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Decoration Day celebration lead to tragedy on the river

This photo, copied from a 1912 scrapbook compiled by Neva Estella Smith, contains this parade photo of members of the Hannibal High School Class of 1912. The photo was taken in front of the new high school on Broadway, across from the First Christian Church. Crandall King, a class member, drowned just a week after graduation. (Steve Chou Collection)


It had rained earlier in the week, but the sky was clear on Thursday morning, May 30, 1912, the day set aside on the calendar for the celebration of Decoration Day. Many people scheduled excursions that morning, and a popular draw was the Mississippi River. One popular outing consisted of motoring to Keokuk, Iowa, to get an eye-witness view of the hydroelectric generating plant which was under construction.

Otey Kirtley of Hannibal, a printer by trade, had special plans for the holiday. He awoke his family extra early for a never-to-be-forgotten outing to the Bay de Charles, just north of Hannibal and accessible via river chute beside the McCooey Ice House.

The sun still low in the eastern sky, Frankie Armilda (Leonard) Kirtley and her young daughter, 8-year-old Mary Dorothy Kirkley, accompanied Mr. Kirtley to Pete Lange’s boathouse, located at the foot of Bird Street, where they rented a skiff. They were joined on the outing by Crandall King, a member of the 1912 graduating class at Hannibal High School, and a football standout, in addition to being an employee at Kirtley’s print shop. The four boarded the skiff, which the two men commenced rowing from the shoreline toward the river channel proper. It was 5:30 o’clock in the morning.

Regardless of the fact that just a month and a half had passed since the international tragedy – the sinking of the Titantic - the foursome proceeded ahead, presumably giddy with anticipation of the prospects of gaiety during the holiday ahead.

Banked along the wharf on the river’s edge this morning were the steamer Josh Cook and its barges, owned by the Atlas Transportation Company.*

As the small vessel passed in front of one of the barges and Mr. Kirtley and Crandall King attempted to turn to the north, “The skiff was overturned by the suction or undertow of the current and all were thrown into the river.” (Shelby County Herald)

There were those who saw the individuals flailing in the treacherous waters, and who heard screams for help from those fighting for their lives, but no one was able to reach them in time to avert a terrible tragedy.

All four lives were claimed by the Mississippi River on that fateful Thursday morning, during an hour before most of the town’s citizens awoke from their nightly sleep.

The grim mission ahead was one of recovery, rather than rescue.

First recovered

Mrs. Kirtley’s body was the first to be recovered, about an hour to an hour and a half after the accident, according to a report in the Quincy Daily Journal. The Shelby County Herald noted that her remains were discovered at a point opposite of the Atlas Portland Cement Plant, three miles south of Hannibal.

No water was found in her lungs, therefore it was believed that her death was due to shock, rather than drowning.

Her husband’s body was recovered three days later – at noon on Sunday - eight miles south of Hannibal. Kirtley was identified by the clothing he was wearing, for his body was badly decomposed.

The young girl’s body was found four days after the accident – on Monday morning - five miles south of Louisiana, by a businessman of that city who was on a fishing outing with his family.

Finally, Crandall King’s body was located opposite the Burlington yards at Hannibal on Monday afternoon.


In order to obtain the public’s assistance in recovering the bodies, rewards of $50 each were offered.

Two Burlington Railroad switchmen, Joe Canote and Walter Straub, spotted King’s body in the river, and boarded a skiff in order to aid with the recovery. They followed the body for a mile downriver before they were able to recover it.

Kirtley family burials

Members of the Kirtley family were buried together at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Mr. Kirtley was born in 1875 in Ashley, Pike County, Mo., the son of Dr. W.T. Kirtley. Mrs. Kirtley was also born in 1875, daughter of John C. Leonard of Hannibal.

Popular athlete

Crandall Herman King was the son of James E. King and Mitchell Ann Atteberry King, and was born in 1894. At the time of the accident, the family had lived in Hannibal about a dozen years, and resided on Bush Street.

Crandall’s death came just a week after he and 41 other members of the Hannibal High School Class of 1912 received their diplomas. It was reported in newspaper accounts of the day that the young man worked at Mr. Kirtley’s print shop in order to put himself through high school.

At the time of his death, he was just 21 days shy of his 18th birthday.

Having played football for the school during the 1911 season, Morris Anderson and Crandell’s fellow football teammates occupied a section of honor during services at the Fifth Street Baptist Church. Also seated together were his fellow classmates. Crandall King had been chosen as class treasurer.

Members of the Class of 1912 were: Clarence L. Bender, Robert Vincent Hogg, Orville Douglass James, Arthur Paul Jones, Crandall H. King, Edward Russell McCartney, Marquis Russell McRae, G. Reed Penington, Leonard Frederick Rubison, Richard A. Seibel, John Alfred Smythe, Rolla Ira Stewart, Roy Peter Swartz, Hamilton Morrow Sydney and Edgar Velie.

Also, Pansy E. Ardrey, Dorothy M. Atkins, Helen Mae Cameron, Mary Sophia Cameron, Rosabelle Campbell, Zelma Marian Carter, Hazel H. Ellis, Irene Fisher, Georgia Margaret Gettler, Pearl V. Hadley, Emma Margaret Kaup, Gladys Lewis, Violet M. Lovett, Olive Marion Mudra, Barbara Riordian, Leota Gladys Smith, Neva Estella Smith, Helen Hixson Spencer, Lillie Belle Stillwell, Emily Troppmann, Eva M. Wear, Mary Margaret Wilcox, Cleo Mary Wilson, Cassie A. Winegar, Betha Lee Wright, Davilla Gillum and Jessie Sutherland Pound.

Classmates and teammates marched behind the hearse to Mt. Olivet Cemetery, where Crandall King was laid to rest. His pallbearers were Reed Pennington, Roy Swartz, Leonard Rubison, Philip Bostwick, Arthur Jones and Clarence Bender.


  • Joe Canote was the father of long-time Hannibal resident Louise Canote Timbrook, who was born in 1916. She told stories during her lifetime, shared with her by her father, of the river rescue that he had been a part of four years before her birth.

  • Hannibal native Gregg Andrews, in his book, “City of Dust,” explains that in a plan to make more extensive use of the Mississippi River for shipping, the Universal Portland Cement Company “formed the Atlas Transportation Company … and purchased a river fleet consisting of the Josh Cook steamer and several other barges. Until early 1918 this fleet hauled cement, raw materials, and other freight between St. Paul, Minnesota, and New Orleans, Louisiana.”

  • Bush street once turned west off of Ely Street, on the South Side of Bear Creek. Retired Hannibal firefighter, Becker Spaun, recalls the street was roughly located where the Dempsey Dog Park is now located.

This map illustrates three locations relevant to the drowning story involving the Otey Kirtley family on May 30, 1912. 1: Represents the site of the drowning. The Kirkley family and Crandall King boarded a skiff at the foot of Bird Street in the early morning hours. 2: Shows the location of the Kirtley home at the time of the tragedy. They lived at 516 Center Street. 3: Represents the location of Otey Kirtley’s business, the Bluff City Printery, 206 South Main Street. Both Mr. Kirtley and Crandall King worked at this shop. ILLUSTRATION/MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

This newspaper clipping is from Neva Estella Smith’s 1912 memory book. It contains a portion of coverage of Crandall King’s funeral. (Steve Chou Collection)

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