Our world of news and information prides itself on quick response. Television crews report live via satellite from faraway places. Newspapers and computer services file by high-speed wire, and book companies flood stores with quickie paperbacks within days of a headline-grabbing event.
In 1896, the most reliable form of long-distance communication was the telegraph. St. Louis had had a telephone exchange since 1878 and was connected to Kansas City and New York City by long-distance telephone in 1896, the year of the Great Cyclone. Still, almost all city-to-city communication went via telegraph, a system that had become increasingly speedy and sophisticated in volume and delivery. The telegraph made it easy for city newspapers to print same-day news bulletins from across the country, sometimes even from places around the world. If the news was big enough, newspapers rushed onto the streets with "extras," and people rushed to buy them.
The Cyclone Publishing Company obtained the book's copyright in Washington D.C. on June 5, 1896, only nine days after the tornado churned like a turbine through the two cities, killing 137 people in St. Louis and 118 in East St. Louis. The "Publishers' Notice" in the first printing of the book is dated June 10, 1896. And although the first date of sale is not available, there is enough evidence in the text itself to show that the compilers were in a hurry.
The subject was worth the effort. The tornado that struck shortly after 5 P.M. on Wednesday, May 27,1896, remains the single deadliest incident to befall the St. Louis area. Cholera epidemics killed many more people in the years before the Civil War, and the withering heat wave of 1936 accounted for 421 deaths. But those plagues recorded their tolls over time; the tornado did its damage in about twenty minutes. It blasted a ten-mile-long path through the Near South Side of St. Louis, roughly along the path of Interstate 44, across the Mississippi River at the downtown levee, and into the railyards and commercial districts of East St. Louis. It destroyed 311 buildings, heavily damaged 7,200 others, and significantly harmed 1,300 more. The loss, including destruction of riverboats, was estimated at $10 million to $12 million. (Because the federal Consumer Price Index had not yet been developed, there is no sure way to put that loss into contemporary terms. But to estimate, consider that in 1896, a tidy, two-story brick home in a good neighborhood could be bought for $1,500.)
Another motivation for the publishers of The Great Cyclone was that St. Louis considered itself worthy of the notice. The city was fast becoming the nation's fourth largest, behind only New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. From 1890 to 1900, a decade held back by prolonged depression, the city grew from 451,770 residents to 575,238, a 27 percent increase. Thousands of home bookshelves included a book called St. Louis, the Future Great City of the World. Union Station, monument to the city's place as the nation's second busiest railyard, had opened in 1894. City Hall was not finished, but was open for business. Civic leaders had begun talking about what would become the city's most shining moment, its Louisiana Exposition, or St. Louis World's Fair, in 1904.
In 1896, most of the city's residents lived within three miles of the downtown river landing. The elite had left the Lafayette Park neighborhood southwest of downtown for the new tony address, Vandeventer Place, just north of St. Louis University in what is now Midtown, three miles west of the Mississippi River. The poor lived in small houses and tenements jammed around the edges of downtown and the industries along the river and railroads. Tidy middle-class districts were spreading past Grand Boulevard. Almost everything was built of the city's trademark ruddy-red brick.
The storm struck after three weeks of violent storms that swept across the country from Nebraska and Texas to New Jersey. For most of April and May, temperatures and humidity were well above normal. On the morning of May 27, the newspapers reported that terrible thunderstorms the day before had flattened crops in Missouri's Bootheel and swamped a ferryboat at Cairo, Illinois, drowning eleven. They also printed the daily forecast, "Partly cloudy weather continues, favorable for local thunderstorms."
The tornado that became known to St. Louisans as the Great Cyclone was the deadliest of a series of tornadoes that struck from central Missouri into southern Illinois on May 27. All told, 306 people died, according to the official account of the Weather Bureau office in St. Louis. The total included six killed in Audrain County, Missouri, about one hundred miles west of St. Louis, and thirteen more in New Baden, Illinois, thirty miles to the southeast. In St. Louis County, one child died when a tornado struck a farmhouse south of Clayton.
News accounts of the time and this book refer to the tornado as a "cyclone." Actually, a cyclone is any cyclonic wind movement, while a tornado is specifically a fast-twisting funnel cloud that can cause great damage. Thus, not all cyclones are tornadoes.
The tornado described herein touched down near the current site of the St. Louis State Hospital on Arsenal Street in southwest St. Louis, the highest point in the city. In 1896, the city's poorhouse, women's hospital, old folks' infirmary and insane asylum were located on that ridge. The city limit was further west near the River Des Peres, but this cluster of hospitals was on the outer edge of urban growth. The storm tore away roofs and porches and knocked out a few walls, but only eight people in this area were hurt.
That luck ran out fast. After striking in the southwest, the tornado then raced across Shaw's Garden (the Missouri Botanical Garden today) and struck just south of Tower Grove and Vandeventer Avenues, where the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, then a St. Louis-based business, was erecting a fifteen-building complex. Ironworkers were still high atop the four stories of girders when the tornado hit, and many were buried as steel and stout wooden supports collapsed.
The tornado then headed uphill toward Compton Heights, a district of prosperous families and nouveau riche not allowed into Vandeventer Place. Here, most every house at least lost some roof. Some neighborhoods, especially east toward Jefferson Avenue, were shattered. Whole blocks of homes lost their second floors, and rows of apartment buildings resembled honeycombs.
Reaching Jefferson Avenue, the storm crashed into what had become a busy gateway to the city's growing South Side. The bustle may have chased many of the rich westward, but the neighborhood around Lafayette Park was still upscale, and the park was still the city's pride. Prosperous clubs and businesses lined Jefferson, south of Chouteau Avenue. Two of the city's cable car systems, which moved cars along underground cables fed by giant steam-powered spools, had their power plants and shops there.
Much of this area was laid waste. The car companies were crippled, all but a few of the park's tall trees were snapped at their trunks, churches along the park were destroyed, and City Hospital, just east of the park, suffered heavy damage. Surprisingly, even though four hundred patients were housed there, only one was killed outright. Two others died a few hours later, including Franscesca Rodriguez who was reported to have died of "fright in the night."
But the worst carnage was further to the east, on the downslope of what has become known as the Soulard neighborhood, just south of downtown. Middle-class families lived on the ridgetop along Twelfth Street, income levels generally descending with the slope toward the riverfront industries. The corner of Seventh and Rutger streets, now a dingy parking area beneath the Interstate 55 viaduct south of downtown, was the deadliest spot-the "vortex," as the newspapers called it then. There, fourteen people died as the three-story Mauchenheimer tenement collapsed into a low, jagged pile of brick, timbers, and powdered plaster. Among the victims were Fred and Kate Mauchenheimer, who ran a busy tavern on the ground floor, and seven-year-old Ida Howell, who died in the arms of her mother, Alice, next to her father, a laborer named John. The discovery of the little girl's body the day after the storm was described with much sympathy in the newspapers.
The tornado knocked away part of the Eads approach in Illinois and blasted through the railyards and Warehouses, which lined the East St. Louis landing and fed the still-busy Wiggins Ferry Company, a local monopoly. The tornado blew apart three locomotive roundhouses, the main riverfront elevator, and four freight stations, including the depot of the old St. Louis, Vandalia & Terre Haute Railroad. There, fifteen of the thirty-five depot workers were killed. Railroad hotels were also shattered. Beneath the ruins of one, the Martell House, a domestic worker named Mary Mock survived for two days and was rescued by diggers.
People who know St. Louis will recognize most of the locations and addresses noted in The Great Cyclone, but one is worthy of explanation here. The book, and the newspapers in those days, described the scene of the worst damage in East St. Louis as "the island." There was no effort to describe that name, just as news accounts today might mention St. Louis Central West End without elaboration. The old island district is now the largely empty bottomland between the Illinois shore and the interstate highway as it curves past downtown East St. Louis. When a wide channel of the Mississippi ran along the path of the interstate before the Civil War, the land in between the two channels was known as "Bloody Island." There, St. Louisans such as Thomas Hart Benton settled grudges with duels. The Illinois channel silted in, but the name stuck into the twentieth century.
The "Publishers' Notice" of The Great Cyclone explains that its text was drawn almost exclusively from daily copies of the city's major newspapers, most notably the old St. Louis Republic. (The book's compilers are not identified, but their glowing praise of the "superb descriptive composition" in the Republic provides a good guess about where most of them worked.) Readers of the microfilm copies of the Republic, the old Globe-Democrat, the Post-Dispatch, and other St. Louis newspapers of the time will recognize almost all of the people and stories described in the book.
The photographs were not from the newspapers. During the time of the tornado, newspapers still printed engravings of drawings made by staff artists or artists hired for special assignments. Highquality artistry was of great value to newspapers in those days, and many of the scenes shown by the photographs in this book were faithfully rendered in newspaper drawings the day after the storm.
Although newspaper printshops were not yet ready to reproduce photographs in 1896, the photography of the day was of high quality-as long as the subjects stayed put. Beginning on the morning after the storm, photographers from studios in St. Louis, Chicago, and other cities swarmed through the wrecked neighborhoods. Several studios published "quickie" books of their own, most of them paperback booklets filled with clear photographs and texts of sometimes dubious accuracy. At least one version was printed in German, a language still much in use at the time within St. Louis's vibrant German immigrant circles. Newspaper accounts and photographs came together in The Great Cyclone.
The book's format may prove confusing. Short tales of individual incidents are scattered throughout the book, often without a flow of chronology or geography. A haste to publication may account for much of the disorganization, but that was also the way newspapers of the day provided their stories. Front pages of multi-decked screaming headlines would be followed by inside pages with stories arranged in no particular order of importance. One reason was the time-consuming and cumbersome nature of typesetting. Another was simply the confusion of newsgathering in a crippled cityreporters who could not use the crosstown telegraph or streetcars had to walk back to the office, where page nine may have been the only place left for an otherwise front-page story.
The writing style was also true to its age. The book's overview chapter, titled "The Great Cyclone," goes on at length about the "Storm King" and the "Fire King." There are numerous references throughout the book to lightning and funnel clouds as "fiends," and to the land as "terra firma." On page 105, the writers say of the wreckage at the poorhouse: "The situation was sufficiently horrible to unman the hardiest." The newspapers of the day read like that, too.
The book also includes a few inconsistences that hasty compilation is prone to produce. For example, Francisca Rodriguez, the woman who died of fright at City Hospital, is identified as Francisco on page 97; six pages later, her first name is printed correctly. The book includes conflicting reports on the death toll at the Mauchenheimer house, as did the daily press in the days after the tornado.
Sadly, little information is readily available about the people who put the original book together. Business records no longer exist on Cyclone Publishing Company, which obtained the copyright. Nor is there ready information about Julian Curzon, the author and compiler who is described herein as "one of the most brilliant and popular magazine writers of the day."
But the volume is of great value as a journey along the tornado's path and as a glimpse into how the people of St. Louis in 1896 saw themselves and their city. It describes what people saw on the day of the storm and the few days afterward. It identifies many of the dead by name and describes how they died. It quotes from people who survived. It identifies businesses and homes by their addresses, helping readers a hundred years later to understand the cultural geography of St. Louis in 1896. The Great Cyclone is a thorough work of reporting from brick-strewn streets.
My thanks to the staffs of the St. Louis Main Library, the Missouri Historical Society, and the Mercantile Library in downtown St. Louis for their help in preparing both this foreword and an article on the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Cyclone for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. My thanks also to Bob Broeg, sports editor emeritus of the Post-Dispatch, who was lucky enough to own an old copy of the book and kind enough to let me borrow it.
--- Tim O'Neil