Ole Bull Saved Violin at Risk of His Life


Descending twilight was casting long, gray shadows on the yellow waters as a fitting finale to that bleak day, December 4, 1868, when the majestic packet steamer, the United States, the pride of the U.S. Mail Line, cast off her headlines from a wharf at the foot of Vine Street [in Cincinnati, Ohio], and headed west into stark tragedy.

Lights had begun to twinkle from the windows of homes and factories on both shores of the river; it was snowing fitfully, with a threat of turning into rain ere long; the wind had fangs. Her departure was a somber setting. There was none of the usual color, excitement and hearty menities that characterized the sailings of the mighty vessels of the Mail Line Fleet steamers. The fleshless fingers of Death were entwined about the spokes of her wheel, even then. IT WAS TO BE HERE LAST TRIP. Fate had so decreed.

The leave takings at the wharf were carried on in subdued tones under the timed rays of kerosene lamps that swung from the rafters of the wharf boat. Passengers were depressed for some unaccountable reason. Their subconscious minds must have harbored the premonition that disaster was lurking somewhere along the reaches of the darkling river.

Captain Richard Wade, one of the skilled navigators of the two rivers, was her master, J. Reemelin was at the wheel. The great steamer had a large passenger list.. There were many notable persons on board. Among them were Harry Brunswick, one of the founders on the billiard table manufacturing concern; the Reverend Robert Parvin of Philadelphia and the Rev. F. S. Rising of New York, president of The American Missionary Society. There were also businessmen from Cincinnati and Louisville, and the intervening towns, and two bridal couples, one of which were elderly persons.

Dinner had been served. The great cabin was bathed in the rosy glow in the beams of the crystal chandeliers with crimson shades, which swung from the paneled and frescoed ceiling. Capt. Wade was graciousness itself. He was here, there and everywhere looking to the comfort of his passengers, a goodly number of whom were women. The rhythmic throb of the engines and the gentle vibrations of the big vessel showed that all was well.

A concert was improvised in honor of the two bridal couples. The orchestra of the boat played, while the blushing bridal couples sat on a throne of improved tables and modestly accepted the congratulations that were showered upon them from every side. The previous gloom that had marked the departure of the boat had lifted to a great extent. There were dancing and card-playing. A sleight of hand man gave an impromptu exhibition of his skill. All was jollity and coziness in the sumptuous cabin as the boat plunged on and on through the darkness that had now become stygian.

Two hours out it began to rain. It froze on the decks as fast as it fell. The upper works were covered in a mantle of ice that aptly gave the United States the appearance of a ghost ship. Pilot Reemelin was having a bit of trouble with her because of the prankish wind, which had increased in violence. She had a tendency to yaw and get out of the channel. Capt. Wade went up into the pilot house to stand watch with him and John Hamilton, the other pilot, was also standing by as a matter of precaution. It was a bad night on the river, but the passengers were unconscious of that fact.

Steamers Drawing Closer to Their Doom

A group of gentlemen, Mr. Brunswick and a friend among the number, had gathered in the bar for a good night libation where the talk drifted into a discussion of accidents on the river and railroads. Little did they know that their fate was coming up the river in the shape of the big steamer America, also of the Mail Line, and virtually a sister ship of the United States. Similar scenes had been enacted in her cabin as she felt her way up the river in intense darkness. Among the passengers on The America was Ole Bull, the famous Norwegian violin virtuoso, and his concert troupe, including Miss Burton, soloist. The company had given a series of performances in Louisville, and were on their way to Cincinnati, where they were billed to show the following night. Ole Bull and several men with whom he had become acquainted on the voyage were at the bar. Strangely enough, the conversation there also had to do with river disasters and Ole Bull said that when on board either a boat or a sleeping car, he never took off his clothes as he wanted to be prepared for any emergency. Captain David Whitten was master. Pilot Napoleon Jenkins was at her wheel and the wind was also contesting with him for mastery of the vessel.

Figuratively, those two great boats, thrumming along in the dark, were but playthings attached to strings pulled at will by the giant hand of some monster of the elements.

Two miles this side of Warsaw, Kentucky is situated Rayl’s Landing. It juts some distance out into the stream. The channel follows it closely. This bend was the barrier from seeing each other’s lights. The America followed maritime law when her pilot twice sounded the whistle, which was a warning to any other boat that might be rounding the bend. Reemlin, in the pilothouse of the United States, failed to hear the warning whistle above the din of the rising wind. Hence no answering whistle from her. Again, Jenkins blew the whistle. This time, the United States responded, but the boats by this time were dreadfully close to each other. As the United States roared around the bend it was seen by the watchers on board both boats that a collision was inevitable.

Tragedy Ensues

In the circumstances, both pilots acted promptly. The engines were stopped and The America’s wheels were set to backing. but the momentum of the boats carried them on to swift and certain destruction. The prow of The America rammed the United States on the starboard side, just forward of the steps.

The passengers had long since gone to their staterooms, but the shock of the impact was such that they were thrown out on the floor from the berths. There ensued a mad scramble for the decks. Scenes of indescribable panic took place as several dozen barrels of petroleum, which were standing on the forecastle of the United States burst into flames, lighting up the picture of horror with a savage glare.

The boats were virtually locked together for a brief time, but the America backed away, but not in time to prevent the leaping flames, spurred into ferocity by the high wind, from communicating to her upper works.

To add to the terror of the situation, the surface of the river was covered with burning oil, and both shores were illuminated and teeming with fantastic silhouettes. The villagers of Warsaw heard the sound of the crash and saw the ruddy reflection in the sky. The church bells were rung. Carriages and wagons were commandeered and rescuers were on the way within minutes after the collision.

Both boats started for the Indiana shore, in the hope of landing and discharging passengers before the fire had complete control, but the perverse wind balked that attempt.

Driven from refuge to refuge by the heat, the billowing smoke, and the searing flames, the passengers on the United States finally turned to the river as their only hope of sanctuary, but this hope was in vain, as the burning oil on the water, swept along buy the current, overwhelmed those who dared to leap into the river. The old river never presented a more dreadful spectacle of death than it staged at that midnight hour. It was all over quickly.

Ole Bull Fell Overboard Clutching His Precious Strad

Ole Bull, with the others, rushed from his cabin on The America. He remembered then that his precious violin, which was worth more to him than life itself, the instrument whose magic had enthralled thousands, had been left behind in the cabin. He threw off those who tried to prevent him from going back, but he reached his stateroom in safety, groped through the thick and nauseous smoke, retrieved his violin, and staggered out the door.

He stumbled over some obstruction on deck and fell overboard, still clasping the violin in his arms. Fortunately, that area of water into which he fell was free of burning oil and he was dragged out in the nick of time by one of The America’s crew. He still clung desperately to the violin.

There were scores of United States passengers who saved themselves by leaping to the decks of The America, which was in not quite so bad a plight as the other boat. Miss Burton, when aroused by a knock on her stateroom door, called out, "Wait a minute." She returned the same answer to a repetition of the knock.

The door was finally burst open by rescuers and she was dragged from the stateroom by force. The United States sank in fifteen feet of water within ten minutes after the collision, with her upper structure still burning. The America, trying to rescue passengers, swept over several persons who were struggling in the water and they were seen no more. In flames from stern to stem, she got within a few feet of the bank and there was a wild scramble of those aboard her to feel the security of land beneath their feet again.

There The America burned to the water’s edge. The survivors were taken to neighboring farm houses, where they were given primitive first aid for injuries. Very few of them escaped without being hurt more or less severely. The farm wives ripped up their pillow cases and sheets to be utilized as bandages. Couriers on horseback were sent in every direction to summon doctors. In one farmhouse alone there were twelve injured persons, lying side by side on the parlor floor. The true extent of this disaster never was revealed. The bodies of some of those who perished by drowning never were recovered. The nearest estimate to the number of dead was eighty, largely on the United States. Others say 170 perished. The America escaped with three fatalities. The news of this catastrophe did not reach Cincinnati until two days later, and then only when a rescuing steamer put in, having aboard the dead, the injured and numerous survivors who had not been harmed. One woman, however, has lost her reason as a result of the terrifying scenes which she had looked upon, and she had to be kept under restraint.

Those Who Perished

The available list of dead shows these names: Mrs. R.A. Jones and daughter, Pensacola, Fla.; Miss Mary Johnson, Louisville; Mrs. C. M. Hayes, Nashville; H.H. Burkholder, banker, Louisville; the Rev. Robert Parvin, Philadelphia; a Mr. Elfers; the Rev. F.S. Rising, New York; a Mr. Hammers; Mrs. Clarke, Lexington, Ind.; Messrs. Ferris and Briggs; Mrs. Commodore Thompson and woman friend; Harry Brunswick, Cincinnati; Mr. Garvin, Louisville; Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Crawford, Dayton, O.; O.B. Sappington, Madison, Ind.; Lew Vance, Madison, Ind.; Steele Bright; Mr. Spiegelburg, Louisville; Mrs. Lewis Johnson, Louisville; Mrs. John Pierce and son, Louisville; Thomas Scruggs, Louisville; Mrs. Harriet Wareing and woman friend, New Albany, Ind.; William H. Green, Logansport, Ind.; J.M. Landower and John F. Burns; Mr. J. Loeb, Madison, Ind.; Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hutchins, Concord, N.H.; Mrs. George Goff. In addition there were seven unidentified women and one unidentified man among the dead.

The members of the crew who lost their lives were: James Johns, third clerk; John Fennell, steward, Covington, Ky.; Sam Smith, Assistant engineer; James Fennell, barkeeper, Covington, Ky.; Richard Marlow, second steward; Charles Harris, Henry Smith, Theo. Cox, Martin Bowles, Dan Anderson, Willis Kafferin, Elijah Fort, all of cabin crew; William Johnson, deck sweeper, and ----- Bigley, coal man.

Those who perished on The America were Mr. Rogge of Texas, an unidentified man, and J.M. Landor, Cincinnati.

The spot where the collision happened was a trap for steamboats. It was there that the Norman collided with the Lady Walton, and the Telegraph rammed and sank the Kentucky Home, fortunately with no loss of life. There was a one-legged man aboard The America who was on his way to Cincinnati to buy a wooden limb, and he escaped on crutches, leaving all the money he had saved up for the purpose of buying the artificial limb in his stateroom. The money was consumed, but kindly persons in Cincinnati supplied the necessary coin when his plight became known.

Later the hulls of the two vessels were salvaged and brought to Cincinnati, together with the immense amount of equipment and cargo goods that were retrieved. Principally, the goods came from the United States.

Anchored at the foot of Vine Street, the charred reminders of the tragedy were visited by thousands of people. A public sale, by auction, of the salvaged furnishings and cargo was held, and it was during that sale that there originated the trade phrase, "Everything from a toothpick to an anchor," as denoting a wide variety of merchandise. The later Walter Ezekiel conducted the sale, and it was true that thousands of toothpicks, which has been on the United States, and the anchor of The America were thus disposed of.

The America was built about a year before she was destroyed and the United States three years before.

The trial trip of The America took place on April 27, 1867, with the start from the foot of Vine Street. Two hundred persons were the guests of the Mail Line Company and the occasion was embellished with a superb feast spread in the commodious cabin. She had a gallery cabin over the main cabin and was equipped with 144 staterooms. She was 313 feet long, with a beam of forty-one feet, seven-foot hold, and had thirty-eight-foot wheels. She could make thirty miles an hour downstream and twenty miles an hour against the current. So could the United States.


This account of the Steamboat Tragedy above Warsaw, Kentucky on the night of December 4, 1868 is from the book Thrills on the Historic Ohio River, by Frank Grayson, Jr., in 1930. Mr.Grayson was a writer for the Post-Times Star in Cincinnati.