Southern Illinois was one of the first areas of the United States to
benefit from the American Red Cross disaster relief. Tradgedy befell Mt. Vernon,
Illinois, in the late afternoon of February 19, 1888, when a disastrous tornado cut
a path a half mile wide through the very heart of the little city. Thirty-seven
persons were killed outright or later died from their injuries. Four hundred
and fifty homes and public buildings were completely destroyed. Darkness
descended upon a scene of tradgedy and desolation. Men searched throughout
the night for the dead and dying.
When morning came a meeting of citizens was held to organize relief.
News of the disaster was sent to the American Red Cross. Miss Clara Barton,
its founder and first president, had just returned to Washington from the International
Conference at Karlsruhe. She came immediatly to Mt. Vernon and met with
the local committee. After the situation had been presented to her, she
was taken to a railroad station where she, herself, transmitted by the
use of the Morse Code on a telegraph instrument, messages to the United
Press, Associated Press, and to all Red Cross Societies, asking for aid.
A letter dated March 7, 1888, from Miss Barton to Col. Robert G. Ingersoll,
of New York ( a former citizen of Mt. Vernon) relates: "This beautiful little
city has passed through a terrible ordeal. Death and destruction have swept over
it and it lies in wreck and ruin." Col. Ingersoll sent $50.00 towards the
relief of the tornado victims.
Scene near the Court House on Feb. 19,1888
following the tornado that hit Mt. Vernon.
Since the Appellate Court was not in the direct path of
the storm, it was converted into a hospital and morgue. The Presbyterian
Church (across the street to the south of the Appellate Court) was made
a depot of supplies. Dr. Walter Watson was in charge of the hospital, which
was maintained and operated for sixty days. Clara Barton personally took
charge of the Red Cross relief which amounted to about $150,000 worth of
Old Presbyterian Church on Broadway was used as
emergency warehouse after the tornado.
Nashville, Illinois was the first town to respond to the
call for help. It sent men and fire fighting equipment, which quickly brought
the flames under control. Evansville, Indiana, sent a special train with
twenty-nine physicians, who worked with our doctors in setting up the Appellate
Court Hospital. Centralia also responded with fire fighting equipment manned
by thirty-nine men with four doctors assisting the doctors already there.
The rebuilding of the devastated area began as soon as
possible. Food, clothing, money, and everything that was lacking were soon
forthcoming, and the pressing needs were relieved.
Source: History Of Jefferson County Illinois 1810-1962
Compiled By: Continental Historical Bureau Mt. Vernon, Illinois
Copyright © 1962
Pages H-39 - H-42
HORROR IN MT. VERNON
(Taken from an article in the Mt. Vernon Register-News
written by Addison Hapeman.)
Mt. Vernon has now had other tornadoes and the big
blow of February 19, 1888, is no longer the epitome of catastrophe. But
to those who lived through that twister of so many years ago, the blast
of wind that ripped through the town on a Sunday evening was always THE
That particular February day had been warm and muggy.
"Hits a weather breeder," the oldtimers said. "Iffen it wasn't still winter
it'd be cyclone weather. Hit'll likely bring a blizzard afore it's through."
Later events proved them correct on both counts.
On that Sunday afternoon Jim Thitsell and one of
his friends, a Negro boy named Alec Lane, were sitting in the house of
Matt Rough, with Matt and his wife. Both boys were about eleven years old,
and they were school mates at the big Franklin School. Jim had a spelling
book and was giving out words for the other bou to spell. They had been
amusing themselves with a two-boy spelling bee for some time.
This house of Matt's stood on one of the first hills
on the east side of Casey Creek, northeast of town. To the north of the
house was an old orchard, somewhat grown up to persimmon sprouts. South
of the house were some other buildings, and a small "cave" or cellar, used
for storing apples and potatoes.
It had rained enough the day before that Casey Creek
was in flood, the water reaching from hill to hill. This flood was the
reason for Jim and Alec being on their own side of the creek. Had it not
been for the high water, they would have spent the day with the Williams
boys and their other cronies in town; as it was, they had spent part of
the morning exchanging shouted comments across the flooded creek bottom.
In the middle of the spelling match the peolpe sitting
in the house became aware of an odd sound. It was something like the sound
of a high wind blowing through the big woods, but it was much louder and
was higher pitched. Startled, they looked out, and at the base of a rolling
black cloud, they saw "the whole town coming right at them."
"Cyclon!" yelled Matt. " You boys get out and grab
a sprout. Come on, old woman." "Matthew," cried his wife in a shocked voice.
" Matthew, you going to run off and leave me?" Out of the yard came the
shouted answer: " If you don't hurry, I sure as hell am."
Mrs. Rough ran out to the root cellar and slid inside.
Matt, who was a big man, started down head first. Part way down, his shoulders
wedged in the narrow opening, and there he and Alec had dashed out through
the sloppy mud of the orchard, where they dropped flat on the ground and
each grabbed a persimmon sprout in both hands.
Almost instantly the tornado struck them. They were
flapped up and down like a women snaps a dish towel. Mud and assorted debris
clogged their noses and peppered their faces. Water struck them with the
force of a fiew house, and all the time they were being whipped up and
down against the soggy earth.
By the time the boys realized what was happening,
the twister had moved on, leaving only the torrents of rain. This continued
for some time, and then it, too, abated. The boys were able to struggle
to their feet. Jim still had the spelling book clamped under his arm.
Through the diminishing rain he looked toward the
town. It presented a strange aspect. His school, on the extreme edge of
town, had always been most noticeable. Now it was nowhere to be seen; the
courthouse was gon, and he apparently could see right through the town.
Closer at hand was another strange sight. The muddy
flood waters of the creek now carried almost everything one could imagine
in the way of human possessions: furniture, mattresses, feather beds, clothing,
books, buggies, wagons and dead animals. Fence rails and tree tops helped
to cover the surface of the water.
They all got to the stricken town as soon as they
could get a way across the flooded bottom. When they arrived in town, scenes
of horror unfolded before them. People were wandering dazedly in the streets,
calling for the rest of their family. Their cries mingled with the screams
of the wounded in the wreckage.
Fires were breaking out all ober town from the overturned
stoves in the wrecked houses, and the fireman could do little about it.
The wells and cisterns were soon pumped dry, and then the flames had their
Crews Store ( present Mammoth site ) was one of
the buildings upper legs, was a man named Murray. When he was discovered,
the heat was already so intense that rescuers could not reach him, and
he begged piteously for some oone to shoot him and so save him from the
fire. This no one would do, and he burned to death.
The next few days were busy ones, even for the boys.
Every one worked at cleaning up the rubble. Three days after the storm
some one was digging in the pile of debris that marked the site of the
Franklin School and discovered a body there. It was that of George Person,
a Negro preacher who served as janitor.
Jim Whitsell was hired as a gaurd for the Wise Clothing
Store's stock, which was exposed to looters. This paid him fifty cents
a day, but the job didn't last long. In about a week school was opened
Neighborliness reached into every part of frontier
life. A house or barn raising, beating off an Indian attack, a husking
bee, a log rolling; it was all the same. The neighbors came in and the
job was done.
And so it was when the tornadoes hit Mt. Vernon
in the season when one could more reasonably expect snow and reindeer.
To the farmers who loaded up chainswas and axed and started aout before
dawn on their long drive, Mt. Vernon was just a name on the road map. To
the Plain People, the Mennonites and the Amish, it was a call to obey the
precept " Love thy neighbor." To both of them it was the instinctive reply
of any farmer to the call -- " Your neighbor needs help."
While these men were cleaning up the tangle of Mt.
Vernon, the people of rural Jefferson County were taking care of their
own. Several miles out of town, one of the twisters that seemed to infest
that day had slammed across the Richview Road. As it hovered over the farmstead
of Alfred Koy, it picked the barn off the cows and left them in the rain.
It shredded the other outbuildings, laid the house open like a cut watermelon,
and twisted it off the foundation. Then it knocked down a few of the yard
trees and went churning on.
Within minutes the neighbors were there. The part
of the roof that remained was picked like a poorly scalded chicken, but
the furniture was moved into the driest looking part, and the family was
sheltered elsewhere for the night.
The next day the yard was full of helpers. All of
the household goods was moved to a vacant house which had been lightly
touched by the wind. The floor coverings were put down, the furniture and
stoves moved in, and the roof patched. The work was finished in the rain,
the first of four inches that fell in the next few days.
Nine days later the neighbors moved in again. This
time it was a clean-up job, the first step in rebuilding. Some forty to
fifty men spent the day picking up rubbish, dismantling sections of buildings
that were strewn about, and salvaging such parts of the house as were reusable.
Four chair saws converted the fallen shade trees into firewood.
After dinner, some of the men went to the farm woodlot
to cut logs to be hauled to a local sawmill. There they would be sawed
into material for a new house. And it is ironic; the storm which
destroyed the old house helped these neighbors by blowing down some of
the trees which went into the new.
The story of AL Koy is only one of many across the
county and the state. It is a perfect example of the heritage left us by
the pioneers. And it is very comforting to know that even now when disaster
strikes, a neighbor will soon be there.
Submitted By: Cindy Ford
See Newspaper Articles About the 1888 Tornado