The Corresponence of James McNeil Whistler
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Whistler 2003 - Centenary Journal

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31st May 2003 - Louisiana Sinks

On 31 May 1857 the steamer Louisiana caught fire in Galveston Bay, Texas, after her boiler engine exploded. The disaster was reported in The New York Daily Times (3 June 1857, vol. 6, no. 1,780) as follows: "The steamship Louisiana, running between New Orleans and Galveston, was burnt in the harbour of the latter place on Saturday morning last. Eleven persons are known to have perished, and Col. Bainbridge, USA, and 31 others, are reported to be missing."

Colonel Bainbridge happened to be an acquaintance of Anna Matilda Whistler, and in a letter of 13-15 July 1857 Mrs Whistler expresses to her son her sadness for Col. Bainbridge's widow left behind ("a faithful & fond wife"). The artist's mother then exhorts James to rekindle his Christian faith, lest he too lose his life at an unexpected moment: "Why do you delay? how many of your early companions have gone! ... your interests impress my maternal duty irresistibly to excite you to read your bible & to pray daily. Tell me do you kneel in child-like faith ere you sleep & when you awake to the claims of this world - & ask God as our Father in Heaven to protect & bless you? Answer me this question, to cheer me & encourage me, for it is the daily petition I offer for you & that you may keep to innocency & resist temptation!" (GUL Whistler W480).

However, compared with other shipping disasters of the time, the loss of the Louisiana was relatively light. For example, eight years later, on 27 April 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded in what was to be America's worst ever shipping accident. The ship had left the port of Memphis greatly overcrowded with soldiers making their way home from the civil war camps. As she made her way on the Mississippi the over-worked boilers blew up, tearing the boat apart. Around 1,600 people were lost. However, due to the recent end of the war, and the assasination of President Abraham Lincoln (on 14 April 1865), the Sultana disaster was barely reported in the press.