History records numerous steamboat tragedies on the Mississippi River, including the explosion and sinking of the Sultana near Memphis in 1865 and the fire that destroyed the Stonewall at Neelys Landing four years later. Around 1,800 persons, many paroled Union soldiers, lost their lives in the Sultana tragedy. On the Stonewall, nearly 210 were killed.
But how many recall the wreck of the steamer La Mascot in 1886? Perhaps the early publishers of the Missourian -- the Naeter Brothers -- knew families who lost loved ones in this tragedy or perhaps it was simply because so many of the lost and injured had ties to Cape Girardeau, but the anniversary of the La Mascot's loss was recalled numerous times on the pages of the Missourian.
Allan Hinchey, an early editor of this newspaper, wrote a series of articles for the Missourian under the title "Stories of Cape Girardeau." He retold the story of the La Mascot on March 1, 1932.
Stories of Cape Girardeau
By Allan Hinchey
Steamer La Mascot Exploded, 30 Killed
Several steamboat disasters in the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau caused the loss of a number of lives and a property loss of many thousands of dollars. Probably the blowing up the steamer La Mascot, near Neelys Landing, Oct. 5, 1886, was the most serious, several of them being from Cape Girardeau.
The boat left Cape Girardeau about 8 o'clock in the morning with a full passenger list, bound for St. Louis. There were many passengers from points south of here and many went aboard at this place, all bound for St. Louis to see the Veiled Prophet parade.
As the boat labored hard against the current with its heavy load of passengers and freight, a steam pipe tore loose in the bowels of the boat near Moccasin Springs, a short distance from Neelys Landing. The mishap wrecked a great part of the boat's superstructure and water began to pour in through the torn side and the bottom of the vessel, terrorizing the passengers so badly that many jumped overboard and were drowned. A number of boat hands working on the lower decks were badly scalded by the escaping steam, some of them fatally.
Girardeans lost their lives.
Among the passengers from Cape Girardeau who lost their lives were Mrs. W.H. Wheeler and two children. Judge and Mrs. William H. Hager, Miss Kroeger and Henry Lind. Chief Clerk Perkins of the boat also was lost.
Fortunately a tow boat was near and hastened to the rescue or the loss of life would have been greater. The tow boat, after rescuing all those struggling in the water, made a hurried run to Cape Girardeau with the dead and injured, landing here about 4 o'clock in the afternoon.
Word having reached Cape Girardeau of the disaster the citizens became much alarmed, especially those who had friends and relatives aboard the wrecked steamer.
Mayor Leon J. Albert called for blankets and stretchers to be taken to the boat landing and asked physicians of the city to be on hand when the boat arrived to render all assistance possible.
The injured were taken to St. Francis Hospital, where several died from their injuries, many being unidentified. (Most of) their bodies were buried in the cemetery west of the city (New Lorimier).
Other Missourian stories tell slightly different versions of Hinchey's story. A 1920 article seems to indicate (and other online sources concur) that an explosion, possibly of a boiler, caused the accident: "When the boat had reached Moccasin Springs, just north of Neelys Landing, and was slowly making its way up stream, the passengers enjoying themselves in friendly association, all looking ahead to the glories of the annual pageant they were soon to see, an explosion in the hold of the boat came like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky, the superstructure of the vessel was demolished and from the lower parts came blinding clouds of steam and streams of boiling water."
The account continued, "The passengers became panic stricken, many leaping into the river to sink below the surface and drown; many were crushed by the stampede that followed the explosion."
A 1933 version has the accident occurring as the boat pulled away from Neelys Landing: "As the boat was leaving the wharf at Neelys Landing a flue collapsed, and passengers, deck hands, some of the crew and livestock were scalded. Fire then broke out, and those already injured and others had to take to the water."
It further states that the captain of the boat, a man named Durland, tried to nose the boat into a sandbar, but instead struck a submerged rock, which kept the boat from land.
In another example of how details of the incident conflict, St. Louis newspapers of the time -- the Democrat and the Post-Dispatch -- noted that the towboat that Hinchey praised for aiding victims actually was criticized for its action. Both the Democrat and the Post-Dispatch quoted some witnesses as saying the towboat Eagle could have pushed the Mascot to shore, but that its captain apparently feared the flames from the damaged boat would engulf his vessel. Some went so far as to say the captain refused to offer any aid to the stricken boat and its passengers.
While those in the water struggled to survive without help from the Eagle's master, there was one hero in the story. Matt Hughes, an Illinois farmer, used a skiff to ferry passengers to safety. The Post-Dispatch from Oct. 7, 1886, related, "The name of that Illinois farmer who so nobly rescued the nine persons is Matt Hughes of Union Point, Ill. His name is on the lips of everybody with the highest of praise, and none speak louder of him than the Mascot's crew."
While volunteers scoured the banks of the river looking for passengers, the injured were transported by boat to Cape Girardeau for medical care. The dead followed. It's estimated that around 30 persons lost their lives in the La Mascot tragedy, and that most of those were crew members. Here's a partial list of the dead, the names culled from newspaper accounts, death registers and other sources.
Adams, Lewis D., second mate
Chatman, Levi, roustabout
Davis, Will, roustabout
Elliott, William, roustabout
Finnegan, Jack, roustabout
Johnson, Margaret "Maggie," chambermaid
Jones, William, of St. Louis.
Jordon, J. Henry, roustabout
Lacy, Thomas or Theo., roustabout
O'Brien, William, first engineer
Peoples, Cinderella, chambermaid
Perkins, J. Roy, first clerk
Rice, Albert, roustabout
Scherer, Mac G., deck hand
Thomas, Charlie, cabin-boy
Unknown black male
Unknown white female, chambermaid
Unknown white male
Wade, Marshall, roustabout
Wells, Steve, porter
Hager, Judge and wife of Cape Girardeau
Krueger, Amelia of Cape Girardeau
Miller, Mrs. John and two children, Isaac and Charles, of Shelbyville, Ill. (also listed as Mrs. Henry Miller and two children)
Muncke, Henry, of Cincinati, Ohio
Rabich, Julia of Cape Girardeau
Wheeler, Mrs. Mary Matilda and two children, Daisy and Lilly, of Cape Girardeau
Wilson, Joseph of Nashville, Tenn.
Mrs. Wheeler and her girls, as well as Julia Rabich, were buried at Old Lorimier Cemetery. Several unidentified bodies may have been interred at Neelys Landing. But most found anonymous graves at New Lorimier Cemetery.
The only memorial to the tragedy, which has long since been washed away, was the preservation of the boat's rudder. A 1942 article, quoting Cape Girardeau resident James Gill, related that "the rudder of the ill-fated boat, made from bodack, bow'd arc or orange wood, is imbedded in the levee here as a marker to the 30 or more lives lost. It is in the river bank 20 or 25 feet south of Broadway."