Jefferson County

Source: Jefferson County Facts & Folks
By: Jefferson County Historical Society
© 1978
Pages 24 - 25
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 supplies.

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


(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 tornado.
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 own way.
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 again.
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
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