Sultana Disaster Survivor

blog MATTHEWS without sleeve

I donated this tintype to the Bedford Ohio Historical Society, so that it could be united with the book, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors by Rev. Chester D. Berry, published in 1892, which belonged to Orlo and was in their collection.

This tintype features the Mathews’ brothers: Alden H. is standing, Orlo C. is sitting on the left, and James A. on the right. The tintype is housed in a sleeve which identifies each sitter by initials on the front and by full name on the back.  I’ve included those images at the end of this post.

Orlo C. was witness to what is known as the greatest maritime disaster in American history, the explosion of the Steamboat Sultana, which happened 151 years ago today.  Read on to learn more about the Mathews’ brothers and the Sultana!

The brothers were three of seven children born to Thomas West and Sarah I. (nee Wolfcale) Mathews.  The family lived in Bedford, Cuyahoga county, Ohio, where Thomas was a blacksmith.  The boys’ siblings were Lois A., Mary Arta, and two brothers, both named John, one who died as an infant and the other as a toddler.  Thomas died in 1884 of kidney disease.  Sarah remarried William Ernst in 1892 and died, aged 78 years, of pneumonia in 1899.


Orlo C. was the only brother old enough to enlist in the Civil War.  He mustered in on October 1, 1861, aged 18 years, as a Private in Company D, 41st Ohio Infantry.  He was captured while foraging on a march from Chattanooga to Atlanta on October 22, 1864 and held prisoner at Andersonville, or Camp Sumter, as it was officially known, in southwest Georgia.

When the war ended, Orlo was one of about 2,300 Union soldiers, having been released from Confederate POW camps, that boarded the S.S. Sultana for the long trip home on the Mississippi. The Sultana was a steamboat paddlewheeler.  The ship’s Captain and his partners received a government contract that paid them five dollars for each Union soldier they transported.  With a legal capacity of only 376, the boat was severely overcrowded, with soldiers packed into every available space, even on the open decks.  On April 27, 1865, at about 2 a.m. and about 7 miles upriver from Memphis, at least one of the ship’s boilers exploded.  Many burned to death or drowned, while others died of hypothermia.  Orlo was one of the lucky survivors, being rescued and treated for exhaustion at Gayoso Hospital in Memphis. The death toll mounted to over 1,700, making this the largest maritime disaster in U.S. history.  However, it received little public attention, as it took place soon after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and just a day after Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been found and killed.  Some refer to the S.S. Sultana as “America’s Titanic,” although the Titanic’s death toll was smaller, at 1502 lives lost.  Orlo was officially discharged from the army on June 22, 1865.

Orlo returned to his hometown of Bedford, and followed in his father’s footsteps, working as the “village smithy”.  On April 5, 1866, he married Sarah E. Cox in Summit County, Ohio.  The couple had three children: Lillie V., died aged 6 months on Sep. 11, 1867; Clarence, died aged 7 months on April 21, 1869; and Orlo Lavern Mathews who grew to adulthood.  Orlo died, January 22, 1897, from injuries sustained when he was kicked in the head by a horse he was shoeing.  Orlo’s wife stayed in Bedford and did not remarry.  She died at age 79 years, on April 18, 1926.

The son, who went by Vern, worked in a chair factory as a finisher and later an inspector.  He married Mary Grace Nichols in 1898.  The couple had no children.  His wife left him a widower in 1937, and he died June 17, 1952, in Bedford, Ohio, where he had lived his entire life.  A year before his death, Vern passed on a book, that belonged to his father, to Harry Didham, who ran a clothing store in Bedford.  The book, Loss of the Sultana and Reminiscences of Survivors, by Rev. Chester D. Berry, published in 1892, had been gifted to Orlo by another survivor of the Sultana, E.L. King of Osceola, Nebraska.  Orlo is mentioned in the book among the “official list” of passengers and it is believed that he read the book and put a check beside the names of other Ohio soldiers he knew.  Harry Didham donated the book to the Bedford Historical Society in 1961.


James Adelbert was born February 17, 1850 in Bedford,Ohio.  James married Ida S. Farrar on Oct 30, 1872, in Summit County, Ohio.  The couple had one child, a daughter, Lena Farrar Mathews, born in 1875.  James began working as a newsboy on the G & P train that ran between Cleveland and Alliance, Ohio.  He then clerked for a time at a store in Hudson, Ohio.  In 1894, he organized the Crescent Sheet & Tin Plate Co. and was a part of the Great Iron Industry.  In 1902, he retired from that industry and became a manager of Guardian Savings & Trust Bank.  He held multiple positions in the Bank, including President.  He was Vice President when he died on Dec. 13, 1922, in Cleveland, Ohio.  James’ wife, Ida, died April 26, 1930.  His daughter, Lena, never married.  She died at the age of 82 years, on June 18, 1957, at her apartment, 1961 Ford Drive N.E., Cleveland.  Her body was discovered by her maid.

I found it interesting that Della McCrone, born in January 1870, and therefore being close in age to Lena, resided with the family from at least 1900, when she is first listed on the census as a housemaid, until her death in December of 1950.  On the 1940 census, when it was just she and Lena in the home, Della is listed as Companion (sic).  What relationship did Della have with the family to remain with them throughout her lifetime?


Alden was born in 1855 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  He married Alice E. Hawley on April 20, 1876.  The couple had four children that are known: Florence L., Clarence Hawley, Alden Ely, and Thomas R. Mathews.  Alden Ely died of diphtheria on March 16,1888, at the age of nearly 7 years. Alden worked as a receiving clerk and timekeeper for the Union Rolling Mill Company in Cleveland, Ohio. He died October 21, 1893, aged 38 years, of tuberculosis.  His wife died March 15, 1897, aged 45 years, from cancer of the liver.


Census records
Cuyahogo Co., Ohio Death Records, 1840-2001
Cleveland City Directories
Bedford Historical Society newsletter
Strange History – Sultana

Ohio Co. Marriages, 1789-2013, Trumbull, Marriage records 1839-1842, Vol 3
Cuyahoga Co., Ohio, Marriage Records and Indexes, Reel 009 1875 Ap.r – 1877 Aug.
Sarah Ernst’s Obituary – Plain Dealer, Oct. 30, 1899
Thomas W Mathews’ Obituary – Cleveland Leader, Jan. 9, 1884, Pg 5
US, Andersonville and Fort McHenry Civil War Prisoner Index, 1861-1865
1890 Veterans Schedule, Ohio, Cuyahoga, Bedford
Civil War Prisons
Andersonville POW camp
Find A Grave
Orlo’s book  – Plain Dealer, May 3, 1961, Pg 23
Orlo’s Obituary – Plain Dealer, Jan. 25, 1897 Pg 6
Sarah E Mathews’ Obituary – Plain Dealer, April 21, 1926, Pg 24
James Mathews’ Obituary – Masonic Bulletin, Magazine of Freemasonry, Jan., 1923
Lena Mathews’ Obituary – Plain Dealer, June 20, 1957
Ida Mathews’ Obituary – Plain Dealer, April 28, 1930
Alden Ely Matthews’ Death Notice – Cleveland Leader, March 18, 1888, Pg 5
Alden’s Death Notices – Cleveland Leader, Oct. 22 and 25, 1893, pg 10
Alden’s Death Notice – Cleveland Leader, Oct. 25, 1893, pg 5
Alice Mathews’ Death Notices – Cleveland Leader, March 16, 17 and 20, 1897
Ohio, County Death Records, Cuyahoga County

6 thoughts on “Sultana Disaster Survivor

  1. Well, I have to say that life in the old USA sounds much more interesting than that in England. keep up the good work


  2. Great stuff! I can’t believe all the information you’re able to find. I’m also surprised that I had no idea about the Sultana disaster! How could I not know about it?!

    Thanks Sherri!


    1. Me too! I had never heard of it. And history was one of my favorite classes, unlike science. haha! Thanks so much for reading my blog!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s