On April 27, 1865, the deadliest sea disaster in U.S. history occurred when the steamship Sultana exploded while traveling up the Mississippi River.
The Civil War had just ended and Union prisoners of war were being released from the South. Having endured hellish conditions in Confederate prison camps, they were eager to return to their families in the North.
To speed up that process, the federal government paid steamship owners handsomely for each soldier they carried. That practice led to despicable heights of corruption as well as the negligence of basic safety standards.
In the case of the Sultana, that meant cutting corners on fixing a leaky boiler and carrying as many as 2,500 people–seven times the vessel’s rated capacity. When the faulty boiler ruptured, hundreds died in the ensuing explosion and more were killed when the overloaded decks collapsed and burned.
Although some 1,800 soldiers perished, the event was overshadowed in the newspapers by another tragedy: President Lincoln’s assassination.
Jerry Potter, a Memphis lawyer, investigated the greed and corruption that led to the disaster. In his book, The Sultana Tragedy, he builds a strong case against the boat’s captain and co-owner, J. Cass Mason.
According to Potter, Mason bribed an officer at Vicksburg, Mississippi to ensure he would get an extra-large load of prisoners and make a boat-load of money.
“The boat had a legal carrying capacity of 376 passengers,” Potter explains, “and on its up-river trip it had over 2,500 aboard,” in part because the government had agreed to pay $5 for each enlisted man and $10 for each officer transported. A lot of money in those days.
Mason also allowed a mechanic to make a quick and inadequate repair to a damaged boiler. The mechanic told Mason the boiler was not safe, but he said he would have it overhauled when the boat arrived at St. Louis.
It never did. And Mason perished with it.
Merriam-Webster defines greed as a selfish and excessive desire for more of something than is needed, such as money, status, power or comfort. It’s also called avarice or covetousness and is considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Unfortunately, too many of us are motivated by naked ambition and greed. The tenth Commandment warns us not to covet our neighbor’s house, belongings or spouse. A greedy person is a dishonorable person. Their primary concern is themselves.
Despicable greed is the kind of selfishness which willingly endangers the lives of others in order to get more. The greed is so awful and detestable the perpetrator is deserving of hatred and contempt.
The Sultana tragedy remains the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history–killing more than the sinking of the Titanic. Yet few know the story of the Sultana’s demise. Perhaps, after years of bloody warfare and the death of the president, the nation didn’t want any more negative news.
Greed hinders heroic virtue.
Join with me in countering the greed in our world by having a “generous eye” and by being a giver rather than a taker. (Proverbs 22:9)
* Petition: O’ Lord God, help us not to corrupt ourselves with greed. Fill our hearts with charity from above so we may be generous to others.