Sunday, May 6, 2012

With the Fury of Ten Thousand Demons

Originally built in 1863 as three rooms, a porch and a detached kitchen at the southwest corner of S. Jackson and W. Chippewa, the entrance to A.E. Moreton house originally faced north. The young lad in the above penny post card from roughly 100 years ago is standing in front of the original front porch. 

Brookhaven, Miss. -- April 22, 1883, started out as just another quiet Sunday in the Heart of Dixie.

On the edge of downtown Brookhaven, Mr. and Mrs. A.E. Moreton and their young daughter Fannie found themselves sitting on the front porch of their home that overcast and windy afternoon.

Soon A.E. and Laura Moreton turned their collective attention away from the playful antics of their 6-year-old, and directed it toward the sky, which was gathering a foreboding darkness to the north.

Even little Fannie sensed something was terribly awry. "It was almost like night," Fannie would tell her nephew, William F. Crawford, years later.

The Moretons knew the weather was bad somewhere toward Copiah County, but it wasn't until the next day that they learned that scores of people had been killed and injured by a massive cyclone that all but blew Beauregard off the map and did considerable damage to the mill town of Wesson as well, only 10 miles away from where they sat.

The Great Cyclone, as it is now known, went down state history as being one of the most destructive to ever tear through the state.  With an initial track a quarter mile wide and more than 30 miles long, the system continued its deadly and destructive path through north Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.  An estimated 100 people were killed in Mississippi alone.

Witnesses described the tornado, which first touched down at 3 p.m., as being a massive column of black smoke "filled with fire" and tossing trees and other debris high into the air above.

Brookhaven newspaper man B.T. Hobbs wrote ongoing accounts of the disaster in his weekly paper, including a truly unbelievable account of a West Lincoln man who days later showed up in Brookhaven and reported that he had been swept from his home, carried past Beauregard and Wesson and "sloshed down into the middle of Pearl River at Rockport," a distance of roughly 35 miles as the crow flies.

The man said that he swam the Pearl more than 20 winding miles to Monticello, and he next "crawled" some 26 miles to Brookhaven, where he sought assistance from the Red Cross.

He was believed by the upstanding citizens of Brookhaven and received a princely sum of $100 for his ordeal and his eye-brow-raising tale.
Hobbs, the owner and editor of the Brookhaven Leader, understood the old newspaper adage that names make news, and he went to great lengths to mention as many of the killed and wounded as he could, in addition to those who stepped up to help their fellow citizens in their time of need.

There are Cases and Smiths and plenty of other names that natives of Lincoln and Copiah counties may recognize, including Applewhite, Arrington, Britt, East, Moody, Parker, Turnbough and Whitworth. (Cursor over Hobbs if you wish to read the link.)
A remarkably descriptive account from an Iowa newspaper is contained in this link, which details the weather system that went on to inflict damage on Meridian, Starkville, and parts of Alabama and Georgia.

Here is but a small sampling of that report:

"At Wesson the storm's approach was marked by deep rumbling sounds, rattling windows and quivering earth.  Thunder roared, and the lightning flashed with dreadful force and dazzling vividness.  Then, with the fury of ten thousand demons, the gale burst upon the town.

"Fences were torn to pieces and sent whirling through the air; trees that had stood the fiercest storms for ages were uprooted and hurled hundreds of yards.

"Houses were demolished, and the pine forest encircling the town was blown out of existence. As soon as the wind's violence had somewhat abated, and the citizens had begun to look about, the church bells rang out in loud peals, the signals of distress and death.  Men ran from all directions toward West Wesson, though the rain was pouring down in drenching torrents."

The account goes on to say that a deluge following the cyclone turned ditches and gutters into raging rivers and reported that some people feared that they would drown.  Soon the dark of night replaced the dark of the storm and it was not until the following dawn that the actual measure of the destruction become evident.  It's a remarkable read for those interested.
Yet another link contains an alphabetical listing of those killed, mortally wounded, or otherwise suffering notable injuries that spring day, which forever changed the fate of several Copiah towns and countless inhabitants.

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