A gaslight explosion
Mayor of Louisville met a tragic end
When Thomas Howell Crawford’s basement exploded, it was said to have shaken the earth for hundreds of yards.
Friends, neighbors, and residents of nearby Louisville, Kentucky, were shocked when Crawford died from the blast. In addition to being a prominent business owner, Crawford had been mayor of Louisville during the early stages of the Civil War.
Although Crawford earned some renown while serving as mayor, it was his mother, Jane Todd Crawford, who made the history books.
Born in Rockbridge County, Virginia, Jane had moved to Kentucky with her family in 1805.
Four years later, at age 46, Jane thought that she was pregnant with twins. Having difficulty, she sought advice from Dr. Ephraim McDowell, another Rockbridge County native who was one of the best surgeons in Kentucky. McDowell, who had trained in Edinburgh, Scotland, told Jane that she suffered from a massive ovarian tumor.
At the time, doctors believed that that no one could survive an abdominal operation. Despite the risk, Jane rode sixty miles to McDowell’s home in Danville, Kentucky. There, in December 1809, the doctor removed Jane’s 22-pound ovarian cyst. With no anesthesia, Jane sang hymns throughout the operation. She miraculously survived. Five days later, she was up and making her bed.
As the world’s first survivor of an ovariotomy, Jane has been heralded as a medical pioneer. A 1942 proclamation by the governor of Kentucky, for example, called her “one of the brave souls of surgical history.” Jane died in Indiana in March 1842, having lived 33 years after the procedure.
Her husband, however, was less fortunate. In 1830, while living in Indiana, he stepped outside to watch some brush he was burning. He fell into a cellar and died.
While Jane Todd Crawford is commemorated as a brave survivor of pioneer surgery, the tale of her son, Thomas Howell Crawford, more closely resembles that of his father. Thomas also met a tragic end.
After growing up near Greensburg, Kentucky, Thomas made his way to the bustling Ohio River town of Louisville. There, he made a name for himself in business and in politics.
Described as “a large man with a large, rather bald head, smooth shaven, a very benevolent and intelligent countenance, very neat in his address and of quiet manners,” Crawford’s political career was not without controversy.
In 1857, Thomas was elected to Louisville’s Board of Alderman as an American Party (“Know Nothing”) candidate. He served as that body’s president for about a year. This stint whetted his appetite for politics. On April 2, 1859, residents elected him mayor.
Crawford guided Louisville during the secession crisis and he remained a staunch Unionist throughout the Civil War. With residents having family and economic ties across the Ohio River in Indiana, many Louisville residents joined Thomas in supporting the Union. The Louisville City Council followed suit, and, on January 22, 1861, as Southern states seceded from the Union, that body passed a resolution supporting the Federal government. During the conflict, Louisville became a major supply depot for the Union military.
Crawford served as mayor until April 6, 1861. The end of his term, however, was marred by reports of missing funds. The Louisville Daily Courier complained that “The city has lost thousands of dollars and been swindled out of thousands of more during the last few years through the negligence or incompetency of Mayor Crawford.” Despite this charge, one early biographer contended that “His upright character, industry and business ability made him prominent and commanded the confidence of his fellow citizens.”
Crawford again ran for election in April 1863 but lost to his opponent by 710 votes. Although both were Union candidates, Thomas’s opponent had built a network of support among Democrats, who pushed Crawford’s opponent to victory.
After the Civil War, Crawford found success in banking, real estate, and the life insurance business. He was a successful entrepreneur, and his house was one of the first in Kentucky to use gaslights. This technology, however, ultimately led to his death in what one Louisville newspaper called “a most frightful and mournful accident.”
Gaslights had reached Louisville early. The first gaslight in a private home appeared in late 1839, and, according to The Encyclopedia of Louisville, the town was “the fifth city to have gaslight in the United States.” The use of gaslights quickly became popular. In 1842, the Louisville Journal proclaimed that “Every one may now, without the least pecuniary inconvenience, enjoy the great comfort and privilege of gas lights . . . The gas-lights contribute in a high degree to morals and enjoyment, besides affording protection to property and to persons.”
In Crawford’s case, however, they ended his life.
Crawford lived sixteen miles from Louisville in Pewee Valley, Kentucky. On the night of May 27, 1871, he and several friends socialized on his porch. When it grew dark, Thomas went inside to turn on the gaslights. They did not work.
Thomas and his sister-in-law lit candles and went downstairs to check the gas meter.
Shortly after they descended into the basement, one writer noted, “an explosion was heard equal to the report of a large cannon, which shook the whole house and the earth itself for a distance of several hundred yards.”
Thomas’s friends rushed downstairs. The basement was engulfed in flames. Leaking gas, ignited by the candles, had exploded.
One man tried to pull Crawford’s sister-in-law from the fire. “Her clothes were ablaze, she was screaming and frightened, and jerked away from him only to go further back into the fast spreading blaze . . .” a writer remarked. “All her clothes were reduced to ashes, and she was taken from the room almost dead.” She passed away shortly thereafter.
Crawford ran out of the basement, terribly burned. He lingered until June 17, when he died. He was 69 years old. “Patiently and with fortitude he bore the sufferings the result of the terrible accident which caused his death,” one obituary writer commented. He was buried in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery.
Just as Thomas’s mother earned renown, so, too, did his daughter. Amelia Crawford was a “pioneer suffragist.” According to her 1921 obituary, she was “one of the first women in the United States to vote. She cast her ballot with Susan B. Anthony, the equal rights leader.”
Called “a living example of pure and spotless character,” Thomas Crawford worked to serve his country through politics during the Civil War. Although history remembers his mother, Thomas was also an important member of the family who served his city during the nation’s greatest conflict. Unfortunately, like his father, he also met a tragic end.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books. His latest is “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” which examines interpersonal violence, Southern honor, and vigilante justice through the lens of an 1856 murder on a steamboat.