Lee County Illinois
Cyclone 1890

Contributed by Marilyn Widler

Presented as is - no corrections made

Twelve persons killed and many injured

This storm king, or rather storm fiend, this incarnation of the destructive powers of the elements, with appalling mien and terrific fury, cut a swath through the southern part of Lee county last Friday afternoon, that is marked with ruin and death. The first account of this frightful visitation, is from a point twelve to fifteen miles, a little south of west from the village of Sublette, at what is known as the Blackburn Herd, where a number of cattle were killed; from there it took an easterly direction, a little north in a zig zag course, from twenty to forty rods wide, mowing everything before it.

Among the buildings destroyed are those of William Shaw, Daniel Haley, William Reeves, Wm. R. Long, and John R. Hatch, leading farmers in that section west of the Illinois Central track. No fatalities reported from that section. The tempest crossed the Illinois Central at Sublette, tearing down and destroying eight or ten buildings on the outskirt of that village. One old lady, Mrs. Bitner, was killed, and fifteen to twenty people were more or less injured.

From here the course pursued was a little north of east. Some buildings four miles south of West Brooklyn were crushed into kindling wood. Frank Schmitz lost everything in the way of buildings; his family took refuge in the cellar, but 3 of the children were blown out of the cellar and tossed about in the whirl; they were considerably injured, but will recover. The buildings on Valentine Bieser's place near Schmitz were also totally destroyed. The family went into the cellar and escaped unharmed.

In Brooklyn township about four miles south of Compton, John Faulk and Daniel Miller lost each a barn, Leonard Blass' house and barn were both destroyed; Fred Bachman's orchard was completely demolished, but his house escaped with a few shingles torn off. The course of the storm from Faulk's to Bachman's was north-east, but it then went due east nearly two miles, following the road. John Politsche's farm was the first reached; here the force seemed concentrated, and utter destruction followed; the large house and barn are gone, with only here and there a splinter to tell the tale. Mr. Politsch saw the approaching wrath and with his family went into the cellar. He says the house raised up, moved north and was lost to sight; he did not see it go to pieces; for the moment, there was so much debris flying that he did not dare move from the wall. None of the family were injured. East of the Politsche house on the same road stood a school house; all that remains of its wreck are a half dozen flooring boards; school had been dismissed a few minutes, and the building was empty; on the same road, east of the school house, stood the buildings of George Politsche; they were as completely destroyed and scattered as were his brother John's buildings; but here the inmates of the house did not escape. Miss Rice, the teacher of the school with several pupils, were near this house when the storm overtook them and entered for shelter; in a moment they were scattered in every direction, and every one more or less injured, some seriously--one, a child of Mr. Politsche died that night, and Mrs. Politsche is thought to be fatally injured; one of Peter Eich's children had his jaw broken, and was otherwise badly bruised and cut; it is feared that he will die. Miss Rice was not seriously injured and went to work at once to find and assist the wounded children. A rider went swiftly to Compton for aid and it was not long till a number of citizens were present, caring for the hurt. They were all taken to the house of Philip Schlessinger, and a count showed fourteen badly wounded. Dr. Chandler was with the Compton people, and put in the night with the injured. Mr. Politsche was in Compton during the storm and was notified by the messenger that went there for help. East of Politsche's on the south side of the road, Louis Knauer's house, occupied by Henry Arndt, was destroyed; no serious injury to any of the family--further east Henry Englehart's barn and orchard were demolished; next, G. W. Keen east of Engleharts was visited; his orchard was torn up, but his buildings escaped with but little damage.

The cyclone now moved in a northeasterly direction, and reached the premises of James Blee. Mr. Blee and Henry Potter saw the funnel coming; Blee started for the house, and Potter dropped to the ground by the side of a large double corn crib. Blee with his family took refuse in the cellar; the large house was removed and smashed into kindling. Mrs. Blee received injuries, which are quite serious; his mother who was visiting him, was unhurt. Potter escaped injury; the corn crib was not blown down; his team hitched to a wagon were in the drive way of the crib, but became frightened, got out and started to run away; they became entangled in a wire fence which held them, and Potter found the rig in this condition after the storm. The next home invaded was that of Newton Woods, about two and one quarter miles north east. Here the house was torn to pieces and swept away, with the exception of one room, a sitting room, occupied by the family; the covering of the room was removed, and nothing but the sides remained; the family escaped without injury. About thirty rods north of Woods, stood what was known as the Field's school house; this seems to have stood directly in the path of the howling demon of destruction, and here occurred the most distressing and appalling calamity, and one that for dire havoc and destruction of life is unparelled in the history of death dealing storms.

Miss Maggie McBride of this place, was teaching here; school had been dismissed--it was almost 4:30 p.m. As it was raining, but few of the pupils had left the house. Some parents had sent for their children, and one or two had started out in the storm; seven remained with the teacher awaiting an abatement of the rain; they must have heard the hissing and howling of the tempest as it approached. Undoubtedly they saw the whirling, snorting, smoking demon as it bounded over the fields toward them, and huddled about their devoted teacher who attempted to quiet their fears--but one moment of this awful suspense, and eight souls were hurled into eternity. Anxious, agonizing parents, who lived near the line of the storm and in sight of the school house, whose hearts yearned for the safety of their little ones, hurried towards the scene the moment the tornado had passed, but alas! The school house was not to be seen, and their dear ones answered not to their distracted cries.

The grim destroyer did not pause a moment to witness the devastation wrought, but hurried on across the fields; the road running south from Paw Paw was crossed just south of Frank McBride's, whose barn, east of his house was shattered; the east and west road to South Paw Paw, was crossed between Jack Ream's and the bridge over the railroad. The Reams house, seems to have been on the extreme western edge of the storm's track; an addition on the east side of the house was wrecked, and the main building moved six to eight feet south; further east stood the George Kelly house, occupied by B. T. Searcy's family; this was smashed, the family escaping injury save Mr. Searcy's mother, who had a fractured limb and two broken ribs.

The gyrating terror next entered the grove; its path here was from twenty to forty rods wide, in which trees were twisted off, pulled up and strewn about. Seventy to eighty rods from the J. R. & N. railroad, and about forty rods in the grove, stood the house of Peter Reams; it was no barrier to the progress of the storm, and was left a shapeless wreck; the storm passed on through the grove about one mile and a half, when it apparently became exhausted near James Harper's place, after tearing down his orchard. Mr. Reams and wife were in their house; she in the second story. As he observed the storm's approach, he called to his wife to come down stairs at once, as a terrible storm was upon them; she hastened to get down, but cannot remember that she had taken more than a step or two down, when she found herself on the lower floor, amidst the ruins of her home.

News of the frightful disaster reached Paw Paw in a few minutes, and numbers of citizens hastened to the scene. Mrs. Peter Reams was found uninjured groping in a dazed manner about the pile of wreckage; it was thought that her husband was buried in the debris; this was explored enough to ascertain that he was not there; a search was then made in the grove, where he was found about ten rods northeast of the house, lying face down, under the bows of a fallen tree, dead. It is thought that he was not killed by the branches that were over him as they were too small; a cat was found under his head.

The Searcy's were looked after by others, and the greater number went directly to the site of the school house; the scene here was horrible beyond description and the excitement intense; parents whose children were in the fatal school house were frantic with grief. The little brook that runs near the school house, was swollen by the heavy rain into a creek, and the water was two to four feet in depth. Men plunged into the stream and searched for the victims; one by one their mutilated forms were discovered, until all were found. The spectacle was shocking in the extreme; the bodies were nearly nude, what clothing remained on them being torn to shreds. A number of them were found in the water. They were cut and bruised and broken in almost every conceivable manner. The names of the dead are as follows:

Miss Maggie McBride, teacher
Edna Hunt,
Jennie Radley,
Minnie Berry,
Ada Rudolph,
Lena Prentice,
Robbie Oderkirk,
Carey White, Jr.

Children of William Hunt, Arvin Radley, Isaac J. Berry, Jacob Rudolph, Asahel Prentice, Seaman Oderkirk, and Carey J. White.

The dead were removed to their homes, as fast as found, and prepared for burial. Five were buried Saturday, and four, including Peter Reams, Sunday. The school house stood two miles south of this place _____the Reams and Searcy places about one mile south-east. The excitement in this neighborhood was intense; all business was suspended Saturday, and nothing was talked of but the storm. Owing to the exaggerated reports in the Saturday morning Chicago papers, people came from miles around to view the scene. All day Saturday, Sunday and Monday, the track of the cyclone was thronged with visitors from the surrounding country. An excursion train came from Rochelle Sunday.

It is impossible to give all the details. Eye witnesses differ in their evidence--no two agree in their accounts. And yet all may be truthful; a liberal allowance must be made for the excitement of the moment, and then it must be remembered that a cyclone cloud with its swift forward movement, and rapid rotary motion, charged with trees, boards, timbers and all manner of debris, churning grinding and revolving in one gigantic swirl, does not present the same spectacle two consecutive moments. Again eye witnesses from the north and south and in front, or at different places along the line, can not dispute each others evidence, for it is impossible for any two of them to see any portion of the flying mixture in the same position.

There are a thousand and one stories in circulation, most of them more or less exaggerated, but all, no doubt, containing more or less truth. The report that the school house was seen intact 300, 200, or 100 feet in the air, rolling and tumbling about, is probably a mistake; there is no doubt that as a rule, buildings in the center of such a storm, are raised from the foundation and moved off; this view is supported by the fact that in almost every instance where people have taken refuge in cellars, they have escaped death and injury. It is also supported by the declaration of persons who were in cellars, to avoid this storm; their evidence is, that the building raised up and moved off, though none of them saw any building break in pieces; while this is no doubt true, it seems impossible that any building could retain its form ten seconds in a storm of such power as this one was. The appearance about the school house grounds, the location of different portions of the wreck, and the positions of the victims, all indicate that the house was crushed near the ground, not far from the foundation.

The report that the persons in George Politsche's house were blown 140 rods into a pond, is untrue. Most of the victims were found in the vicinity of the pond, but the distance from the location of the house, does not exceed ten rods. The trail of the storm presents many curious features; trees are pulled up by the roots; some are twisted in two, leaving the stumps in the ground; others have the bark peeled off. Osage hedges are torn up, chickens and other fowl are found entirely denuded of feathers, dead rats, cats, dogs, hogs, horses and cattle, in various places. Articles of clothing, sheets and other things seen hanging in trees; boards, sticks, splinters and timber, sticking into the ground, hurled from the passing cyclone. Where buildings were destroyed, everything was lost, furniture was broken up--hardly a whole piece of furniture could be found anywhere--all broken and scattered.

The trail varies from ten to forty rods in width--probably averages twenty rods; preceding the tornado was an electric storm with considerable rain fall; immediately following was a tremendous down pour. On either side of the track a heavy rain with thunder and lightning prevailed. The rain and mist were so thick that it was impossible to detect the savage character of the storm, one mile away. Some persons that distance off, and some a greater distance, heard what appeared like a muffled roar.

Wm. McMahan, whose house stands within sixty rods of the northwest line of destruction, watched its approach and passage; it was of the funnel shape, whirling and bounding along with a hissing or buzzing sound--swooping the earth and bounding from it alternately; he saw no manifestations of electricity in the rolling, boiling, steaming, cloud. The portion nearest the earth was very dark, the upper portion lighter; he could see sticks and other articles on the outer side, flying about and dropping to the ground.

Mr. James Blee, whose house was destroyed, saw the storm at some distance, but could not make out its character; he was satisfied that it was dangerous, and sent his family to the cellar; he remained in the cellar door which faced the coming demon, and anxiously watched its approach; so full of rain and fog was the atmosphere, not till within ten rods of him, could he distinguish its outlines and true character; at that distance it enveloped some trees, and apparently broke open, giving him a view of the inside, while the outside had the appearance of steam and smoke escaping from an engine, the opening showed great electric disturbance, which was indicated by a constant emission of sparks and flashes. Henry Potter who remained outside near the corn crib, corroborates Mr. Blee's statement. There was a strong sulphursous odor during and some time after the cyclone. It is a curious feature that no where along the track, is the grass or grain removed, nor do they at any place have the appearance of having been burned or scorched. Another strange feature, is the fact that on neither side of the storm was there perceptible any greater agitation of the atmosphere than in ordinary thunder storms.

It will be many a long year before the scenes of death and destruction in the wake of this terrifying phenomenon, will be effaced from the memory of those who suffered from its frightful devastation, or those who assisted in the work of recovering the dead. But two sentiments seem to prevail in the community--mourning for the dead, and sympathy for the living.

* * * * * * * * *

James Blee probably took a closer view of the cyclone than any other person on the line. He thinks there was a space four to four and one half feet in diameter in the center of the funnel, a vacuum, around which the cloud revolved; in and across this pipe as it were, occurred the electric display. After the cloud had passed, he followed its path to ascertain if what appeared to be a fact, was really true; he could trace in the center of the damage the distinct mark of the suction pipe, where a hedge was crossed--and in many places on the ground; in some places the ground was torn up and in others the grass and grain were nipped off close to the ground; a measurement of the center where the most energy was displayed, showed a width as above stated; he noticed or thought he did, while the cloud was approaching, that every thing in this center was going up, while around it everything was revolving; from this apparent condition, he concluded that the vacuum as above described acted as a suction pipe, and was the point of greatest energy and distruction; his examination of the ground afterward seemed to verify his theory.

* * * * * * * * *

Last Saturday, Coroner Andress of Amboy, held an inquest on the bodies of the victims of the storm. Some citizens criticised the conduct of this officer, claiming that an inquest under such conditions was uncalled for, and consequently an unneccessary expense. Mr. Andress did not come until after a consultation with the Prosecuting Attorney, who informed him that it was his duty under the law. Mr. A. is not so anxious to get fees, as to hold inquests when the law does not require him to do so.

* * * * * * *


--We desire to express our appreciation of the kind assistance of our many friends in the recovery of the bodies of our loved ones, and the manifold tokens of sympathy shown us in our bereavement.

C. J. White
Mrs. George McBride
Isaac J. Berry
Seaman Oderkirk
Asahel Prentice
Arvin Radley
Jacob Rudolph
William Hunt
Mrs. Peter Reams
And Families


Illinois - "Our Way"