The Sultana – Part 4: Keeping the research simple

When looking at the causes of the Sultana boiler explosion, there is no physical evidence remaining to analyze and therefore, any investigation must rely on:

  • Recollections of the explosion (such as the book by Chester Berry)
  • Testimony to the commissions that investigated the explosion (Washburn, Hoffman and Dana)
  • The trial proceedings of Union Captain Frederic Speed, who was court-martialed for his role in overloading the boat, or other official reports
  • Contemporary writings, such as newspaper articles

In my review, I also used secondary sources of information such as:

  • Texts from the late 1800’s to understand the technology of the time
  • Twentieth century texts on the history of steamboats
  • Texts that reference direct sources (books by Jerry Potter and Gene Salecker)
  • Correspondence with subject matter experts
  • Analyses based on current knowledge of boilers and boiler theory

As I analyzed the available information, I used “Occam’s Razor.” William of Occam was a Franciscan monk who, in the 14th century, popularized the line of reasoning that says when looking for answers the simplest is the best.

For the Sultana explosion, simple means the following: The theory matches direct testimony and written accounts, as well as testimony describing physical evidence. Where there is conflict between the written testimony, the simple theory offers a rational explanation for the differences. The theory also matches scientific and practical knowledge. While the science may not be simple, it is not disputed science. Simple means no constructed theories that require leaps of faith.

One of the explosion theories that still survives is based on the belief that the Sultana was destroyed by Confederate saboteurs. 23 years after the explosion, a deathbed confession alleged that a confederate spy had placed a coal torpedo (a bomb disguised as a lump of coal) aboard and caused the explosion. Sabotage was discussed in newspapers and in rumors, and there was some testimony regarding an artillery shell (not a coal torpedo) found in the wreckage; however, no investigation indicated that sabotage was the cause.

In addition to other refutations to the sabotage theory, I add the following. Throughout history, during times of upheaval (and April 1865 is the epitome of upheaval), it is often human nature to see connections where none exist, especially when strong emotions occur.

At the time of the Sultana explosion, as survivors were being brought on shore and before any facts were known, the first thoughts of many were a Confederate attack of some kind. There were also newspaper articles decrying the Confederates, but there is no direct, unequivocal evidence that sabotage was the cause.

The cause of the explosion is simple: it matches the testimony and/or explains discrepancies in the testimony, it matches known causes of boiler explosions as recorded and the science is established. Stay tuned. I will go into full detail of my theory in the next post.


© 2015 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is intended for information purposes only. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this article.

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