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Family perishes when flood water crashes debris into wooden bridge

This illustration, based upon a 1885 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, shows the direction the Crosby family was traveling by horse and wagon on the fateful day the bridge collapsed and all family members were killed. ILLUSTRATION BY MARY LOU MONTGOMERY


A thunderstorm, unusual in its intensity, arose from seemingly nowhere on a Wednesday afternoon in June, some 139 years ago. The aftermath shook the community of Hannibal to its core.

The day began much like any other in Hannibal during the post-Civil War years. George L. Crosby, a noted Hannibal photographer, and his wife, Anna, who operated the boarding house in which they lived, planned an afternoon trip into the country. They made arrangements to take with them their two children, Mattie Crosby, 8, and her younger brother, Louis (or Ray) Crosby, aged 4.

While the mother and children were at home, preparing for the adventure, George Crosby made arrangements with the Jordon & Nelson livery stable – located at 100-102 South Fourth, to rent a horse and wagon. Mr. Crosby told Mr. James A. Nelson that he wanted a gentle horse for the afternoon ride.

A newspaper account of the day, circulated across the country by the Associated Press, reported: “In compliance with this request Mr. Nelson had one of the gentlest horses harnessed up and George sprang into the buggy and drove off with a smile upon his face.”

Before leaving home, Mrs. Crosby made arrangements with her servants to have dinner prepared when they arrived home, expectedly at 6 p.m.

But they never made it back home.

The day started off peaceful enough, riding in the horse-drawn buggy out the road past Mount Olivet Cemetery, and in to Ralls County. They ventured on the road to Antioch Church, and in that vicinity it is believed that they met with a man named Glasscock regarding the purchase of a cow.

As storm clouds blew across the sky, the family apparently made the fateful decision to cut their visit short. At a half past 3, neighbors saw the family driving rapidly down the Mount Olivet Cemetery road toward Hannibal.

But they couldn’t outrun the rain. When they approached a bridge over Spooner Creek in South Hannibal, the horse continued its pace. Rain runoff had swollen the typically dry creek bed, and created a deep and rapid current. When the horse and buggy were half way across the bridge, the structure collapsed, sending the horse, buggy and family into the tumultuous water below.

And the news report continued:

“A short time later after the bridge gave way Frank Westfall, Benny Winchell and Godfrey Milton were standing at one of the windows in the H&St. Joe general office, watching the waters of the creek pass swiftly by, bearing on their muddy bosom great logs and piles of drift wood, which sped by at a rate that must have been at least 15 miles per hour. Westfall, looking up the stream, descried a human body coming down toward the Mississippi, and calling the attention of the other two men to it they all rushed down stairs as fast as possible, but long before they could reach the creek the body had passed by, and in another moment it was in the mighty river, which was waiting to receive and bear it away; but by this time strong hands and willing hearts were working to rescue the mortal part of the one who had put on immortality in getting the body on a raft, where it was identified as that of Mrs. Crosby. By this time a large crowd had assembled who were searching diligently for the other bodies, and after a little while those of Mr. Crosby and his little son, were found.”

Mrs. Crosby’s body was recovered near Pettibone’s Mill at the mouth of the stream. The body of young Mattie Crosby was never located.


An early image from Steve Chou’s photo collection bears the signature of Crosby. The photo is believed to have been taken just after the end of the Civil War, circa 1866. A close look at the photograph reveals hints as to its age.

Taken from the southeast corner of Main and Broadway, facing northwest, the shops along the west side of Main Street are decorated with signs. With significant magnification, some are readable. First and foremost, the Oak Hall Clothing Store of Settles and Helm is on the northwest corner of the intersection. A.J. Settles and Cyrus T. Helm were the proprietors of this store in 1866. While Mr. Settles spent many years in business at this location, Mr. Helm left Hannibal for Kansas City, dying of typhoid fever in September 1868.

Roughly next door to the Settles store, to the north, is barely visible a rectangular sign promoting the Millinery store of Mr. and Mrs. H.W. Crosby. This shop was located in this block of North Main for a number of years, and later was numbered 105.

Across the street, at 106 N. Main, was the photography studio of George L. Crosby. An exact relationship between H.W. and G.L. Crosby is unclear, but both were residents of Hannibal at the time. They may have been brothers, as both were born in Massachusetts, and both relocated to Hannibal.

On to the north in the same block were the offices of the Hannibal Daily and Weekly Courier. C. Hornback, druggist, had a store on this block in 1866, as did William McDaniel, variety goods and C. Fisher’s Saloon.

Other businesses, likely located on the second floor of these downtown buildings, include Robards and Bryan real estate; Lammey and Doyle, over the Settles & Helms store; Southard and Waller, boots and shoes; Dr. John Fee and the Odd Fellows Hall.

Medical patent

While George L. Crosby is best remembered for his photography, that isn’t his only contribution to early Hannibal and beyond.

In 1876 – a year to the month before his death – he received a patent for Crosby’s Vaporising Inhaler. At the time of his death, the Crosby Vaporizing Inhaler was touted as a positive remedy for Catarrh, and all diseases of the mucous membranes and air passages of the head, throat and lungs. It was sold by Hearne and Sniteman, 302 Broadway, Hannibal.

Boarding house

The 1870 census lists the inhabitants of Mrs. Crosby’s boarding house. In 1871 the boarding house was located at the corner of Fourth and Hill.

George Crosby 37, born Massachusetts

Anna Gibbs Crosby 31, born Kentucky

Louis (or Ray) Crosby 2, born Missouri

Mattie Crosby 4, born Illinois

Ida Dean 14

Mary Boyce 27, domestic servant

Eliza Low 25, domestic servant

Eugene Westfall 21

Frank Harwood 21 clerk of the court

Chas. C. Keylor 28, railroad clerk

Wm. Boswell 20, railroad office

Lewellen W. Boswell 22, RR title office

Nicholas Smith 21, cigar maker

Luther Hollister 30, lawyer

Henry R. Horton 40, carpenter

G.B. Birth 43, physician

Howard H. Town 33, master mechanic RR

J.M. Gibbs 29, jeweler (believed to be Mrs. Crosby’s brother)

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