Rob Turner


Chapter 6 (excerpt): ‘WASHINGTON CITY, February 1844’

Within moments, a sudden and exaggerated clap of thunder resonates across the city, echoing down from the far bank of the Potomac River to the forests of Maryland. The man stops playing his green guitar; the girl screams and drops her papers; the horses buck and turn south in terror, and the huge crowd of pedestrians surges away from the shops and towards the sound of inexplicable thunder. Gazing up into a cloudless sky, panicked conversations start as to what, preceded by no visible lightning, could have caused such a proximate roar. As they move south towards the river, the preachers’ horses are swept along with the mass, irresistibly drawn as needles to the site of the disturbance.

Crossing Pennsylvania Avenue, the throng gape up into the skies, where a thick black cloud is billowing up from the river and drawing towards the city.

“Look! – the sun has veiled himself! What means that dark mass?” an old man raises his stick and circles it in the air.

Miller looks from his horse across to Starkweather, and sees the fearful look on the brow of the younger preacher.

“The mighty song begins,” he calls to him, raising a clenched fist above the upturned faces. “We make for purer climes...”

Starkweather shakes his head, and kicks a heel rudely into the side of his horse. Heading past the crowd, he crosses to the shores of the river beyond. Miller edges through the huddle of pedestrians, and speeds along the street after him; hundreds of shopkeepers all along the avenue are standing outside, staring up into the scorpion cloud that is filling the sky.

“Is the Capitol burning? Are the English back again?” a butcher asks his neighbour, gripping him unwontedly by the arm, and stepping away from his meaty shop.

Rounding the final bend of the avenue, Miller catches up with Starkweather, and pauses with him at the rear of a crowd. Out in the river, near the opposite bank, rolls a triple-masted military steamship, decked merrily with flags and colours, belching out thick smoke from a wound gored in its starboard side. Bodies are visible across the deck, both the living and the dead, and a woman wearing a thick petticoat can be seen hanging upside down in the rigging. As the ship rocks dangerously, taking in river-water from the hole in its side, a disembodied arm emerges through the deck stanchions, and plops invisibly into the murky Potomac, sinking out of sight.

“It’s the U.S.S. Princeton,” observes a man from the crowd. “Only launched a few months ago. The engine must’ve exploded.”

“Our President will have been hurt!” another man declares. “He was onboard, I saw him.”

A murmurous murmur passes through the crowd.

“President Tyler is dead!” calls a shrill-voiced castrato boy, assuming the worst.

“Aye, we’ve lost another one,” agrees an old man, shaking his head.

On the river, a number of boats can now be seen heading for the stricken Princeton, from the small craft rowed by two or three men, to large tugboats, steaming across the Georgetown docks. The wake from all the boats scrawls the surface into a mess of white water, into which figures leaping from the burning ship look like big flies dipping into a vast trough of milk. As they converge on the Princeton, the drowning are hoisted aboard, and the ship is fastened to the larger steamboats, towing it, gingerly, away from the banks of Alexandria and into the mouth of the canal.

The sun is getting high once the long ship disappears behind the Lincoln Pier, and the smoke seems to come billowing up from the walls of the city itself, attempting to black out the light of the day. Miller rides along with the crowd, north towards the ship; as they near it they see the flags and the ribbons along its starboard side, burning with flames coming from a hideously ruptured cannon. Torn iron arcs away from the ruin, weapon, a metal flower drifting alongside the pier, and a group of uniformed men can be seen sponging blood from the decks around it. Covered by white linen, a number of bodies are being lowered from the ship to the canal-side, as shaking men and women are led down the plank and into waiting ambulance carriages.

“There’s the President,” Starkweather spots an ashen-faced man being led away from the scene, a blood-spattered rag around his shoulder. When he sees the watching crowd, the President raises a weak arm.

“It is a most tragic day for the United States,” he calls, standing unsteadily upon the stone pier, and shaking his head. “The Secretary of State is dead.”

Without any further words, the President disappears into his carriage and is driven away, along Independence Avenue towards the White House. The linen-covered bodies are gathered into wagons, and roll away in the same direction, leaving the crowd alone with the blasted hull of the Princeton. Miller and Starkweather watch the smoke gradually pale and cease as the deck fires go out, before turning away from the ship and heading back along the pier towards Potomac Avenue. Over the river, the sun is still shining, and the green willows of Virginia can be seen downstream, dipping branches into black water. Insects dot the wide surface, eddying as the river slips beneath the Long Bridge and away to the invisible sea, miles beyond.

Awful Explosion of the 'Peace-Maker' on board the U.S. Steam Frigate, Princeton, on Wednesday, 28th Feby 1844