Monday, September 1, 2014

Spurning Disaster Aid

Why did so many 1913 tornado and flood victims refuse disaster relief—even when their homes and livelihoods were utterly destroyed? And what moved one hard-hit city's leaders even to downplay the devastating flood as a water carnival”?

Several days after the violent Easter tornado had roared through downtown Omaha, Nebraska, on Sunday, March 23, 1913 (see “’My Conception of Hell’”), relief workers checking ruined houses in the city’s West Center Street district were appalled to stumble on a heart-rending discovery. In a rain-soaked bed, they found a sick mother 
Booklet issued by The Omaha Bee documents the half-mile-wide swath of destruction through Omaha, Nebraska, Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913, instantly destroying the homes of thousands of residents. More images of the devastation left by what is still Nebraska's deadliest tornado are here.
cradling her infant daughter who was ill with tonsillitis, while her husband—clad in only an undershirt—huddled in the basement. Despite the family’s acute need, the relief workers reported in the March 28 Omaha Evening World-Herald that they “had to actually pull the mother into a carriage and bring her to [the disaster relief center] in the Auditorium.” There the ill young woman selected just one change of clothing for her baby, her husband, and herself before seeking to escape back to the ruins. 

After horrific natural disaster had destroyed home and possessions, killed or maimed breadwinner or children, and swept away one’s savings and means of livelihood, why would men and women refuse disaster relief, to the point of hiding from aid workers and resisting their ministrations when found? Indeed, why were such cases sufficiently common that newspapers across the tornado-devastated and flood-stricken region from Nebraska to Ohio ran articles encouraging disaster victims to make their need known?

And if contaminated floodwaters had inundated seven-eighths of a city’s businesses and homes up to eight feet deep for more than a week, as happened in Paducah, Kentucky (see clipping at right), why would a mayor and other city leaders not only refuse all outside aid, but also publicly boast that they had refused it—and also be publicly praised for refusing it? Indeed, why would a real estate agent scoff at residents' ruin by calling the horrific flood a "water carnival"?

First aid—federal, state, and private
In late March and early April 1913, after 19 violent tornadoes and widespread record flooding devastated parts of 15 states and killed over 1,000 people (see “Like a War Zone” and “’Death Rode Ruthless…’”), disaster relief was rushed to afflicted areas in spontaneous outpourings of sympathy.
At the federal level, newly inaugurated President Woodrow Wilson issued the following nationwide appeal for money and supplies to be sent to the Red Cross, which was widely printed on the front pages of newspapers across the land: 
Appeal for contributions of goods and money from all U.S. citizens issued by President Woodrow Wilson was printed in various forms in newspapers across the nation. His appeal is the first that calls the natural disaster a "national calamity," words later adapted for the title of an instant book published weeks later, and also for the title of this research blog.

Backing words with action, President Wilson sent Secretary of War Lindley M. Garrison to Columbus and Dayton—two of the largest Ohio cities hard-hit by the flood—in charge of sanitation and medical relief. The U.S. Navy sent several steamships down the Ohio River, including a complete field hospital, to minister to the injured. Temporary military headquarters were set up at Louisville and Paducah, Kentucky, both cities being strategic ports and railroad crossroads. Separately, to relieve tornado victims, the Army sent personnel and supplies to Lower Peach Tree, Alabama (see “The First Punch”), and Omaha, Nebraska.

Nebraska legislators voted to extend aid to Omaha
in just one of many examples of state response.
At the state level, the governors of Ohio, Indiana, and Nebraska mobilized the state National Guard, declared martial law as needed in the hardest-hit areas, and took temporary charge of the railroads and telephone lines so as to direct the deployment of relief supplies.
At the private level, the 1913 tornadoes and flooding represented the first widespread major disaster offered assistance by two fledgling service organizations: Rotary and the Boy Scouts of America (both to be the subjects of future installments to this research blog). Meantime, many individual newspapers set up relief funds to collect moneys to be forwarded to the Red Cross. By April 1, eight days after the Easter tornadoes, the Red Cross had received $800,000 in cash (equivalent to about $17.5 million today) and for the next four or five days its relief fund continued to grow at about $100,000 per day. Moreover, expressions of sympathy and offers of aid poured in to Dayton, Omaha, and elsewhere from mayors of other cities, governors of other states, and even leaders of other nations.

Aid rebuffed
To twenty-first century ears, some responses to this spontaneous outpouring of sympathetic generosity may sound baffling if not downright bizarre. As reported in The American Red Cross Magazine for July 1913, the governor of Indiana declared: “The citizens of Indianapolis, with a proper pride, at once decided to take care of their own flood sufferers.” Similarly, the State of Illinois indicated that through its Adjutant General of the National Guard, it was providing emergency relief in an ample way, and that nothing would be needed from the Red Cross. When the steamer J. R. Ware, laden with Federal officials and supplies, handed at Ashland, Kentucky, and offered assistance, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported: “Mayor A.H. Moore declined the offer and told them that Ashland was able to take care of her people with ease.”
Even before the flood crest and aid made it west to Paducah, Kentucky, a front-page headline of that city’s News-Democrat preemptively announced on April 1: “Paducah Will Finance and Control Its Own Measures of Relief; No Necessity for Outside Aid is Felt.” Similar refusals were expressed by the Kentucky towns of Brookport, Carrollton, and Sturgis, even though water was standing several feet deep in houses and driving families from their homes, some of whom sought temporary refuge on or under bridges.

It wasn’t that cities that escaped severe damage refused aid so as not to take supplies more urgently needed elsewhere. On the contrary, refusals were expressed by some cities hardest hit by flooding, including Cincinnati, Ohio, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Even in Omaha, devastated by a tornado that still ranks as Nebraska’s single deadliest twister, the Evening World-Herald reported that the Omaha Commercial Club—which was alarmed by exaggerated newspaper reports around the country that claimed the city had been destroyed—issued a formal statement to the Associated Press that said
in part that Omaha “is able to care for all immediate relief work.” The article (see its headlines at right) noted that at that meeting, “Praise of the independence and heroism of residents of the stricken district was frequent and the oft expressed opinion was that charity was not needed, save in few cases. The great need, it was said, was for an immediately [sic] although probably temporary credit.”

Even when aid was accepted, some cities made a point of returning at least part of the money to the donor, although their residents were still in dire need. For example, in Dayton, Ohio—the veritable Katrina/Rita-scale devastated New Orleans of 1913—the Dayton Rotary Club, after having received $4,403.50 from Rotary Clubs spanning the nation from California to New York, in March 1914 returned $478.50 of funds not disbursed (a modern equivalent of about $10,000) to the Rotary General Fund. Similarly, by mid-April Paducah sold the government rations left in the city and remitted the proceeds back to the Federal government, even though as late as May 4 many Paducah citizens still could not yet return to their ruined homes.

Moreover, just as towns returned part of aid they had accepted, so did individuals. One Red Cross account reported how a Roxbury, Ohio, housewife who was drying flood-soaked mattresses “declined a new mattress with the explanation that so much had been done for them that she did not want to request anything further.” Another reported how an elderly mechanic spent only half the rehabilitation payment to which he was entitled to replace tools swept away by the flood, and returned the other half to the Red Cross.

Fear of charity
What was that “proper pride” that deterred both communities and individual disaster victims—even those seriously ill from exposure—from accepting disaster relief? It appears to have been due to prevailing Northern cultural norms regarding pauperism, and a widespread suspicion that accepting disaster relief was tantamount to accepting alms.
In The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850–1920, historian Daniel T. Rodgers demonstrates that the Protestant work ethic was unique to the American North because its roots originated in the Puritan tradition that “work was the core of the moral life.” Throughout the nineteenth century, the work ethic became freighted with the conviction that individuals also controlled their future and destiny. “In this free country no man endowed with average abilities need remain all his life poor. ... If he has thrift, self-restraint, and perseverance, he will pass from the ranks of labor to the ranks of capital,” Rodgers quoted one 1886 Atlantic Monthly writer. Through popular literature and sermons throughout the nineteenth century, Rodgers noted, the U.S. North became imbued with a “certainty that hard work would bring economic success”—a cultural conviction of determinism that prevailed well into the twentieth century.

Moreover, according to the Calvinist teaching of unconditional election, “prosperity could indicate God’s favor and the blessed state of an individual's soul,” observed historian Annette Atkins in Harvest of Grief, an eloquent examination of responses to public assistance during the devastating grasshopper plagues of the 1870s.

These convictions, however, had an insidious aspect: their converse was also widely accepted as certain. Rodgers noted that Abraham Lincoln himself wrote: “If any continue through life in the condition of a hired laborer; it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, or folly, or singular misfortune.” Yet, as Atkins demonstrated, farming and other high-risk professions “did not bring unparalleled rewards. ...Any American could identify dozens of people who worked hard but went unrewarded.” She continues:

Instead of accepting the evidence that work did not guarantee success, Americans looked at those without money and decided that since they lacked money they must not have been successful. And if they were not successful they must not have worked hard enough. ... As Americans came to measure worth by money, they measured lack of worth by lack of money... Because a slim wallet indicated a short supply of American virtues, the poor, whether immigrant or native born, stood accused of possessing a weakened moral fiber.
In other words, nineteenth-century attitudes held the needy responsible for their condition.

In addition, the late nineteenth century was the era of the “scientific charity” movement, which during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era strongly influenced how Americans regarded and responded to poverty. One view, widely espoused by Oscar C. McCulloch, minister of the Plymouth Congregational Church in the Indianapolis who gained national prominence in the 1870s, held that the chronically poor—which he branded with the term “paupers”—were “degraded forms of life,” that is, “social parasites” in whom “the instinct of self-help has disappeared.” According to historian Brent Ruswick, because paupers were regarded as biological degenerates beyond hope of reformation, McCulloch held that charitable relief to them should be restricted rather than increased, because public aid only made them even more dependent by rewarding them for their biologically determined laziness. Paupers were the “unworthy poor” who supposedly preferred to live off charitable relief that they obtained through deception.

Through McCulloch's writings, noted Ruswick, “the term ‘pauper’ went from being defined as a nuisance to a menace.” In more than 100 American cities between 1877 and the 1890s, scientific charity reformers established Charity Organization Societies to act as administrative clearinghouses for screening applicants for aid, specifically to separate the morally worthy poor from the morally unworthy pauper.

Charity could encourage pauperism, according to one preacher
in Henderson, KY six weeks before the flood--illustrating
that McCulloch's older views about relief persisted in 1913
By the end of the nineteenth century McCulloch reversed his convictions, and after 1900 the scientific charity movement turned away from punishing paupers to recognizing factors such as mental illness and providing adequate relief for all poor. Nonetheless, earlier stigmatizing perceptions about paupers lingered in popular culture for decades to come (and indeed, still persist to this day).

Was disaster relief charity?
As revealed in 1913 newspaper and magazine articles about the victims of the Great Easter tornadoes and floods, views toward pauperism influenced perceptions of disaster relief—even though sufferers were rendered destitute by forces completely outside their control. Remarkably often, aid was offered with suspicion, and was also suspiciously accepted, revealing that donors and recipients alike were ambivalent as to whether disaster relief was constituted charity, and therefore whether its needy recipients had been instantly transformed into paupers. As explained by business professor R. L. Hines in The Survey in 1914,

A high-spirited man, though in distress, would rather suffer long than receive gifts. Free food and raiment dull the sense of independent thrift. Your relief measures are, therefore, an evil... When the clamor for help was greatest in one of our floods, a man whose spirit of charity was large, exclaimed that we should have a mission dollars to “do for these people what they need.“ “Yes,” said one of better judgment, “if you had resources enough you would change that population of industrious farmers into a race of professional beggars.”

Nowhere, perhaps, was the equating of disaster relief with charity and its recipients with paupers stronger than in Paducah, Kentucky. Before the flood crest of the Ohio River reached the city, the editor of The News-Democrat sounded a clarion call on April 1 in an editorial titled “Men and Mice:” “…[W]e must show the stuff in us. We must be men and not mice. …Talk of outside aid is foolish. We need no militia tents. We need no government rations. In no portion of the residence section [of] the city will the water be over four feet deep...”—itself an astounding standard for not needing aid, as four feet of floodwater invading a home would have enough mass to move a house from its foundations, and would leave every surface covered in muddy silt contaminated with animal waste.

Even after the Ohio River swelled much higher than expected and inundated seven-eighths of Paducah with water up to eight feet deep, even cutting off access to the refugee camp built on higher ground, the News-Democrat downplayed the severity of the disaster on April 16 by characterizing the flood as a “water carnival,” scoffing that
the city “has lost nothing save some wallpaper and the money paid for a few john-boats.” The nadir of Paducah’s sympathy for the thousands rendered suddenly destitute—most of them laborers and “negroes” whose homes lay on lower ground—was expressed by Sheriff George W. Houser, who let it be known on April 3 (see article above left) that idle men would be kept in the relief quarters. “They must work or get out of Paducah and McCracken county,” said Sheriff Houser. “Those whose homes are washed away and whose resources have been exhausted should not expect to idle away their time while being housed and fed by the city.”
Yet, three days later, under a subhead “Need Not be Ashamed,” a front page article in the same newspaper reported: “The relief and commissary committees will be glad to help all who are worthy. Those who are not need not apply. Every case is being investigated.” In short, Paducah’s thousands of flood sufferers were made to realize that others suddenly might view them differently as a result of their instant ruin.

That Paducah’s official act of refusing aid was regarded as mainstream in 1913 rather than as being callously uncompassionate is revealed by praise the city received. “Red Cross Scout Applauds the Way Paducah Handled Her Problem Without Aid,” declared a front page headline in The News-Democrat on April 16, with the subtitle “Captain Morris…Says the Whole World Should Know How Real Men Meet An Emergency” (see front page headlines below):

Four days later, after receiving itemized bills for the construction of the refugee camp and its feeding of up to 1,000 flood sufferers for about a week, The News-Democrat ran another front-page story whose headline announced, “Three Thousand Dollars for the City, Same for County is Flood Cost,” although many legitimate damages—mostly to residents' homes, businesses, and private property—were clearly excluded. In an accompanying editorial titled “It is to Laugh, to Applaud,” the editor concluded,

We can laugh at the pessimists, now. Their predicted fifty thousand dollars has dwindled some. But while we laugh at them, we are throwing our hats in the air and shouting our applause for the accomplishment.
Paducah’s view on refusing outside aid may have been mainstream, but it was not universal. Six hundred miles northwest in the heart of tornado-devastated Omaha, on March 27, the Evening World-Herald wrote an editorial bluntly criticizing the Omaha Commercial Club and its motives for refusing outside aid as “a sad mistake:”

But more important than local pride, dearer event than our credit ratings, are our suffering people. When their cries for help pierce the skies every other consideration becomes secondary to the duty of relief that shall be as prompt as it is generous. … To allow false pride or dwarfed imaginations or stunted sympathies to stand in the way of that relief, whether it come from outside the city or inside, would be little short of criminal folly. The World-Herald is not ashamed to sound the cry for help. It is thankful that it has the power to make that cry heard over wide spaces...

Beginning the day after the Easter tornado, invoking a verbal image for communicating the true spirit of pitching in for the benefit of all, the Evening World-Herald began running daily articles appealing for donations to its relief fund—beginning with its own seed of $1,000 (a hefty donation equivalent to about $22,000 today)—with the rallying cry: “The tow-line is out! Won't you grab hold and pull to help Omaha?”
In editorial cartoons that visually depicted that there but for the grace of God go any of us in the face of natural disaster and that emphasized tornado victims were no different from the lucky who escaped harm, Omaha's Evening World-Herald appealed to residents to help their neighbors.

By the next day, the Commercial Club had realized how badly it had miscalculated the severity of the damage and the human suffering, and reversed itself in a March 28 public statement:

In order that there may be no misunderstanding of the attitude of Omaha towards outside assistance in tornado relief work, we wish it to be understood that while Omaha is undertaking to handle the situation locally, a great many outside cash contributions have come in voluntarily. In every case these have been accepted and acknowledged with gratitude. There is no intention to decline money received. COMMERCIAL CLUB OF OMAHA.

Why such fear of charity?
How could a cultural norm against accepting charity be so powerful that a mother would lie in a ruined house on a rain-soaked bed and endanger the life of her baby, even to the point of physically resisting rescuing aid workers? Such refusals were not mere token resistance or hyperbole. Individual men and women were terrified that disaster relief equated to charity—and that charity symbolized a stigma far worse than physical destitution.
My long-lived mother at 90 in 1999
was a child of 4 in 1913. Living in
poverty in Ohio, she embodied
the pride of spurning charity.
A personal anecdote from my mother, which in my youth puzzled me whenever she told it, delivers insight. My mother, Arabella J. Bell—more than four decades older than I—was born in 1909 in Danville, Ohio, four years before the 1913 flood. Her mother Alice Beum Russell Newton and grandmother Arabella Beum took in lace curtains and fancy clothing to launder for the regional wealthy. Although in such poverty that my mother had literally one dress to wear to school, she fought back by scoring all A’s and fiercely ranking top of her class in every grade. “Whenever my sister Kate and I went out to play, Mama used to say to us, ‘Now, if a neighbor lady asks, “Would you like a cookie?” you may take it’,” my mother recounted. “’But if she asks, “Are you hungry?” you refuse that cookie no matter how hungry you are.’ We were dirt-poor, but we were raised with pride: we knew we may take a cookie that’s offered as a gift, but not one that’s offered as charity.”

For individuals, the very act of accepting aid—much less seeking it—put them at risk of being perceived as paupers: that is, of being branded as “biological degenerates” of “weakened moral fiber” who were “beyond redemption,” to use phrases of the day, under a very public spotlight. Newspaper entreaties with titles such as “Need Not be Ashamed,” or social workers quoted as saying “It is no disgrace to be in need at such a time,” clearly reveal that disaster victims felt profoundly ashamed and disgraced at their instant pennilessness and nakedness—regardless of cause beyond their power or control.

Worse, after the first urgent days of emergency relief when all were fed and sheltered, applying for longer-term disaster rehabilitation meant needing to come up before judgment exactly as one would for charity. The Red Cross and other charitable organizations explicitly stated they were screening exclusively for “worthy” character, and newspaper accounts (see example at left from the April 9 Paducah News-Democrat) reported that fully a quarter of applicants were being turned away as “undeserving” of aid. That label alone would brand applicants as paupers.

Diminishing the disaster
For businesses, the motives for refusing aid—or partially reimbursing accepted aid as though returning a loan—appears to have originated from a different motive: wanting to look fiscally strong rather than weak. Articles in many cities’ newspapers reveal that local boards of trade, commercial clubs, chambers of commerce, and other civic leaders feared that newspaper stories about damage to a city might turn away orders for manufactured products, dry up credit, depress property values, and allow competitor manufacturers in other cities an edge.

Thus, in the weeks following the tornadoes and flood, civic leaders in Louisville, Omaha, Dayton, and other cities devastated by the flood put amazing spin on a terrible situation to create enduring myth of fast recovery and even lack of harm.

On April 15, a front-page headline of The News-Democrat asserted that conditions in Paducah were “normal” (see above) and the next day an editorial scoffed that “Paducah was not injured any more than a smoothly-running machine is injured when it slows down for oiling” (see left). The likelihood of these claims that the Kentucky city was fine just two weeks after inundation may be judged against a Red Cross report published in The Survey on May 2, 1914, which noted that in Dayton “four months after the catastrophe...many houses [were] not yet...sufficiently dry to make it safe to repaper.”

Nor was it just Paducah. Dayton Rotary Club members, determined to project a prompt business-as-usual image, took out a 19-page special advertising section for Dayton businesses in the June 1913 issue of The Rotarian that urged Rotarians nationwide, “If what you want is not advertised, send your order anyway, because if anything is worth while making, it is MADE IN DAYTON.”  

In the following weeks and months, booster articles with such titles as “The Valley That Found Itself” were published in national magazines, coming just short of explicitly asserting that the flood was actually good for business and communities because it encouraged new, modern construction. And in Omaha, the World-Herald published a “Tornado Anniversary Section” on Sunday, March 22, 1914 (see left), that sought to equate triumph over disaster with patriotic grit. Titled “The Spirit of the Pioneer,” it began:

As the pioneers of the old days... battling... a hostile wilderness, built this city, so have Omaha men and women, crushed by an awful calamity, risen hopeful, undaunted out of the wreck and built anew their shops, their churches and their homes.

It is thus my hypothesis, which I am continuing to investigate, that these and other social and economic factors—which led to a deliberate downplaying of the 1913 storm system, violent tornadoes, and flood, and even some level of cover-up—precipitated a diminution in public perception of the true scale and severity of the natural disaster. That ultimately contributed to the forgetting of this national calamity over the following century.


Wow, this, like all of your research, is absolutely fascinating as well as heartbreaking.  What a difference 100 years made in the way people felt and believed in relation to modern day.  When disaster strikes in many shapes and forms today all you hear about is the looting and free for alls that go on that add more hurt to injury. When I brought up about the Flood of 1913 to a group of visitors who were attending one of my programs, you could have heard a pin drop.  I concluded by asking if anyone had any questions and that is when a young boy of about 4 years of age asked "what happened to all the fish"?  Even at that tender age he was definitely listening and genuinely concerned about something that most people would not have even given a second thought to. What may be consindered to some as an incidental in comparison to the "big picture" can be a genuine concern and extremely important to others.  Lesson to be learned and well taken. - Jan Coan, Interpretive Park Ranger, Canal Exploration Center, Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Next month: An Earth-Shaking Mystery

Selected references

Atkins, Annette, Harvest of Grief: Grasshopper Plagues and Public Assistance in Minnesota, 1873–78  (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984).

Bell, Trudy E., “The Great Flood of 1913,” The Rotarian 189 (9): 30–37, March 2011. (Issue of the magazine is available through Google books but there is no direct URL to the article, so scroll to page 30)

Foster, Gaines M., The Demands of Humanity: Army Medical Disaster Relief (Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1983); book is online.

Rodgers, Daniel T., The Work Ethic in Industrial America 1850–1920 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979).

Ruswick, Brent, Almost Worthy: The Poor, Paupers, and the Science of Charity in America, 1877–1917. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013)

Ruswick, Brent, “The Measure of Worthiness: The Rev. Oscar McCulloch and the Pauper Problem, 1877–1891,” Indiana Magazine of History (March 2008).

“Scouts Respond to Needs of Flood Sufferers.” Scouting 1 (April 15, 1913): 8. See also Owen Brown, “What Boy Scouts Did for Flood Sufferers,” Boys' Life, September 1913, 8–10.

Sing, Travis, Omaha's Easter Tornado of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2003.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.