It was also, Locke announced, swarming with intelligent life—most notably, a half-man, half-bat species with copper-colored fur and yellow faces. They were, Locke said, “doubtless innocent and happy creatures, notwithstanding that some of their amusements would but ill comport with our terrestrial notions of decorum.” He discreetly refused to specify what those indecorous amusements might be; he said they were “so very remarkable, that I prefer they should first be laid before the public in Dr. Herschel’s own work.” (Other newsmen eager for the details sought out the real John Herschel, who happened then to be at an observatory in South Africa; he had heard nothing about the story and reportedly could not stop laughing.)

But the true crowd-pleasers were those romances that involved disaster—the larger the better. The greatest popular upset of those years arose over the predictions of a Calvinist preacher named William Miller, who reviewed all the signs and concluded that the end of the world was at hand. Miller would later insist that he never actually pinpointed a time, but his followers took care of that for him: earth’s last day, they announced, was going to be March 21, 1843. By the beginning of that fateful year there were daily newspapers in several cities devoted wholly to discussions, analyses, and proofs of Miller’s prophecy. Two of the most prominent of these papers, Signs of the Times and Midnight Cry, were read all over America. An edition of Midnight Cry published for the frontier, The Western Midnight Cry, distributed from Cincinnati, terrified people throughout the Mississippi valley. By early March 1843, the writer John S. Robb observed, all the river men’s talk on the Mississippi was of “the awful evidences of a general conflagration, the signs of the times, the adding up of the times, the proof of their meaning, and the dreadful consequences of being unprepared—with ascension robes.” Miller, it was said on the river, was going to “burn down the world.” The belief spread into the remotest corners of the valley. When the feared day of March 21 at last arrived, the diarist Bennet Barrow, who owned an isolated sugar plantation in the bayou country, discovered to his annoyance that his slaves were in an uproar about the Miller prophecy and that no work could be done until he gave his slaves “a lecture on the folly of their belief that the world would end today.” Meanwhile, the boat people by the thousands were spending the whole of the twenty-first clustered in fright in the deepest channels of the Mississippi. The deep river, they believed, was the safest place to ride out the firestorm.

While waiting for the disaster—whichever disaster they were currently dreading—the people of the river valley became increasingly bewitched by large-scale distractions and amusements. Commercial entertainment was an enormous business on the river in the years leading up to the Civil War. An ever-growing armada of fun and hoopla came downstream: circus boats and theater boats, opera boats and showboats, medicine shows and solemn lecturers on mesmerism, demonstrators of electricity and phrenology, preachers and barkers and card readers and professors. This invasion was led by P. T. Barnum himself, who conducted an enormously successful tour of the lower river with the superstar singer Jenny Lind in the 1840s. But Barnum had countless predecessors, rivals, imitators, and followers—some of whom put on even grander shows than he did.

The theater boats and opera boats were particularly gaudy. They would come into river towns and send out heralds and trumpeters through the streets to announce their performances. They mostly played melodramas and light comedies; the actors would seize every chance for spectacular sword fights and impromptu dances. They were also adept at improvisation and would often draw the most drunken hecklers into the action just to ridicule them. They regularly staged the classics, too, but the scripts were rewritten to fit the modern taste: there was a popular version of Hamletthat made Ophelia the tragic heroine, driven mad by the villainous prince. There were also several adaptations circulating of the great literary sensation of the age, Uncle Tom’s Cabin—although when the theater boats crossed into the lower valley, they’d prudently put on a version where the slave owners were benign and the slaves happily accepted their lot.

The grandest shows were on the circus boats. Stickney’s New Orleans Circus, Dan Rice’s Metropolitan and Hippo Dramatic Circus: they would arrive with clowns, slack-wire acrobats, dog and horse acts, amazing gymnasts—one gymnast, highly praised by the local Natchez newspaper in 1837, could do twenty-eight backward somersaults in a row. Spaulding and Rogers’s Floating Circus Palace was a showboat more than two hundred feet long that required its own full-size steamboat as a tug. It had chimes, sirens, and a huge pipe organ; as it pulled up to the levee, a brass band played on deck to entertain for free those who came down to watch its arrival. The boat seated more than three thousand people. There was an equestrian act featuring forty horses. There was the Museum of Curiosities, with thousands of odd trinkets and treasures, from rows of exotic seashells to stuffed tigers. The strangest attraction in the museum was an oracle—a brass sphere with four protruding trumpets that hung in the middle of a dark stage. In a sinister and otherworldly voice, it would emit riddles about the future. Some of these were topical jokes; some were references to local affairs, which always startled the spectators (the show people would have gone into town that morning and eavesdropped for the latest gossip); some were so cryptic, and were transmitted in such a thick, garbled accent, that nobody understood what they were about. “If the responses were unintelligible,” one of the performers shrewdly observed, “this only added to the mystery.”

By the 1850s, the most popular form of entertainment on the river was the minstrel show. Dozens of minstrel troupes went on tour in those years—groups with names like the Christy Minstrels and the Congo Melodists and the Original Ethiopian Serenaders. Most of them were white men performing in blackface, but there were some all-Negro minstrel shows, too, and a few with female performers. These were highly controversial; in fact, the minstrel phenomenon in general was so upsetting to audiences in the slave states that in the years just before the Civil War, minstrel shows were banned throughout the Deep South and the lower valley.

The shows were alarming and exhilarating. Audiences had never seen anything like them. Their atmosphere was ferociously unpredictable. The performers kept breaking into wild dances without warning: the Buck and Wing and the Cakewalk, the Shuffle and the Buzzard Lope and the Ring Shout and Jump Jim Crow. When they weren’t dancing, they were writhing and hopping and twisting into contorted knots as though they were being jolted by an electric current. They told lurid, outlandish jokes and absurd tall tales in a high-pitched, extravagant parody of Negro dialect. They sang, without parody, Negro folk songs and spirituals, which most white audiences had never heard before; the mourning beauty of the melodies and the strange plangent harmonies left people shaken and sometimes in tears. They staged outrageous skits about current events that were mocking, nasty, and maddeningly equivocal—audiences couldn’t tell who or what was being made fun of, and often ended up getting into fistfights to settle which side was which. Almost every performance ended with avalanches of cheers and boos. After his first sight of a minstrel show, George Thatcher, who later became a popular minstrel himself, recalled: “I found myself dreaming of minstrels. I would awake with an imaginary tambourine in my hand, and rub my face with my hands to see if I was in blackface.”

The basic minstrel show was in two parts. In the first part, the minstrels gathered onstage in a semicircle and performed a kind of riotous after-dinner banquet of comic speeches and songs. The master of ceremonies, at the center of the stage, was known as the interlocutor; at either end of the semicircle were the two most extravagant jokesters, known as the end men: Mister Tambo and Mister Bones. The high point of this scene was the furiously ornate banter between the interlocutor and the end men, which was punctuated by smashes of the tambourine and the rattle of drums, and which would sooner or later break down into uncontrolled slapstick violence. The second half was slower and more elaborate. It featured skits and parodies and musical numbers. There were a lot of drippingly sentimental love scenes, with heartrending partings and tearful reconciliations. There were often brutal burlesques of celebrities like Barnum. But most of the scenes were about the slaves and slavery.

These scenes were jumbles of discordancy. They mocked the slaves and ridiculed the masters. They travestied the abolitionism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then showed slave owners as sadistic madmen who’d string up slaves to use as scarecrows. There were sketches about the absurd pretentions of free Negroes—often starring the swaggering dandy Count Julius Caesar Mars Napoleon Sinclair Brown. There were other sketches about a wise and cunning trickster slave named Jasper, who always got the better of his owners. There was a song sung by a slave that included these lines:

White man come to take my wife

I up and stick him with a big jackknife.

There were also constant references to Nat Turner’s revolt and the Murrell excitement. There was even a long sketch, evidently performed by several troupes, called Uncle Gabriel the Negro General, which was a kind of high-speed mock-epic about a slave insurrection. It seems to have been unnervingly ambivalent: Uncle Gabriel was mocked throughout as a grandiloquent clown, and yet there was a sudden swerve into pathos at the end, when his rebellion was inadvertently betrayed by an innocent slave boy, and at the curtain there was a certain distinct regret that it hadn’t come off.

If there was an overt message to the minstrel shows, it emerged at the climactic scene: the stump speech. This was a particularly manic satire on current events. Its point was that things—no matter what things—could not go on like this much longer. The stump speech featured one of the minstrels climbing up onto a makeshift podium (sometimes a prop tree stump, hence the name) and launching into a bizarre rant on some fashionable topic—abolitionism, an upcoming presidential election, séances. The other minstrels would gather around, all doing their own distinctive dance steps and gesticulations. As the speech grew progressively louder and impassioned, their movements and responses would grow more spastic and violent, until the whole troupe was barking and squawking and twirling and shaking and grunting and whistling in a wild cacophony. The speech would hit a frenzy of nonsensical eloquence. This example (unearthed by the historian Robert Toll) is on the then-voguish subject of transcendental philosophy:

Transcendentalism is dat spiritual cognoscence ob psychological irrefragibility connected wit conscientient ademption ob incolumbient spirituality and etherealized connection which is deribed from a profound contemplation ob de irregability ob dose incessimable divisions ob de more minute portions ob subdivided particles ob inwisible atoms dat become anatomcattalable in de circumambulatin commotion ob ambiloquous voluminiousness!

The last part of the speech would be an unintelligible shrieking. Then, as at a camp meeting, the speaker would fall into convulsions, and the whole troupe in response would simultaneously collapse unconscious to the stage floor.

In those years, many in the river valley who had a horror of politics, who never read newspapers, who avoided gossip, who didn’t listen to the preachers of the apocalypse, who stayed away from minstrel shows and all forms of popular entertainment, were still dogged by a sense of coming catastrophe. For them there was a ready-made and inescapable symbol: the steamboat. The more dominant the steamboats became on the river, the more they became a byword for imminent calamity. In Moby-Dick, Melville casually described a boat in hot pursuit of a whale as shooting “along the water like a horizontal burst boiler out of a Mississippi steamer.” When the diarist Mary Chesnut described a near-fatal heart attack, one comparison came instantly to mind: “Have a violent attack of something wrong about my heart. It stopped beating—then took to trembling and creaking and thumping like a Mississippi high-pressure steamboat.”

The record of steamboating on the Mississippi grew to be a litany of disaster. Steamboats wrecked on snags; they went hopelessly aground on sandbars and had to be abandoned; some, especially those on the upper reaches of the river where the settlements were sparse, simply disappeared on the long river stretches between stations and left no trace behind. There were even a few found drifting downriver with the crew and the passengers missing and no clue about what had gone wrong.

But the most common mishap was a boiler explosion. Steamboat boilers were ornately cranky devices that needed constant monitoring; preventing catastrophic malfunction was a full-time job for any steamboat engineer. In general the boilers (mostly wood-fired, although the newest models at midcentury used coal) were competently made and under normal circumstances would have run smoothly for years; the problem was that they were designed for pure water, not the murky, muddy, silty, debris-heavy water of the Mississippi. The river water was pumped up directly from the current and poured into the boilers—nobody could be bothered to filter it. The result was only to be expected: the tanks and the ornate lacery of piping were perpetually clogged with glutinous slosh. The clumping and sticking meant that the boilers were always heating unevenly—and whenever the heat and the pressure erratically spiked beyond the tolerances of the metal, the catastrophe shortly followed.

The narrow margin of safety was further compromised by the increasingly reckless way the boats were operated. This became a major issue in the years just before the Civil War, as the steamboat companies were under growing economic pressure from the new railroads. Businessmen and traders along the river, and particularly in New Orleans, were becoming alarmed at the declining numbers of arrivals and departures in their harbors: it was unmistakable evidence that more and more goods were being shipped by railroad to ports on the Gulf and were bypassing the river altogether. New Orleans businessmen were actively campaigning for their city to become a major rail hub, just in case the steamboats joined the keelboats in oblivion. The response of the steamboat company owners was to push their captains and pilots to go faster. This did not mean bringing in a new generation of speedier steamboats; it meant running the existing steamboats at full throttle essentially all the time.

They were, in a way, successful. Early steamboat trips up and down the river went on for months; in the 1830s, the trip from the delta to the northern valley took more than two weeks; by the Civil War, New Orleans to St. Louis was down to four days. In order to draw attention to how fast steamboat travel was becoming, the captains and pilots were encouraged by the owners to stage impromptu races. If two steamboats came around a bend and spotted a wood yard ahead, they’d tear upriver together to see who’d get there first—much to the exhilaration and terror of the passengers, who were not offered the chance to go ashore before the race began, and much to their ultimate horror if an overtaxed boiler blew before the finish line.

By one count, there were more than five hundred steamboats lost on the river between the 1830s and the Civil War. These disasters were recorded in ballads, newspaper stories, broadsheet engravings—and, inevitably, the Mississippi River panoramas. John Banvard’s “Three-Mile Painting” included a scene of a steamboat fatally wrecked on a snag; its bottom was stove in and it was upending into the current. John Smith’s Leviathan Panorama went one better and showed a steamboat after a boiler explosion. This was a scene that invariably made audiences gasp. A newspaper reviewer described it: “The thrilling interest kept up through the whole—the burning steamboat, the pilot burnt at the wheel, the captain tearing the planks off the upper deck, the yawl upsetting, and females perishing, is a sublime and terrible scene.”

Steamboat disasters became so frequent that a whole new industry formed around their salvage. This made its way into the panoramas, too: Smith’s found room for an up-to-date scene showing the workings of the new diving-bell salvage boats designed and built by a young inventor named James Eads. Eads’s bells were submersible vessels that were open at their base so that their occupant could scour the river bottom for the debris fields of wrecked steamboats. (Eads’s prototype version was a whiskey hogshead weighed down by lead ingots.) Once the wreckage was spotted, the large pieces would then be secured and winched up to the surface. Eads sometimes did this work on commission for steamboat companies trying to recoup part of their losses, but he also freelanced for older wrecks: the law in most states along the river was that any boat sunk more than five years belonged to whoever salvaged it.

From the late 1840s on, Eads’s boats ranged the length of the river, and his diving bells went down under in all of its conditions and moods. Eads once descended in the middle of a catastrophic flood; he didn’t find the wreck he was searching for, but he never forgot the sight of the sand and silt “drifting like a snow-storm at the bottom, sixty-five feet below the surface.” He claimed that, adding all his dives together, he had walked every mile of the river bottom from St. Louis to the delta.

Eads’s boats became the inevitable accompaniment to any big disaster. They did particularly well after the 1849 fire that destroyed the St. Louis waterfront; dozens of wrecked steamboats were there for the picking at the bottom of the harbor. The boats also routinely haunted the stretch of the central river around the junctions with the Missouri and the Ohio—so many steamboats were coming to bad ends in the turbulent waters there that it was known as the Graveyard. In fact, Eads found his supply to be inexhaustible. No matter how many bends of the river he searched for wreckage, there was always some new form of calamity ahead.

The upper river froze over each year, usually sometime in December, and the ice generally didn’t break up until early spring. It was always a big moment, the spring day when the river opened up. The ice floe disintegrated in a great grinding jumble: the bergs and shards and scraps would be swept downriver by the current and would gradually dissolve in the warmer waters of the lower valley. Sometimes the current was still so cold that the larger wrecks of ice held together for hundreds of miles, menacing the river traffic almost all the way down to New Orleans. It wasn’t typically until mid-April that the central river was clear and the armada of steamboats that overwintered at the St. Louis levee was set free to move down to the delta again.

The winter of 1856 was unusually cold in the central valley. At St. Louis the river froze over to a depth of three feet, and the floe was firm enough so that people could ride teams of horses between the Missouri and Illinois shores. Then, in February, there was a freak thaw in the North Country. An immense volume of meltwater poured into the upper river. The water was still icy cold when it reached St. Louis—far too cold to melt the floe there. Instead the force of the deep current beneath the ice gradually worked the floe loose from the banks and sent it creeping in a single mass downstream.

The movement was first noticed in the early-morning hours of February 27. It was initially so slight that it couldn’t be seen by the naked eye. Anybody looking out from the St. Louis levee saw the same monotonous ice plain that had been in place all winter. The evidence for what was happening was more indirect: a cluster of small boats docked at the northern end of the levee was found to have been nudged out of the river overnight and deposited on dry land. Only over the course of the morning did the floe’s slide southward become unmistakable. By noon people from all over the city had gathered at the levee to watch it. The scene was eerily silent at first—but gradually, as the movement of the floe increased, there made itself heard a confused murmur of muffled thunder from all directions, punctuated now and then by a colossal boom or bang when the floe split or collided with something along the shore.

Then people saw that the steamboats moored along the levee were beginning to move. There were forty of them that winter: giant white-pillared, black-chimneyed jewel boxes. The crowd watched in helpless awe as, one by one, they were pushed from their places by the floe. It happened like some mechanical process going horribly wrong. First a boat was torn loose from its moorings. Then it was slowly nudged sideways down the levee. Then, in a deafening cacophony of splintering wood and twisting metal, it turned, toppled over, bent into impossible contortions, and smashed into the next steamboat in the row. The whole process, moving down the levee, took about half an hour. In the end not one steamboat was left.

The wreckage spread out in great heaps along the floe, which was still creeping downriver. At the south end of the levee the floe met up with another line of boats, mostly wood rafts and flatboats. Over the next hour, fifty of them were reduced to kindling. Then the river surface began to change. As the floe glided away, it left behind a churn of ice shards and meltwater. One newspaper report described the river as being in “a frothy, crumbled condition, with an occasional solid piece.” The current of free-running water strengthened. The shards and boulders and bergs being carried downriver began to pile up along the shoreline. The day was bitterly cold, and the pieces soon froze into place. By evening the levee had been covered over by ice; by morning there was a mountain range of ice twenty feet high. People peering into it could see the wreckage of the steamboats—the railings and chandeliers, the gambling tables and the wine goblets—preserved within the gleaming shadows of the ice mountains, where it would remain until the spring thaw came.

Poling a keelboat against the current, circa 1800

(Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation)

A drawing of a houseboat by Alfred Waud, a British-born illustrator of Civil War and frontier themes

(Louisiana Digital Library)

The Great Earthquake at New Madrid, Missouri. A nineteenth-century woodcut from R. M. Devens’s Our First Century. The 1811–12 New Madrid earthquakes were the strongest recorded in the continental United States.

Fog on the Mississippi, circa 1840. Note the flatboat in the foreground about to be struck.

(Center for Louisiana Studies)

A broadside advertising a lecture by Montroville Dickeson. During the nineteenth century, Dickeson excavated and lectured about hundreds of sites along the Mississippi, including those of the Native American Mound Builders.

(Courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives, Dickeson Collection)

Huge Mounds and the Manner of Opening Them. A scene from the Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, which the Irish-born artist John J. Egan painted from Montroville Dickeson’s sketches.

(Saint Louis Art Museum)

Murder of Woods, the South Carolinian. An illustration showing the outlaw John Murrell and an associate disposing of a victim, from The Life and Adventures of John A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate, with Twenty-one Spirited Illustrative Engravings, 1847.

Our Peculiar Domestic Institutions. Life in the lower valley: duels, brawls, slave torture, and the lynching of the Vicksburg gamblers during the insurrection hysteria. From the Anti-Slavery Almanac for 1840, New York.

(Library of Congress)

The Shirley in Vicksburg—known as the White House to soldiers on both sides during the Civil War—circa 1863. The caves served as bombproof shelters for the Forty-fifth Illinois Regiment.

(Library of Congress)

A Currier and Ives lithograph of Admiral David Porter’s fleet running the Rebel blockade of the Mississippi at Vicksburg, April 16, 1863

(Library of Congress)

A newspaper depiction of the Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans, March 6, 1867

(Library of Congress)

The Champions of the Mississippi: A Race for the Buckhorns. A lithograph by Currier and Ives of a steamboat race, 1866.

(Library of Congress)

The ill-fated Sultana, in Helena, Arkansas, on its last voyage, April 27, 1865

(Library of Congress)

The Sultana’s end. This illustration first appeared in Harper’s Weekly on May 20, 1865.

(Library of Congress)

A photograph of the great levee at St. Louis, by Hoelke and Benecke circa 1860

(Library of Congress)

The construction of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri, early 1870s

(Library of Congress)

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