James Erwin

Historian and Author
St. Louis
About the Speaker

James Erwin is a retired attorney who practiced law in St. Louis for 38 years. Erwin is the author and co-author of books on the Civil War in Missouri, the history of St. Charles, steamboat disasters, and true crime in Missouri. He is a frequent speaker on the Civil War and local history. Currently, he is vice-chair of the Kirkwood (Missouri) Arts Commission, president of the St. Louis Civil War Roundtable, and treasurer of the Unbound Book Festival.

Steamboat Disasters of the Lower Missouri River

During the nineteenth century, 300 boats met their end in the steamboat graveyard that was the Lower Missouri River, from Omaha, Nebraska, to its mouth a few miles north of St. Louis. Although derided as little more than an “orderly pile of kindling,” steamboats were in fact technological marvels superbly adapted to the river’s conditions. Their light superstructure and long, wide, flat hulls powered by high-pressure engines drew so little water that they could cruise on “a heavy dew” even when fully loaded. But these same characteristics made them susceptible to fires, explosions, and snags (tree trunks ripped from the banks, hiding under the water’s surface). And the river held other dangers–disease, crime, and (in time of war) guerrillas. Historian and author James Erwin tells the story of the perils steamboats, their passengers, and their crews faced on every voyage.

Two Hundred Years of Notorious Crimes in the Show-Me State

Historian and author James Erwin looks back over the past two hundred years of crimes in Missouri that excited the public’s interest. He describes, among others, an infamous duel on Bloody Island, the origin of the Western gunfight, the real-life story behind the folk songs “Stagger Lee” and “Frankie and Johnnie,” the (alleged) murder of the founder of Swope Park, mysterious unsolved murders in Mexico and St. Joseph, serial killers Bertha Gifford and Ray and Faye Copeland, and the “Missouri Miracle” of the kidnapping and recovery of Shawn Hornbeck.