February 11, 1823
110 children are killed from being suffocated or trampled when uninvited guests attempt to receive bread and fruit at a church
The capital city of Valletta was observing Carnival, a celebration immediately preceding Lent, at the time of the incident. To shield children from the “confusion” of the revelries of the adults on the city streets, the Convent of the Minori Osservanti would host events for approximately 700 boys from the ages of 8 to 15, including church services before the children were given bread and fruit.
The event for the boys proceeded without incident on February 10. The following day, however, mass ended an hour later than usual which happened to coincide with the conclusion of celebratory events associated with Carnival. Some passersby, including children and adults, who were aware of the custom of boys receiving bread and fruit crept into the vestry in hopes of receiving free food as well.
The surge of people eager for food pressed against the children at the front of the line who had queued at the top of a set of stairs (pictured), waiting to be let out. (As was customary for the event, the doors exiting the convent had been locked until everyone received a portion of food, to prevent the boys from re-entering to claim a second portion). Adding to the chaos, the corridor where the boys had lined up was darkened after a lamp, which normally illuminated the hall, had been put out. It is suspected the light had been accidentally extinguished by the children as they played.
Eventually, the children at the front of the line began to topple down the stairs, becoming trapped by more children falling on top of them. Cries and screams coming from the corridor alerted others to the disaster and the doors were opened to try to save the children. By the time rescue arrived, 110 children had been trampled to death or suffocated, with the bodies stacked as high as 2 feet (60 cm), according to Malta’s Lieutenant Governor.
The Lieutenant Governor concluded the deaths were the result of an accident from a series of errors, rather than any malicious intent. He also noted the tragedy could have been compounded if not for the fast action of the soldiers and citizens who had heard the cries of the children from within the convent.
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