Franklin Pierce was president-elect at the time, having trounced Whig opponent Winfield Scott the previous November. Benjamin, 12, was traveling that day with his parents on the Boston & Maine noon express when an axle broke near Andover, Mass. The Pierces were riding in a coach that tumbled down an embankment. Benjamin’s parents survived; he did not.
Railroads were new and dangerous in those days, and 1853 was an especially bad year for railway accidents in the United States. Besides the Andover wreck, there were fatal accidents in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.
It must have been a crushing blow for the Pierces, especially since Benjamin was the only living child of their three. Reportedly, Jane Pierce considered the accident the judgment of God, perhaps punishment for the sin of pride in reaching for such high office, which could not have helped Franklin’s state of mind going into the job. Also, he was an alcoholic. Besides that, the job was awful at that moment in history, as the divide between North and South grew increasingly bitter. Pierce’s presidency is generally considered an abysmal failure, and small wonder.