The U.S.S. Princeton Disaster
A Largely Forgotten Event That Shouldn't Be
While today such an event would generate worldwide, round the clock reporting on CNN ("Crisis on the Princeton"), MSNBC ("President Averts Disaster"), Fox News ("Coup Attempt in America") and other outlets, spurring talking heads to drone on endlessly about the need for greater protection of Presidents, military weapons system security and who knows what all else, the disaster aboard the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844 is a little-remembered event in American history.
But it definitely shouldn't be, because the consequences could have been incalculable. On that day, President John Tyler, Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer and hundreds of others were touring the ship and what, at the time, was the largest single cannon in American history to date - the "Peacemaker" - in Alexandria, Virginia.
Princeton captain Robert Stockton, eager to show off the eight-month old ship and her firepower, arranged a demonstration. But the "Peacemaker" had been rushed into service without testing, and during the demonstration, the cannon exploded.
Tyler had been called below deck just moments before the blast, and was spared what would've been certain death. Upshur, Gilmer and four others were killed, with another twenty injured. With the Vice Presidency vacant, the immortal Willie Person Mangum would have finished out Tyler's (or, in fact, Harrison's) presidential term.