A Barrel Full of Boys

A singular discovery: How could 30 boys hide inside one barrel?

A few years ago, I was searching through historical newspaper archives for something or other when I came across a fascinating story. It was at the bottom of the last column on the second page of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, dated Saturday, 11 March 1882. The headline was: “A Singular Discovery.” The story wasn’t relevant to whatever I was researching, but I clipped it out and filed it away.

I spend a lot of time browsing newspaper archives and trawling through old books and manuscripts. I make a habit of collecting interesting stories. Some have inspired articles, books, even movies. Others seem perhaps too random or too insubstantial to be used, but too interesting to be forgotten. They just hang around, waiting — I suppose — to be shared. This one, in particular, stuck in my mind. It’s a strangely unsettling story of childhood adventure. (Imagine David Lynch had directed The Goonies and set it 140 years ago...) Here it is in full:

On the property of Howes, Babcock & Ewell, in Silver Creek, stands an old house no longer in use and falling to decay. The building has gradually settled into the soft soil, and the land around it has been raised until the roof of the building is nearly level with the ground. Last Saturday, Carlos Ewell, of the above named firm, was looking over the premises and found a barrel standing near the ice-house. Looking into the barrel, he was astonished to hear a confused murmur like human voices coming therefrom.

He at once summoned the owners of the voices to come forth, and in a short time a boy with a blackened face rose up out of the barrel. Before the horrified gentleman could ask for an explanation another good-sized boy squeezed his way out of the barrel. Then another and still another came to the surface, until about thirty boys, most of them with blackened faces, capered around the barrel, making mysterious remarks about “the cave,” “the captain,” and sundry other things supposed to belong to bandits, brigands, and that class of heroes.

It was easy enough to understand how one boy could hide himself in a barrel, but how thirty could find room was a puzzle only solved by the leader of the band, who explained that the boys had made a tunnel from the surface down into the old ice-house, and placed the barrel at the mouth to conceal their work. Two or three of the older boys pressed the younger ones into the service, and the compact tan-bark in the interior had been excavated and divided up into rooms, as the “captain” explained, “for the officers and the common workmen.” The work was begun before Christmas, and was just about finished when discovered.

Howes, Babcock & Ewell were manufacturers of milling machinery, including the “world-renowned” Eureka seed cleaner. Established in 1856, the company was based in the village of Silver Creek, on the shore of Lake Erie, in Chautauqua County, New York. [You can see an illustration of the Silver Creek works from 1881 at the New York Heritage website.]

Carlos Ewell was one of the directors, alongside Simeon Howes and Alpheus Babcock. The old ice-house was previously used by the community to store blocks of ice harvested from the frozen lake. Built below ground, it was packed with tan bark for insulation. If the boys had begun work before Christmas, they had been excavating their underground hideaway for more than three months.

A footnote reveals the story was originally published in the Buffalo Express. Archives show it was republished in several other newspapers across the US. Most ran the story under the descriptive headline: “A Barrel Full of Boys.” But the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, as I originally encountered it, used: “A Singular Discovery.” This was a common headline, often applied to stories of scientific breakthroughs, geographic explorations, and paleontological digs, and occasionally to tales of lost cities, buried treasure, sea monsters, 30 boys in a barrel, and other remarkable finds. It’s this headline — an invitation to explore, uneath, and wonder — that inspires this newsletter’s name.

Each issue of Singular Discoveries will present a fascinating, surprising, and forgotten story from the past. It won’t necessarily be about a discovery — the stories themselves will be the discoveries. Usually, they will be short tales, like the one above. Occasionally, they’ll be more in-depth long reads. I have other plans for bringing these stories to life, too. But for now, I’ll present one story in each newsletter, plus some recommended discoveries — books, articles, records, podcasts, TV shows, or movies — chosen because they’re interesting and might enrich a few minutes of your time.

There’ll also be some context about writing, reporting, and the process of scouring historical archives for interesting stories. And I’ll ask authors and other interesting people to offer insights into their work and share their recommendations.

I’m keen to receive your feedback. Please let me know what you think about the first issue of the newsletter and help me shape the future of Singular Discoveries. Thanks for reading. Now the newsletter’s first recommendation, my all-time favourite narrative non-fiction book:


A Night to Remember by Walter Lord (1956)

This gripping, authoritative, and remarkably concise account of the sinking of the Titanic is the reason the 1912 disaster — overshadowed in the public consciousness by two world wars — became such an enduring fascination. Lord interviewed 60 survivors, but never took notes. Fearing notes might intimidate the interviewees, he memorised their responses. The book is amazingly succinct. In my paperback edition, the ship hits the iceberg on page two, and the story ends just 167 pages later. Find it on our bookshelf at Bookshop.org.*

In his preface for A Night to Remember, Lord mentions a novel, Futility by Morgan Robertson, about a fictional British ocean liner that sinks in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. Robertson’s liner was named Titan, and it was labelled “unsinkable”. There are several other similarities to the real liner — similar size, speed, number of passengers — which is strange because Robertson wrote Futility in 1898, 14 years before the sinking of the Titanic. The novel was hurriedly republished following the disaster, as The Wreck of the Titan, with the deliberate addition of more similarities between the two ships. I’m not going to recommend reading Futility, but it is worth reading its Wikipedia entry.

Also worth reading is this New Yorker piece from 2012, Unsinkable by Daniel Mendelsohn, which is about the Walter Lord book and the numerous subsequent retellings, and our ongoing obsession with the Titanic story. You can read it on the New Yorker site.

The Titanic returned to the news in May after Canadian researchers began investigating the authenticity of a message in a bottle supposedly sent by a passenger on the doomed liner. It’s not the first message in a bottle linked to the Titanic. In 2016, I compiled a book called Messages from the Sea, which tells the stories behind 100 messages in bottles found around the world. One of the messages featured in that book and on its website was found in July 1912 off Rhode Island. It read: “April 16 — Mid-ocean — help — on a raft — Titanic sinking — no water or food — Major Butt.” You can read more about that message here.

Next time: Rival Romeos in the Ring. Thanks for subscribing.

Main source: Sacramento Daily Record-Union, 11 March 1882

*Books recommended on Singular Discoveries are added to our bookshelf at Bookshop.org, which supports local, independent bookshops.