On October 7, 1833, the boilers on the Steamer New England exploded while the vessel was unloading passengers at Essex, Connecticut. It was on a voyage from New York to Hartford. Six days later, Charlotte Cowles writes a letter to her brother about acquaintances of theirs who were on the vessel. Charlotte writes:
Perhaps you have heard of the dreadful accident which happened to a steamboat in the harbor at Essex. The captain having neglected to let off the steam, – at 3 o’clock in the morning the boiler burst, and in an instant all was terror and confusion–Mr and Mrs Fisher Gay & Horatio Cowles were on board, but neither of them was injured at all. The ladies emptied all the comfortables they could find, and then stripped all their cotton stiffeners, to procure batting for the scalded. This accident happened Tuesday morning. When Mr & Mrs Gay came away Wednesday, nine of the sufferers had died from the scalds and bruises which they received, and among them one young man from Plymouth, who had been down to Lyme to attend a wedding, and was going home to be married himself. He was killed instantly while sitting beside his intended bride.
Of the 80 individuals aboard, a total of fifteen died in the accident, most from scalding by the steam. In the depositions at the inquest and in eyewitness accounts in the newspapers, no one mentioned the details that Charlotte learned–that the ladies emptied all the stuffing from “comfortable” (similar to our comforters) and removed their own cotton “stiffeners” from their clothing. A personal account of an event can be so much more revealing than the “official” record. This is what makes working with manuscripts so interesting, and what makes the Charlotte Cowles letters a never-ending source of wonder.