23 May 2023


Lost Capitol Hill: James Wilson and William Nokes

Franklin Buchanan

Whenever I am at a loss for a subject to write about, I go back to my store of articles about the Washington Navy Yard to find something that happened there worth delving more deeply into. I have frequently written about accidents that happened there; it was far from a safe workplace in its early days. And so, today we will look at the death of two sailors at the Navy Yard in 1859.

Firing weapons was one of the many duties of sailors in those days, and so ten of them were engaged in this practice on July 14, 1859, when their gun exploded. The gun involved shot ordnance with a nine-inch diameter, weighing some 64 pounds, so it is unsurprising that the results were deadly. The Washington Evening Star reported the grisly details that evening:

Mr. Wilson was killed instantly, half his head being blown off; and Mr. Nokes lived but five or ten minutes after the accident; the lower part of his face and head was blown off. The force of the accident threw Mr. Wilson’s body a distance of thirty feet, and Mr. Nokes and Mr. Beachem ten or twelve feet.

James Wilson, the Star reported, was “a seafaring man, married, with one child.” while William Nokes “was a married man, and was preparing to become a gunner in the service.” In contrast to Wilson, he had no children.

A Dahlgren nine inch gun. The gun that exploded would have been of this size. (NHHC)

The other men’s injuries ranged from bad cuts to the head to minor injuries. All had been on the platform with the gun, some ten feet above the ground. Parts of the gun were thrown some 200 yards, endangering not just those in firing the weapons, but other Navy Yard workers.

A day later, after the coroner had confirmed the cause of death of the two unfortunates, funerals were held for the two men. Wilson’s took place in Christ Church, where it was presided by Reverend Joshua Morsell, while Nokes’s took place in his father’s house, across from the Marine Barracks.

Both were buried in Congressional Cemetery, with a number of Navy Yard officers in attendance, while some of those injured in the explosion were pallbearers.

A week after the explosion, the Star reported that “a paper was circulated in the workshops of the Navy Yard for the purpose of obtaining subscriptions to relieve the unfortunate victims of the recent gun explosion there, and amongst the hands the sum of $200 was subscribed.” The article added that this money was sure to increase after the master workmen and the officers of the Yard had had an opportunity to add their funds. This seems to be the last time these two unfortunates were mentioned in the papers of the time.

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