Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Eloquence Beyond Words

The Great Easter 1913 national calamity inspired artists to depict fundamental truths in editorial cartoons more powerful and pithy than words or photographs

A picture is worth 1,000 words, estimates the cliché—and sometimes that is actually true. Immediately after the dozen or more violent Easter Sunday 1913 tornadoes ripped through the cities of Omaha, Council Bluffs, Terre Haute and 

"A Helping Hand," published in the March 31, 1913 issue of the Rochester Evening Times in upstate New York, expressed both sympathy and the means for others in the nation to aid the Easter 1913 flood victims
elsewhere in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, Indiana, and other states, followed by the Noachian flooding across a dozen other states, editorial cartoons about the natural disaster peppered newspapers nationwide for weeks—often on the center front page directly under the banner headline. 

These editorial cartoons often expressed some overarching fundamental truth that escaped the daily reporting (which was focused on the details of individual news stories breaking that day) or even photographs (which captured one specific tragic moment)—sometimes without using a single word. Here are 20 from 11 different newspapers.

One of the first cartoons to be published—not 24 hours after the devastating Omaha tornado—was “Our heartfelt sympathy, neighbor,” on the front page of the Monday, March 24 issue of the St. Joseph News-Press the very next day, 
depicting a man (not labeled, but doubtless representing St. Joseph, Missouri) comforting a weeping woman labeled Omaha. That sympathy was more like shaken empathy: about 8:30 PM Easter night, a bit over two hours after the Omaha tornado, another violent F4  twister 200 yards wide cut a swath of destruction 45 miles long through rural Missouri and Iowa, killing 2 and injuring 8, passing just north of St. Joseph. In other words, St. Joseph itself had just dodged a bullet.

One of the most famous cartoons to emerge was published on the front page of the Omaha Daily Bee the following day, Tuesday, March 25. Called simply 
“The Tornado,” it depicted the death-dealing Omaha tornado as a human skull. This image was widely reprinted at the time and also during the 2013 centennial, notably for the Nebraska PBS documentary Devil Clouds.

A feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming forces was expressed differently in various cartoons. “A Disaster,” published on page 5 of the
Wednesday, March 26 issue of the Chicago Tribune, conveys as sense of heaven-delivered arbitrariness with a finger pointing toward Earth as if to say ‘your turn’. 

That same day, another image “Trapped,” depicts a vicious animal trap set in the midst of an unidentified city (presumably Omaha, although the image 
could also refer to Council Bluffs and Terre Haute as well), published on the page 6 of the March 26 issue of Missouri’s Kansas City Journal.
The next day, a giant genie-like figure labeled “The Elements” was outright 
laughing at man’s helplessness in the Chicago Tribune cartoon “How Great is Man” on page 7 of the March 27 issue.

By then, the floodwaters were reaching peak record-setting heights in Ohio and Indiana, and buildings were burning in Dayton, Rochester, and other cities. So artists were incorporating those catastrophes as well. Continuing the theme of the supreme indifference of the gods is “When Man Learns 
Humility!”on the front page of the Omaha Daily Bee of Saturday, March 29, depicting a beautiful but callous goddess upending a giant urn of water flooding away houses and tiny people.

The Grim Reaper made his appearance in many cartoons, such as in “The 
Conqueror” on the front page of the March 27 issue of the St. Joseph Gazette, where he looms over flooded homes.

And unmistakable are his skeletal hand and scythe in “Wind, flood, and fire” 
published on page 6 of the March 28 issue of Missouri’s Kansas City Journal.

He is also hinted at in the two cloaked figures labeled “Famine” and “The 
Looter” in the chilling cartoon “On the Heels of Disaster” published in the March 28 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times.

Utter bewilderment and appeal of the victims is wordlessly expressed in the 
bereft husband and wife of “The Deluge,” published on the front page of the March 27 Cleveland Plain Dealer.

That same wordless despair was depicted in the implied widowhood of the lone female figure standing amidst wreckage with her small daughter and infant in the cartoon “Home” on the front page of the March 26 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee… well as in the stooped shoulders of the elderly farmer surveying wreckage in “Have to Start All Over Again,” published in the March 30 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But late that first week, the character of the cartoons begins to change. In one of my all-time favorite cartoons, “Coming!” undeservedly buried on page 14 of the March 27 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Uncle Sam is diving 
straight into the floodwaters to rescue drowning Dayton—powerfully expressing response to President Woodrow Wilson’s appeal to the nation for aid and also his dispatching of the Secretary of War along with Army, Navy, and Red Cross personnel.

That same day in the Pittsburgh Gazette-Times, a similar theme was expressed in “A Prompt Response,” depicting Uncle Sam standing up and 
strongly rowing a boat named “The Nation” laden with supplies toward a grief-stricken and stranded woman and her daughter.

Around this same time, the editorial cartoons also began to express encouragement to buck up, not admit defeat, and start reconstruction to return bigger and better—and for those less afflicted to contribute to the aid of those 
suffering devastation. For example, in “Looking Ahead,” published on the front page of the October 28 issue of the Omaha Daily Bee, two figures stand amid wreckage: a female figure labeled “Purpose” shaking hands with a determined carpenter, his toolbox labeled “Omaha.”

In “One Touch of Nature,” published on the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Saturday, March 29, a prosperous business man is tossing a bulging money bag into a chest labeled Ohio Flood Fund alongside a 
careworn woman giving two coins—clearly an allusion to the Biblical (New Testament) parable of the widow’s mite. And the chest, I wager, is a visual reference to Cleveland’s innovation in federated giving, the Community Chest, founded just the month before and undergoing its first major test in the monumental 1913 flood, Ohio’s worst-ever weather disaster.

The next month, some of the editorial cartoons take on an air of defiance. Notable is “The Spirit of the Hour” published on the front page of the Dayton 
Daily News  on April 10, where an outsized muscular workman (dressed like a nineteenth-century pioneer) labeled “Dayton” is declaring “I’ll lick you yet!” to a wreckage-covered Neptune-like spirit labeled “The River” which is shrinking back apprehensively.

The next day, April 11, the Dayton Daily News published “The Reminiscence Club” on its first page, depicting another pioneer-dressed figure labeled “Dayton” rushing away, stating, “Sorry to leave you, gentlemen, but I must be 
getting back to work,” leaving behind three figures sitting on fresh lumber, two of whom are labeled “Noah” and “Johnstown,” (this last clearly a reference to the Johnstown Flood of 1889—see “An Unnecessary Tragedy”).

The cartoons didn’t stop in mid-April, nor are these the only ones, by any means—I have many more and am on the lookout for others, as there were likely hundreds drawn and published. A fitting conclusion to this sequence is 
the cartoon “The Spirit of the Pioneer” published on the first anniversary of the Easter tornadoes on March 22, 1914 in the Omaha World-Herald, depicting a determined carpenter holding a hammer and blueprints, with other homes being reconstructed behind him.

© 2015 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Terror at Terre Haute

Further reading
Bell, Trudy E. “The Devastating Nebraska-Iowa-Missouri Tornadoes of 1913: Harbingers of the U.S.’s Now-Forgotten Most Widespread Natural Disaster.” Unpublished paper presented at the Missouri Valley History Conference, February 25, 2007. Text and slides downloadable from my 1913 flood web page (from column at far left).

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.