Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

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Malachite’s Big Hole

Accidents and Mishaps:

Accidents and Mishaps were a common occurrence both in the mountains as well as in the settlements.  There was no such thing as OSHA or any kind of Safety Training.  Product safety was unheard of.  And it was a time when the worth of a man was often measured by his courage and bravado, something not compatible with weighing risks.  It was also a time when big risks were sometimes required for survival.  The results were frequently severe injuries or death, although sometimes merely involved the loss of some measure of dignity.  

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"Our boat being completed we commenced crossing our equippage and while 5 of us were employed at this a young man by the name of Abram Patterson attempted to cross on horse back in spite of all the advice and entreaty of those present his wild and rash temper got the better of his reason and after a desperate struggle to reach the opposite bank he abandoned his horse made a few springs and sunk to rise no more - he was a native of Penna. about 23 years of age."  June 22, 1835, Osborne Russell (Reference)

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"A man in the employ of Smith, Sublette and Jackson, was engaged with a detached party, in constructing one of those subterranean vaults for the reception of furs, already described.  The cache was nearly completed, when a large quantity of earth fell in upon the poor fellow, and completely buried him alive.  His companions believed him to have been instantly killed, knew him to be well buried, and the cache destroyed, and therefore left him."   Recorded by William Ferris, 1830 (Reference)

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"The return march was by the way of Pryor's Gap, and up the Bighorn, to  Wind River , where the cache was made in the previous December.  The furs were now taken out and pressed, ready for transportation across the plains.  A party was also dispatched, under Mr. Tullock, to raise the cache on the  Bighorn River.  Among this party was Meek, and a Frenchman named Ponto.  While digging to come at the fur, the bank above caved in, falling upon Meek and Ponto, killing the latter almost instantly.  Meek, though severely hurt, was taken out alive: while poor Ponto was 'rolled in a blanket, and pitched into the river.'  So rude were the burial services of the trapper of the  Rocky Mountains ."  Related by Joe Meek in The River of the West.

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"Having concluded our winters hunt and trading with these Indians, who have left us, our men are now occupied in digging holes for the secretion of our peltries and merchandize, until we return from our spring's hunt, and when we would be joined by Capt. Bonneville and his company, who was to meet us at the mouth of Popoasia creek in June next.  On the 8th I was sent by the Captain [Joe Walker] to measure the size of the holes that the men were digging and whilst in one of them, taking the dimensions, with three other men, the bank caved in, covering two men entirely, another up to the shoulders, and dislocating my foot.  Of the four, I was the only one that was able to get out without assistance - the others being all seated at the time the accident happened.  Help was immediately obtained, and the men extricated as soon as possible, who appeared entirely lifeless, but after rubbing and bleeding them effectually, they recovered, when the men proceeded to extricate the one whom we thought was the least injured, but whom we found to be in the most dangerous situation, as his legs and lower part of his body was completely crushed.  This man, (Mr. Laront, of St. Louis, where he left a wife and four children) suffered most severely during the remainder of the day and all night, and died the next morning about sun rise."  Zenias Leonard, March 1835 (Reference)

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Sometimes a man might just disappear.

"At night we encamped on a small dry spot of ground on the South side of a steep mountain where there was little or no vegetation excepting wild sage. Sometime after we had stopped it was disclosed that one man was missing a young English Shoemaker from Bristol, we found he had been seen last dismounted and stopping to drink at a small branch at some distance before we entered snow.  On the following morning I was ordered to go back in search of him.  I started on the snow which was frozen hard enough to bear me and my horse.  I went to the place where he was last seen and found his trail which I followed on to a high mountain when I lost it among the rocks.  I then built a large fire shot my gun several times and after hunting till near sunset without hopes of finding him I gave it up and went to the edge of the snow and stopped for the night."   Osborne Russell, Late April, 1835 (Journal of a Trapper). 

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"About dark some of our trappers came to camp and reported one of their Comrades to be lost or met with some serious accident The next day we concluded to stop at this place for the lost man and four men went in search of him and returned at night without any tidings of him whatever It was then agreed that either his gun had bursted and killed him or his horse had fallen with him over some tremendous precipice. He was a man about 55 years of age and of 30 years experience as a hunter."  Osborne Russell, August 2, 1835 (Journal of a Trapper)

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"In the evening of the third of May, while a party of the Indians were amusing themselves at a war dance, one of them, a spectator, carelessly resting his chin on the muzzle of his gun, was instantly killed by the unexpected discharge of its contents into his brain. The gun was probably, accidentally exploded by the foot or knee of some person passing in the crowd. On the day following, the corpse was carefully dressed with a clean shirt, and blanket, then enveloped from head to foot, like an Egyptian Mummy, with robes and skins, well lashed around him, and finally committed to the silent keeping of the grave."   Recorded by Warren Ferris in 1834 (Reference). 

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"In about an hour after, an unpleasant accident happened to one of our men, named McCarey. He had been running a buffalo, and was about reloading the gun, which he had just discharged, when the powder in his horn was ignited by a burning wad remaining in the barrel; the horn was burst to fragments, the poor man dashed from his horse, and his face, neck, and hands, burnt in a shocking manner.  We applied, immediately, the simple remedies which our situation and the place afforded, and in the course of an hour he was somewhat relieved, and travelled on with us, though in considerable suffering.  His eyes were entirely closed, the lids very much swollen, and his long, flowing hair, patriarchal beard and eye brows, had all vanished in smoke.  It will be long ere he gets another such crop."  John Kirk Townsend 1834 (Reference).

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"The same evening one of our men by the name of Perkins, was severely burned by the accidental explosion of his powder horn."   Warren Ferris, May?? 1830 (Reference)

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Feb. 4th.  All thing being in readiness, we bade farewell to winter quarters, and commenced our journey.  Crossing the river soon after, on ascending the opposite bank, a cart upset and deposited its contents in the water.  The load, consisting of robes and powder, became thoroughly saturated, and we were employed a full hour in fishing it out.  The stream being waist-deep and filled with floating ice, amid which we were forced to plunge, our task was far from a pleasant one.  The freight needed drying, and we were detained two days for that purpose.  Meanwhile the drenched powder was subjected to the experiments of one of our engages. Having spread it to dry, he was carelessly bending over it, when a spark from the camp-fire struck the ready ignitible; a sprightly flash, enveloping the luckless wight in a sheet of flame, told the instant result. Springing to his feet, he exclaimed: 

    "Bless my stars!  That's what I call regular blowing up!"

    Aye, aye, my lad," says one.  "You was always a bright youth, but never before did you appear half so brilliant."

Recorded by Rufus Sage in 1842 in Rocky Mountain Life

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"In the evening, a fatal accident happened to a Canadian belonging to Mr. McKay's party.  He was running his horse, in company with another, when the animals were met in full career by a third rider, and horses and men were thrown with great force to the ground. The Canadian was taken up completely senseless, and brought to Mr. McKay's lodge, where we were all taking supper.  I perceived at once that there was little chance of his life being saved.  He had received an injury of the head which had evidently caused concussion of the brain.  He was bled copiously, and various local remedies were applied, but without success; the poor man died early next morning.  He was about forty years of age, healthy, active, and shrewd, and very much valued by Mr. McKay as a leader in his absence, and as an interpreter among the Indians of the Columbia." 

William Kirk Townsend, July? 1834 (Reference), near Fort Hall.

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"For the first five miles we had a heavy pull among the sandy hillocks; but soon the broad and level plain opened before us.  We had hardly left the river's side, however, when we experienced a delay of some hours, in consequence of an accident which came very nigh proving fatal to a French doctor of our company.  Fearful lest his stout top-heavy dearborn should upset whilst skirting the slope of a hill, he placed himself below in order to sustain it with his hands.  But, in spite of all his exertions, the carriage tumbled over, crushing and mashing him most frightfully.  He was taken out senseless, and but little hopes were at first entertained of his recovery.  Having revived, however, soon after, we were enabled to resume our march; and, in the course of time, the wounded patient entirely recovered."   June 14, 1831, Josiah Gregg, along the Santa Fe Trail (Reference)

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"We could not leave camp that day.  De Lisle was under a wagon containing forty-five hundredweight of freight making some repairs, one wheel being off and propped up by a board, when the support gave way and the wagon fell confining him to the earth.  His cries drew the men together and while the wagon was lifted off him he was drawn from under almost dead.  He was so far recovered that the next day we traveled." Recorded by Lewis Garrard (Reference) in the Autumn of 1846 along the Santa Fe Trail whilst proceeding to Bent's Fort.   

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"A day or so later we learned that a mad wolf had got into Mr. Fontenelle's camp about five miles from us, and had bitten some of his men and horses.  My messmates, who were old hands, had heard of the like before, when men had gone mad.  It was very warm, toward the latter end of July; we were in the habit of sleeping in the open air, and never took the trouble to put up the tent, except in bad weather; but when evening came the boys set up the tent.  Some of the other messes asked, "What is that for?" The reply was, "Oh, mad wolf come - he bite me."  When the time came to retire the pack saddles were brought up to barricade the entrance of our tent; the only one up in camp, excepting that of the boss. After all hands had retired nothing was heard in the camp except, now and then, the cry of "All's well," and some loud snoring, till the sudden cry of, "Oh, I'm bitten!" - then immediately another, and another.  Three of our men were bitten that night, all of them in the face.  One poor fellow, by the name of George Holmes, was badly bitten on the right ear and face."  Then later as Rendezvous broke up: "Two days before reaching the Horn [Big Horn River] one of our bulls commenced to show some symptoms of hydrophobia by bellowing at a great rate, and pawing the ground. This scared my poor friend Holmes, who was still in our party, but not destined to reach the Yellowstone.  He was a young man from New York, well educated, and we became quite attached to each other on our long journey. The poor fellow now and then asked me if I thought he would go mad; although thinking within myself he would, being so badly bitten, I did all I could to make him believe otherwise.  When he said to me, "Larpenteur, don't you hear the bull-he is going mad-I am getting scared," I do believe I felt worse than he did, and scarcely knew how to answer him. The bull died two days after we arrived at the Horn, and I learned, some time afterward, from Mr. Fontenelle, that Holmes had gone mad.  For some days he could not bear to cross the small streams which they struck from time to time, so that they had to cover him over with a blanket to get him across; and at last they had to leave him with two men until his fit should be over.  But the men soon left him and came to camp.  Mr. Fontenelle immediately sent back after him; but when they arrived at the place, they found only his clothes, which he had torn off his back.  He had run away quite naked, and never was found.  This ended my poor friend Holmes."    1833 Rendezvous, Charles Larpenteur (Reference).

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"On our return to the Rees villages we found that the Souex had killed some of their people, which they unaccountably blamed us for; and being privately informed they intended us mischief, we set out in the night, ordering the men to sleep on board. Unfortunately two of the hands, one of the name of Aaron Whitney, a native of Massachusetts, went into the village, contrary to orders, and were left behind."  William H Thomas. 1809 (Reference).  This event happened on the return trip to St. Louis after the party had returned Sheheken, a Mandan chief to his people further up the river.

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"while passing through a Brushy bottom a large Grissely came down the vally we being in single file men on foot leding pack horses he struck us about the center then turning ran paralel to our line Capt. Smith being in the advanc he ran to the open ground and as he immerged from the thicket he and the bear met face to face Grissly did not hesitate a moment but sprung on the capt taking him by the head first pitching sprawling on the earth he gave him a grab by the middle fortunately catching by the ball pouch and Butcher Knife which he broke but breaking several of his ribs and cutting his head badly none of us having any surgical Knowledge what was to be done one Said come take hold and he wuld say why not you so it went around I asked Capt what was best he said [send] one or 2 [men] for water and if you have a needle and thread git it out and sew up my wounds around my head which was bleeding freely I got a pair of scissors and cut off his hair and then began my first Job of dressing wounds upon examination the bear had taken nearly all his head in his capcious mouth close to his left eye on one side and clos to his right ear on the other and laid the skull bare to near the crown of the head leaving a white streak whare his teeth passed one of his ears was torn from his head out to the outer rim after stitching all the other wounds in the best way I was capabl and according to the captains directions the ear being the last I told him I could do nothing for his Eare O you must try to stich up some way or other said he then I put in my needle stiching it through and through and over and over laying the lacerated parts togather as nice as I could with my hands water was found in about a mille when we all moved down and encamped the captain being able to mount his horse and ride to camp whare we pitched a tent the onley one we had and made him as comfortable as circumtances would permit this gave us a lisson on the charcter of the grissly Baare which we did not forget "   James Clyman, fall 1824.  From a narrative by James Clyman given in 1871 in Napa, California (Reference).  

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"A little before night, the company indulged in a general cleansing, accompanied by a shave and change of clothes.  Prudom was among the number, for whom an intimate friend officiated as barber; - the operation finished, he jokingly remarked: "Well Tom, I suppose this is the last time you'll ever shave me!"  Little did the poor fellow think how soon his words were to be verified. Seizing his rifle he stepped on board the boat, and, stooping to lay it by, exclaimed, "Here's the game!"  The words were scarcely uttered, when the gun-lock, coming in sudden contact with the boat-side, discharged the piece and shot him through the heart! He staggered, faltering forth "Mon Dieu!" and fell dead at my feet. "   

Recorded by Rufus Sage in the spring of 1842.  Sage with four other men were attempting to drag a keelboat load of buffalo robes down the North Platte River from Fort Platte.  (Reference)  Sage's description of the burial can be found here.  

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"The polar-star by its "pointers" had just told the hour of midnight, when these hurried words rang through the camp:  "Lave, ho! Lave! Prairies on fire! Quick-Catch up! Catch up!"  This startling announcement instantly brought every man to his feet; and such a scene as now met the eye!  How awful, and how grand!  The wind, new changed and freshened, to the right and rear, was tossing the flames towards us, rapidly-lighting the heavens with their lurid glare, and transforming the darkness of night into a more than noon-day splendor!.....We were speedily under way, with as much earnestness of advance as that of righteous Lot, in his escape from burning Sodom.  For a while the pursuing enemy kept even pace, and threatened to overtake us, till headed by the strong wind, which meanwhile had changed its course, it began to slacken its speed and abate its greediness........ The great peril of our situation, and the pressing necessity of a hurried flight may be readily inferred from the fact, that one waggon was freighted with a large quantity of gunpowder."

This description of a prairie fire in the autumn of 1841 is given by Rufus Sage in Rocky Mountain Life.  Although no-one was injured or killed by this fire, prairie fires often proved deadly to men, livestock and wildlife. Many prairie fires were even started by campfires belonging to supply trains.

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A story was related to Rufus Sage (Rocky Mountain Life) regarding improper handling of gunpowder.  

A lieutenant of the Mexican army, at Santa Fe, who, on opening a keg of powder, made use of a RED-HOT Iron in lieu of an auger, for that purpose.  It is needless to say, a tremendous explosion followed.  Several of the bystanders were killed, but the lieutenant miraculously escaped. He soon after received a Captain's commission from the Commander-in-Chief, in consideration of his indomitable COURAGE!"

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Here is another powder keg story.  Thomas L. Sarpy, brother of John B Sarpy was killed at a store at the Ogalallah Indian post in 1832. “...he was putting away the robes which had been taken in.  An assistant was handing them over a counter on which a lighted candle sat.  A spark from the candle, it is supposed, was blown by the gusts caused in handling the robes, into a fifty-pound keg of powder which sat uncovered just behind the counter.  In the explosion that followed the building was completely demolished and Sarpy was instantly killed....” (In Chittenden, A History of the American Fur Trade of the Far West, vol. I, pp. 390-91)

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Another story about exploding powder kegs related by Samuel Hawken can be found here.  

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"Saturday the 25, set sail at 4 in the Morning, fair wind took 6 Indians with us which we landed and stood under sail till 11 A.M. when we took the Cordell for about 1 hour dined, and set sail again, passed white River at 2 P.M. the slakening about 4 P.M. we took the Cordell again, Mr. Manuels [Manual Lisa] Negro Boy Charles went out the Boat to get some grass or grasshoppers for a Prairie Dog which he had caught some days ago, he the Boy went upon the Hills unperceived, they are very high he fell down a precipe overhanging rock, precipice into the River, the Man who was steering the Mackina Boat saw it , and cried out to Mr. Lewis who was walking in the Rear of the Boats to save the Boy but Mr. Lewis [Reuben Lewis-brother of Meriwether Lewis] unfortunately did not understand the men however saw something strugling in the water, but thought the Boy was a swimming, when the Men came towards him, they went to find the Boy, alas he was gone, he must have been stunned by the fall or otherwise would have saved himself, the River was not 4 feet deep, he drowned at 5 o'clock P.M. we searched for him some time but the Current had swept him off, cordelled a little way, crossed to an Island, set out 3 hunters, at sunset the Wind fair, set sail, took in our hunters, camped on a Sand bar the wind blowing fresh all night distance 30 Miles."

This is John C Luttig's journal entry for July 25, 1812. The St. Louis Missouri Fur Company was moving a keelboat and a smaller mackinaw boat up the Missouri River.

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We soon struck the river which we had suffered so much in seeking, and bent our course up the stream, crossing its bends on the ice.  On one occasion when saving distance by cutting off a bend of the river, the horse carrying my pack and worldly goods, fell into an air hole and would have instantly disappeared had I not caught him by the tail and dragged him out to some distance, with a risk to myself of plunging under the ice into a rapid current, that made me shudder the moment I coolly looked at the danger.  Hair breadth escapes from death are so frequent in the life of a hunter in this wild region as to lose all novelty and may seem unworthy of mention.  I shall relate a few as I proceed, for the purpose of strewing the slight tenure the pioneer holds of life.”   

Written Thomas James (reference) in the late winter/early spring of 1810 while seeking to return to  “Manuel’s Fort” previously built in the spring of 1808 at the confluence of the Bighorn River and the Missouri River.

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Snow blindness was not an uncommon occurrence with the men during the winter.  Here is what Thomas James (reference) had to say about snow blindness when it afflicted the party he was traveling with: 

"On the evening of the day when we left Manuel's Fort, my friend Brown became blind from the reflection of the sun on the snow; his eyes pained him so much that he implored us to put an end to his torment by shooting him.  I watched him during that night for fear he would commit the act himself.  He complained that his eye balls had bursted, and moaned and groaned most piteously.  In the morning, I opened the swollen lids, and informed him to his great joy that the balls were whole and sound.  He could now distinguish a faint glimmering of light.  I led him all that day and the next, on the third he had so far recovered that he could see, though but indistinctly."   

And  

"They, like ourselves, had all been blind, and had suffered more severely than we from the same causes. They had killed three dogs, one a present to me from an Indian, and two horses to appease the demands of hunger before they had sufficiently recovered to take sight on their guns. Which in this distressed situation enveloped by thick darkness at midday, thirty Snake Indians came among them, and left without committing any depredation.  Brown and another, who suffered less than the others, saw and counted these Indians, who might have killed them all and escaped with their effects with perfect impunity."

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"We skinned our beaver, ate breakfast and started to go further down the river in search of a good camp ground. Brown and Dougherty started in a canoe, before Ware and I were ready, and after going about two hundred yards, they struck a rock concealed under the water, overturned the canoe, and lost all our skins and amunition except the little powder in our horns and few skins left behind. They also lost their guns, but saved themselves and the canoe."  Thomas  James during the Spring 1810 while working for the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company in the area of the Three Forks of the Missouri (reference).  

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"While they remained in the South Park, Mr. Guthrie, one of the Rocky Mountain Company's traders, was killed by lightning.  A number of persons were collected in the lodge of the Booshway, Frapp, to avoid the rising tempest, when Guthrie, who was leaning against the lodge pole, was struck by a flash of the electric current, and fell dead instantly.  Frapp rushed out of the lodge, partly bewildered himself by the shock, and under the impression that Guthrie had been shot.  Frapp was a German, and spoke English somewhat imperfectly.  In the excitement of the moment he shouted out, " Py Gott, who did shoot Guttery ! "

"G--a' mighty, I expect: He's a firing into camp;" drawled out Hawkins, whose ready wit was very disregardful of sacred names and subjects.

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The mountaineers were familiar with the most awful aspects of nature; and if their familiarity had not bred contempt, it had at least hardened them to those solemn impressions which other men would have felt under their influence."  Joe Meek in River of the West.

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Harrison G Rogers records in his journal the following horse accident which happened to Jedediah Smith while in California: "Sunday June 1st, 1828....Capt. Smith got kicked by a mule and hurt pretty bad...." and on June 2nd: "Capt. Smith goes about although he was much hurt by the kick he received yesterday."

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From the Journal of Dr. Thomas, 1809.  "On the 3rd of June we were visited by a hail storm, and to render the scene more disagreeable, one of the hunters, John Stout, had his thumb blown off and his hand much lacerated by the bursting of my gun."

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All accidents didn't involve serious injury or death, but perhaps only a loss of dignity and perhaps becoming the object of the camp jesters. Lewis Garrard describes the following incident involving a "refractory" mule (Reference)  "In the morning we gathered the stock, and lassoed the riding animals.  My large beast, Diabolique (for never mule gave more trouble), was refractory owing in some degree to the unusual quantity of good grass the preceding night.  After repeated vexatious trials, I succeeded in roping her.  Holding the lasso in one hand, and two other mules by their bridles, I led them toward camp, jumping over an intervening mudhole, expecting them to follow.  But no such thing!  And instead, astern flew their heads, and flat went I in the puddle.  I then endeavored to drive them over, but they backed their ears preparatory to kicking the hindsights off the first man that struck them.  With a running noose over Diabolique’s nose, and a “heave-ho,” I pulled lustily, but she held stiff her elongate neck and head, planted firmly her feet in front, and with strained eyeballs, stood provokingly patient.  How exquisitely malignant does one feel the “Mountain devil in his heart,” in such a position, and but for the want of her as a riding animal, a bullet would have been the reward of her stubbornness.  Nor is this uncharitable feeling peculiar to myself; for there is yet the first amiable mule rider to be seen, as the best mule, at times, will become refractory, and to refrain from clubs and curses is a moral impossibility." 

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Some accidents might have unintended benefits: 

"Toward  eleven o’clock in the morning we arrived at  Cottonwood Fork, -a small stream, so called from the number of cottonwoods growing on its banks. One of the wagons overturned while crossing, breaking two boxes of claret.  Those around had a treat most unexpected."  (Lewis Garrard, while on the Santa Fe Trail in 1846, Reference)

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