April 5–6, 1936 — The Tupelo–Gainesville Outbreak

Note: I’m trying something a bit different for this article: many of the photos have been colorized. In addition to the visual impact, I think adding color can help bring out details that might otherwise go overlooked.

The 1930s was a decade of turbulence, ushered in by a devastating worldwide financial crisis and bookended by the onset of the most calamitous war in human history. The high spirits and irrational exuberance of the Roaring Twenties came to a screeching halt in the final days of October 1929, as the prosperity and dynamism of the Jazz Age were consumed in the fiery crash of the American economy. 

Beginning on October 23, a flurry of profit-taking on Wall Street caused a sharp decline in stock prices. The next day, the widespread sell-off reached a frenzied pitch. By October 29, Black Tuesday, the stock market was in a tailspin and panic had set in among investors. From the dizzying heights of an unprecedented decade of optimism and wealth, the most powerful economy on Earth suddenly and irrevocably collapsed into ruin.

Within two weeks, the stock market had lost 40 percent of its value. At a time when the entire federal budget of the United States was just over $3 billion, investors had lost a staggering $35 billion. The effects were swift and devastating. Ordinary citizens, panicked and losing faith in the entire financial system, rushed to empty their bank accounts while they still could. Without cash reserves, the banks soon failed. Those who didn’t withdraw their money quickly enough lost their entire savings.

With no banks to lend them money, businesses cut back their workforce or closed altogether. With fewer jobs and less money to go around, consumer spending fell rapidly. Shops closed their doors, factories incurred massive layoffs and wage reductions, and unemployment skyrocketed. By the bleak and dreary winter of 1932, a full quarter of all American workers — nearly 13 million people — found themselves without a job.

In the primarily agricultural midsection of the country, a region normally insulated from the far-off financial troubles of the East Coast, the situation was exacerbated by the worst drought in the history of the United States. Many years of poor farming practices had left the land vulnerable, and the extreme drought turned much of the central United States into a crippling Dust Bowl. 

Clouds occasionally appeared in the brittle blue skies, drifting over the desiccated landscape and seeming to promise some small break from the heat and dirt and dust, but the rains rarely came. The land cracked, crumbled and blew away with the winds, sending massive, billowing clouds of dust across the country’s midsection. Billions of tons of once-rich topsoil were scoured from millions of acres of land. The crops withered and died, and with them, the hopes of the nation’s desperate farmers.

By the mid-1930s, the Dust Bowl stretched as far south as Texas and as far north as the Canadian Prairies. For many, suffocating dust storms were a part of daily life. The gritty, wind-whipped palls turned day to night, reducing visibility to a few feet and infiltrating every crack and crevice of every prairie home. So large and intense were the black blizzards that dust-choked rain and snow fell in muddy slurries as far away as Vermont and New Hampshire.

By 1936, the crushing burden of the Great Depression had slowly begun to ease. The Dust Bowl, however, continued to ravage the Great Plains and parts of the Midwest. Experts estimated that the total affected area had spread to encompass more than five million acres, with nearly a billion tons of topsoil lost in the previous year alone. Hundreds of thousands of farmers, battered and broken by their futile efforts to wrest a living from the barren land, packed up and headed west toward California, Oregon, and Washington.

Drawn by the promise of a better life, so many people joined the migration that authorities in California organized border patrols in an attempt to keep out the invading “Okies” — so-called because so many had come from hard-hit Oklahoma. Those who succeeded in making the trip often became itinerants, drifting from place to place in search of any work they could find.

“Migrant Mother,” one of the most indelible images of the 20th century, was taken in March of 1936. The subject, Florence Thompson, was a widowed migrant worker at a camp for out-of-work pea pickers in Nipomo, California.

Unfortunately, debilitating drought and lingering economic depression were not the only problems plaguing the nation in 1936. In a remarkable display of climatic volatility, the weather swung wildly from one extreme to another throughout much of the country. Beginning in December 1935 and continuing through the end of January, virtually the entire country was locked in the grips of freezing weather. Parts of the Southeast and Upper Midwest experienced record cold while the Pacific Northwest, Southeast and Eastern Seaboard saw record or near-record precipitation. Significant snowfalls were recorded as far south as Montgomery, Alabama.

Niagara’s American Falls frozen solid in early February, 1936.

From late January through February, another wave of bone-rattling cold spilled down from the Arctic and invaded much of the United States. Blizzard after blizzard rolled across the northern half of the country, dumping feet of snow in great swaths from the Northern Rockies all the way to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The Niagara Falls froze solid for more than a week, forcing the hydroelectric power plant to shut down for the first time in its history. Back-to-back blizzards brought more than a foot of snow and hurricane-force wind gusts to the Eastern Seaboard, crippling the New York and Washington, DC metropolitan areas.

Snowfall and temperature records fell in dozens of states as the historic cold spell intensified. Snow drifts reached the roofs of two-story homes and completely shut down transportation in many areas throughout the northern half of the country. Snowfall totals for the winter ranged from 15″ to as much as 60″ above normal. In some places, the average daily high temperature for the month of February fell well below zero. In North Dakota, the monthly average temperature was a record-shattering -14.1° F.

A fierce nor’easter on January 19 battered New York City with hurricane-force winds and more than a foot of snow, bringing traffic to a standstill and stranding streetcars along 7th Avenue in Times Square.

By the time February mercifully came to an end, the national monthly average temperature registered just 25.23° F, nearly 10° below normal. It was the coldest month in United States history. With a string of hard-hitting blizzards and temperatures that rarely peaked above freezing, snowpacks throughout much of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Northeast were running anomalously high.

As the calendar turned to March and yet another furious snowstorm blanketed the region, the stage was set for the first in a historic, unprecedented string of disasters.

The balmy weather came as a pleasant surprise after one of the harshest winters in the country’s history. As a trough of low pressure swung through the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic on March 8, a surging warm front brought stiff southerly winds and temperatures that reached well into the 60s in many valleys and lowlands. Steady stratiform rain broke out area-wide, while higher elevations in the Appalachian Mountains remained cold enough to record major accumulating snowfalls.

On March 12, another intensifying low-pressure system rode up the Eastern Seaboard, bringing with it unseasonably warm air and abundant moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. As it moved northwest into southern portions of Quebec, the complex storm system merged with a series of disturbances from the Great Lakes. The deepening low rapidly pulled in even more moisture-laden air, producing intense rains across the area.

Widespread rainfall totals of five inches or more, much of which fell in a span of hours, triggered extensive flooding throughout the Northeast. Rising temperatures only exacerbated the problem, breaking up the thick sheets of ice that covered many area rivers. As the large chunks flowed downstream, they accumulated around bends, bridges, and other obstructions to create massive ice jams.

At the Holyoke Dam north of Springfield, Massachusetts, a particularly large ice jam diverted the full force of the Connecticut River for two days before it broke loose. In the process, the immense force sheared off and carried away a section of the granite dam 1,000 feet wide and five feet thick. Dozens of towns along the Connecticut and other rivers throughout the Northeast were inundated, and large sheets of ice did hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to bridges and other infrastructure.

On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, conditions deteriorated even further. With many rivers still flowing well above flood stage, a cutoff low developed and slowly drifted north along the Eastern Seaboard. A low-level disturbance near the Virginia-North Carolina border sparked intense thunderstorms, focusing torrential rains along a cold front sweeping in from the northwest.

Behind the front, a significant lake-effect snow event blanketed much of western Pennsylvania and New York. Nineteen inches of snow fell in Buffalo, with some outlying locations receiving more than two feet. Further east, a stationary front provided the focus for a long-duration rain event throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The rains lasted nearly a week, with three- to five-inch totals accumulating area-wide. Many locations in the Appalachian Mountains received up to 10″ of rain.

Communities on the eastern slopes of New Hampshire’s White Mountains were hit even harder. As a conveyor belt of warm, moist air was forced up and over the mountains, it quickly cooled, expanded, and condensed into rain-bearing clouds. This process, known as upsloping, created pockets of extraordinarily intense rainfall. Torrential downpours dropped up to 13″ in all, with some areas recording most of their rain in 12 hours or less.

Under assault from heavy rains, anomalously warm temperatures and gusty winds, the remainder of the snow cover — still several feet deep in some places — melted away virtually overnight. With the ground in most areas either frozen or sodden, the resulting runoff quickly spilled into streams and rivers that were already engorged from the previous week’s rains.

The result was simply devastating. Widespread, destructive flooding occurred on nearly every river and stream in a vast area stretching from central Ohio to Virginia to southern Quebec and New Brunswick. Dozens of rivers reached historic crests, with some shattering records that were nearly as old as America itself.

At Manchester, New Hampshire, the Merrimack River crested nearly 11 feet higher than at any other point since records began in 1785. Nearby, the downtown area of Hooksett was submerged under 18 feet of water. At Pittsburgh, the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers produced the greatest flood in the city’s history. A torrent of water 15 feet deep swallowed the downtown “Golden Triangle,” killing 69 people and destroying thousands of structures.

At Harrisburg, an all-time record crest left murky waters swirling through second-story windows in parts of the city. Dozens of dams and dikes burst under the enormous strain of water and ice, adding to the unprecedented disaster. In one of many surreal scenes, WPA workers in Washington, D.C. toiled through the night of March 19 to erect an emergency levee as the Potomac River spilled out of its banks and encroached on the National Mall.

By the time the waters finally receded, more than 180 people were dead. The destruction spread across 14 states and two Canadian provinces, and total damages exceeded an estimated $520 million ($9.6 billion in 2020 dollars), with $200 million in Pittsburgh alone. More than 100,000 structures had been destroyed and nearly a quarter-million people were rendered homeless.

Even after the rivers returned to their banks, survivors struggled with outbreaks of disease and, ironically, shortages of potable water. The scale of the cleanup effort was staggering, with some of the worst-hit areas left virtually uninhabitable for weeks. Damaged electrical grids took days — in some cases weeks — to fully repair. And yet, despite the record-setting winter and the historic floods, the volatile weather of 1936 was far from finished.

The first day of April began much like the end of March in the South — warm, cloudy, and unsettled. A broad area of low pressure dropped down from the Pacific Northwest, slowing as it approached the Southern Plains. Strong low-level winds, backed by the development of a secondary low southeast of Memphis, helped to lift a warm front northward through the region, allowing deep, tropical moisture to surge in from the Gulf of Mexico.

A sharp cold front trailed behind the low, sending temperatures tumbling as it passed through Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. High above, a shortwave trough ejected and began to dig toward the Southeast. A powerful jet streak overspread the Tennessee Valley, bringing in cooler air aloft and providing substantial wind shear.

Surface map from April 1, 1936 at 8:00 am. Note the main low pressure system located north of Dallas and the secondary low southeast of Memphis. A warm front, extending roughly along the 60º isotherm through northern MS, AL and GA, is being lifted northward by strong southerly winds off the Gulf of Mexico.
Surface map from April 1, 1936, at 8:00 am. Note the main low-pressure system located north of Dallas and the secondary low southeast of Memphis. A warm front, extending roughly along the 60º isotherm through northern MS, AL and GA, is being lifted northward by strong southerly winds off the Gulf of Mexico.

By early evening, widely scattered supercells began popping up all across Georgia, sending booming thunderclaps rolling over the countryside. Shortly after 8:00 pm, a tornado destroyed a church, damaged a dozen homes and killed several cattle near Athens. Half an hour later, a violent tornado cut a swath several blocks wide through the community of Tignall, completely destroying 10 homes, damaging 30 others and killing five people.

The tornado continued on, killing dozens of farm animals and obliterating several barns, before apparently reaching Lincolnton, 17 miles to the southeast. The storm, expanding as it slowly weakened, damaged at least 50 homes in a path half a mile wide.[a] The business section of Vidalia was heavily damaged by a second tornado, while a series of powerful downbursts caused moderate damage in the community of Washington. In Alabama, a brief twister destroyed five homes and killed one woman at “Hannah’s Church,” seven miles north of Gordo.

The overnight hours brought a brief lull in activity, but it was not to last. As the first rays of morning peeked over the horizon, they revealed a towering supercell bubbling up into the leaden skies over Terrell County in southwestern Georgia. Around 6:30 am, a dark, ragged funnel descended from the swirling storm and smashed a 500-yard path through a section of tenant homes on the north side of Sasser. One man was killed and more than a dozen others were injured.

As the supercell raced northeastward, a second tornado followed shortly after the first. Touching down just over the Lee County line, the redeveloped twister rumbled for 16 miles into the southeastern corner of Sumter County. Several tenant homes were destroyed and a farmer was killed just north of Neyami, and a dozen more homes were destroyed southwest of Cobb.

At 7:30 am, as the previous tornado dissipated over the Flint River, the massive supercell began dropping torrential rains and large hail in nearby Cordele.[b] With virtually no warning, a violent, partially rain-wrapped tornado tore through the primarily residential south side of town, destroying more than 300 structures in a swath five blocks wide and two miles long. According to a reporter with the city’s newspaper, “25 of the best homes [in an upscale residential area] were splintered by the wind, just as if a big charge of dynamite had been exploded in them.”

All three of the town’s brick school buildings, which would have held more than 2,000 students just an hour later, were heavily damaged. Trees were stripped bare and exposed patches of grass were scoured in the worst-affected areas on the southwest side of the community. Five people were killed in one store that was completely leveled. Three others were crushed in a brick hardware store that collapsed under the force of the wind. In all, 23 people were killed in Cordele, more than 500 were injured, and at least 1,000 of its 7,000 residents were left homeless.

By early evening on April 2, ominous skies had spread over the North Carolina Piedmont. In Greensboro, a prosperous city of more than 55,000, a 25-year-old ambulance driver named Odel Lambeth stood on a small landing outside his office. To his northwest, he observed a billowing mass of black clouds in the fading twilight.

As he looked on, a “small, rope-like form” descended from the storm and “snaked across the earth” in the direction of the city. The slender tornado quickly organized and intensified as it roared into the Greensboro fairgrounds at 7:12 pm. Following Lee St. into the southern side of the city, the funnel engulfed rows of homes and reduced them to rubble. As Lambeth recounted:

“Soon I could hear the crackling of broken lumber. I could see particles, some of them as big as ten square feet, flying through the air. By that time, the full blast of the cyclone had struck earth. The roaring noise increased. The crackling of wooden structures became clearer.

As the wind increased in velocity, the storm clouds seemed to rise and then move downward again, striking houses, buildings, whatever was in the path of the roaring funnel. . . . Devastation was immediately apparent from where I stood.”

At the El Moro Cigar Company factory, two brick buildings were smashed by the winds and scattered over a five-block area. Dozens of flimsy dwellings in a predominantly African American section were destroyed, killing several and injuring more than 50 others. Vehicles were thrown from the streets into yards and storefronts. Four-inch square wooden beams were reportedly driven through a stone wall, and utility poles were snapped just above ground level. Fires broke out as broken gas mains and downed power lines ignited the wreckage of numerous homes.

Hardest hit was the neighborhood surrounding the intersection of Gorrell St. and McAdoo Ave., where at least seven people were killed. Of the eight homes at this intersection, seven were blown off their foundations and scattered hundreds of yards. Upon hearing screams from beneath the wreckage of a home nearby, neighbors worked desperately with axes, crowbars, and automobile jacks to free a badly injured woman and her ten-year-old daughter. The woman’s mother, severely hurt and trapped in the basement, was unable to be rescued before fire engulfed the ruined house. Across the street, another woman and her eight-year-old daughter were also killed by fire when they were immobilized by injuries and unable to escape.

The tornado dissipated shortly after slicing through the southeast side of town, but not before leaving behind 14 fatalities and nearly $2 million in damages.[c] Minutes later, another tornado killed one person just outside of Mebane, about 20 miles to the east. The same supercell produced another tornado near the hamlet of Arcola, causing moderate damage but no fatalities.

Heavy rains moved into the region behind the storms, followed by clear, calm, and chilly weather as the cold front finally raced through the area and off the coast. Temperatures dropped rapidly and the weather became deceptively tranquil. However, even as towns across the southeast began the arduous task of cleaning up millions of dollars in damages and burying their more than 44 dead, the atmospheric patterns that would deliver the final devastating blow had already been set in motion.

Tupelo, Mississippi, was a modest but busy community of about 7,500 people, centered within the fertile northeastern agricultural region of the state. The charming mill town had received a City Beautiful Award in the 1920s, but the Great Depression brought hardship to many in the community. In 1932, the local bank became the site of Machine Gun Kelly’s last known heist. Armed with his trademark Thompson submachine gun, the famed Prohibition-era gangster pilfered a hefty $38,000 ($720,000 in 2020 dollars) from the vaults at Citizen’s State Bank.

Despite the hard times, however, residents remained largely optimistic. In 1934, Tupelo became “The First TVA City” when the Tennessee Valley Authority — an ambitious cornerstone of President Roosevelt’s New Deal — brought electricity to homes and businesses for the first time. The project was a resounding success, with abundant and affordable power flowing from a large hydroelectric dam constructed nearby.

Access to electricity was a boon for the town, but day-to-day life was little changed. With the costs of owning and operating an automobile — gas cost 20 cents per gallon, tires were notoriously short-lived and most vehicles needed frequent repairs — people didn’t do much driving. Evening entertainment often consisted of gathering around the family radio or playing a game of cards. Those who could afford it might treat themselves to the occasional movie.

There was a small hospital downtown, but the facilities were hardly well-equipped. Doctors still spent much of their time conducting house calls. Serious injuries and illnesses typically meant being shipped off to Birmingham or Memphis. Few people owned telephones and even fewer used them with any regularity.

Nonetheless, Tupelo residents had it better than most. Even as many communities across the South continued laboring under the weight of the Great Depression, The First TVA City seemed destined for a bigger, brighter future.

On the morning of April 5, Tupelo residents of all denominations headed off to church for Palm Sunday services. A hot, muggy breeze blew from the south beneath a pale, hazy sky. A low veil of clouds permitted only dull, fuzzy patches of sunlight, bathing Tupelo’s quiet streets in a peculiar yellow pall. By the time parishioners began filing back out of their churches, however, the sun had already started burning through the lingering haze.

The air was sultry by midday, heavy with the kind of humidity that stuck clothing to skin. Still, after a blustery first week of April that often saw temperatures dip below freezing at night, the summery weather drew most residents outside. Some headed downtown to stroll in the shade of the handsome, tree-lined streets. Others gathered at the local park for a game of baseball. At the Lyric Theater on North Broadway, workers prepared for a busy day of stage performances and movie showings.

In the downtrodden neighborhood of Milltown, on Tupelo’s south side, William Patey ventured outside for a different reason. Bill, the proprietor of one of several grocery stores on South Green Street, was something of a local celebrity for his uncanny ability to predict the weather. Friends and neighbors often stopped by to ask his thoughts when the weather turned foul. On this day, however, there was no need to ask.

Pacing nervously on the veranda that joined his home and grocery store, Bill had already fixed his keen eyes on the skies above. While others took the suddenly steamy weather as a welcome development, he recognized it as a portentous sign. Sure enough, the far western horizon had filled in with inky, brooding clouds by midafternoon — a sure sign that the turbulent atmosphere was brewing up trouble. Never one to take a storm lightly, Bill advised his family to stay close to the “storm house” he’d built into their backyard.

Two hundred miles to the northwest, William H. Gaston had a much closer view of the growing storm. Rain pelted the roof of his farmhouse in rural Izard County, Arkansas, just north of Lacrosse. The wind howled like a banshee, swirling through the rugged, heavily forested hills and hollows. Apart from frequent flashes of lightning, the encroaching darkness made the early afternoon look like twilight.

Several miles to the southwest, the trailing flank of the storm descended toward an open field west of Melbourne. Wispy clouds kicked up dirt and vegetation as the incipient tornado quickly developed and gained strength. It tore through the sparsely populated land with a fury, uprooting and twisting trees and taking down miles of utility poles as it paralleled a rural highway. Ahead of the twister, hailstones the size of baseballs and softballs pounded roofs and landed with heavy thuds in the rain-sodden fields.

By the time W. H. Gaston glimpsed the simmering black mass bearing down from the west, it was already too late. As he rushed to alert his family, the tornado struck the Gaston homestead like a blast wave. Its sturdy stone walls were wrenched apart in an instant, collapsing the structure and scattering its contents to the wind.

The 60-year-old Gaston was crushed beneath several of the heavy stone slabs as they fell, while his wife suffered multiple broken bones and lacerations. His 18-year-old daughter, who quickly dove for the door upon hearing her father’s alarm, narrowly escaped serious injury. Gaston’s brother-in-law suffered a fractured skull when a nearby barn was destroyed. The family’s young colt was snatched up, hurtled several hundred yards and left mangled in a grove of shattered and uprooted trees.

A home destroyed near the village of Larkin, Arkansas.
A home destroyed near the village of Larkin, Arkansas.

Further northeast, the twister dashed apart a number of wood-frame homes, sweeping several off their foundations into scattered heaps. As it ripped apart the home of O. H. Lawrence, the twister reportedly hurled several large 50-gallon iron drums more than two miles. Nearby, Lawrence’s sawmill was “torn to pieces,” the lumber and debris scattered over a mile downstream.

Acres of forest and several orchards were destroyed as the tornado churned on. Between the hamlets of Larkin and Lacrosse, the path of twisted, uprooted, snapped and debarked trees stretched up to three-quarters of a mile in width. Dozens more homes were damaged or destroyed, hundreds of farm animals were killed and half a dozen people were injured before the tornado finally weakened and dissipated east of Franklin.

As intense storms ignited elsewhere in Arkansas, including “the largest hailstones ever seen” in the Logan County town of Paris, the associated low-pressure system continued its dive toward the Mississippi River Valley. Ahead of the low, a warm front stretched from north of Memphis, southeast across northeastern Mississippi and north-central Alabama, and eastward into Georgia. Southeasterly winds off the Gulf of Mexico flowed in behind the front, allowing even more hot and humid air to spill across the region.

Just above the surface, the winds veered sharply and increased in velocity. At a few thousand feet, a southwesterly low-level jet cranked at over 60 mph. Higher in the atmosphere, the exit region of an intense jet streak moved over the Tennessee Valley in association with a broad trough digging in from the west. With a deep pool of combustible atmospheric fuel and ample wind shear in place, the smallest inertial kick would be enough to spark a conflagration.

All things considered, it had been a picturesque Sunday afternoon in the hills of South Central Tennessee. In the tiny community of Smith Branch, nestled into a narrow hollow six miles northwest of Waynesboro, 21-year-old Pauline Pulley spent the afternoon enjoying the weather with her extended family. Since they owned one of the few record players in the area, Pauline, her husband Roy, and her parents, Willy and Sally Mae Pulley, often hosted family and neighbors in their large three-bedroom home.

As the sun dipped toward the horizon, Pauline’s uncle, Leonard Pulley, left for his home a short distance away. Pauline followed after him:

“…and as he was wading Smith Branch [creek] to go home, I followed him out to throw rocks into the branch, splashing him with water. He pointed his finger at me and said, ‘Alright, little girl, I’ll get you tomorrow!'”

But for Leonard, as for so many others on April 5, tomorrow would never come. As sunset approached, the sooty thunderheads of a towering supercell mushroomed into the skies over central McNairy County, Tennessee. Sparked by the advancing warm front, the growing cell hoovered up masses of tropical air, spitting out torrents of rain and baseball-sized hail. Powerful winds tore through the countryside, knocking over flimsy structures and wrecking the chimney of the McNairy County Courthouse in Selmer.

At around 7:20 pm, a narrow funnel emerged from the storm and touched down a few miles west of Adamsville. Swiftly strengthening as it crossed into Hardin County, the tornado barrelled through the small community of Bethlehem. Ernest Hamilton, having just recently returned from eight months of work at a CCC camp across the state in Rockwood, was just settling down for dinner when the storm struck. The twister blew apart the walls of his home, collapsing the structure and killing him instantly. A neighbor was more fortunate, sustaining relatively minor injuries despite being thrown more than 100 yards when his home was torn apart.

After roughly paralleling the Tennessee River for about a dozen miles, the storm raced across the fertile farmlands near Indian Creek. As many as a dozen buildings on two large farms in the area were destroyed, causing several injuries. Continuing to the south and southeast of Clifton, the still-strengthening twister cut a swath a half-mile wide through the Eagle Creek valley. Six of the seven farmhouses in the area were completely leveled, seriously injuring at least three people. The heavily forested slopes of the valley were flattened, with large trees being “picked up, splintered, snapped in two as if matches, and hurled through the air.”

A home demolished near the Hardin County line between Clifton and Olivehill.
A home demolished at Eagle Creek, several miles southeast of Clifton.

After climbing another ridge, the tornado descended on Beech Creek, producing utter devastation and claiming three lives. A Mrs. Minnie Morris was killed when she was thrown a considerable distance from the wreckage of her home. Her young son was thrown into a creek but survived when he landed on top of a mattress. All but one home in the area was blown away, leaving behind nothing but “a twisted mass of wreckage,” according to E. L. Edwards, who led a Red Cross rescue party the following morning. The crew arrived at a ghastly scene, as little more than foundations were left to indicate where homes had been. According to Edwards, “We couldn’t even find the furniture, and the automobiles were blown away. A field of grass was cut just like a lawnmower had run over it.”

There was little left in the wake of the violent tornado after it struck the Beech Creek area of Wayne County, TN. Three people were killed in this vicinity.

Just to the northeast, at Smith Branch, Pauline Pulley and her parents had just settled into their beds when heavy, wind-driven rain began lashing the windows. Within moments, a maelstrom of violent, twisting winds and shards of debris engulfed the entire hollow in which the Pulley home was located. The three-story house creaked and strained, protesting against the deafening winds. The door blew open, and as Sally Mae rose to shut it, the house disintegrated around her. The walls blew away and broke apart, followed quickly by heavy, rough-hewn boards wrenched from the floor. A cast-iron treadle sewing machine, propelled by the swirling storm, struck Sally Mae in the back of the head and crushed her skull.

Pauline, Roy, and their young children, Nellie and Wilburn, were blown against the hillside, where they saw the family’s Model A Ford sail over their heads and crash into the woods. It was found the following day, several hundred yards from its original location, wrapped around the gnarled stump of a tree. As the howling winds abated, several family members carried Sally Mae through the debris-strewn woods to her parents’ home, which lay just outside the storm’s path. With no medical aid and no way to treat her injuries, Sally Mae bled to death on her parents’ floor.

A photo showing the ruins of Willy and Sally Mae Pulley's home.
What remained of Willy and Sally Mae Pulley’s home after the tornado. At center is Pauline’s husband, Roy Warren.

The destructive twister, however, was not yet finished with the Pulley family. A short distance away, Leonard Pulley and his sister, Sarah Lomax, chatted as they sat at the end of his bed. His wife, also named Sarah, sat at a bureau nearby so that she could look out the window. Before they could even react, the tornado struck a glancing blow on the home and blew it apart. Leonard and his sister were crushed to death when the chimney collapsed on top of them. His wife, despite being seated near the window, survived with relatively minor injuries.

Despite being just outside of the tornado’s violent core, the Leonard Pulley home was totally collapsed. Oddly, the bureau at which his wife was seated can still be seen standing at left.

Speeding along, the tornado destroyed acre after acre of timber as it carved a slithering path over the ridges and valleys of rural Wayne County. Crossing into Lewis County north of the Buffalo River, the twister damaged or destroyed a number of homes near the communities of Trace Creek and Rockhouse. Just south of Hohenwald, it unleashed a final act of violence upon a small colony of Swiss farmers. Eight of the little hamlet’s nine homes were destroyed. The roof of one home was torn away and hurled 400 yards. Another was blown completely off his foundation, carried 150 yards and “disintegrated.” The wreckage then ignited, leaving little but a pile of sooty ash behind. Fortunately, the family of five was at church when the storm struck and escaped injury. Several others in the community were hurt, but none seriously.

Finally, after damaging a few more homes near the town of Gordonsburg, the tornado weakened and roped out over the hills of northeastern Lewis County. In all, it had killed seven people and destroyed hundreds of structures across three counties and approximately 60 miles.

Even as tornadic supercells rampaged through Tennessee, additional storms rapidly developed across a great swath of the eastern United States, arcing some 350 miles from the Midwest to the Deep South. Large hail and strong winds raked towns from Evansville, Indiana down to Paducah, Kentucky and Jackson, Tennessee. In New Richmond, Ohio, a thunderstorm dumped so much hail so quickly that the streets were “paved with hailstones” to a depth of several inches. In Henderson, Kentucky, golfball-sized hail and strong winds damaged “practically every building” in town and injured several people. A number of buildings in suburban Nashville were also damaged by destructive straight-line winds.

Further south, isolated supercells sprouted up across the warm sector. At 8:05 pm, a tornado touched down seven miles southwest of Booneville in Prentiss County. Clipping the northwest corner of town, the twister razed half a dozen homes, destroyed the senior high school and killed four people. Among the dead was J. O. Robertson, a prominent county supervisor, as well as his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, who were killed when their stately, well-built home was completely demolished. Four other members of the Robertson family were critically injured but survived. Days later, checks bearing Robertson’s name were found on two separate properties near Murfreesboro, Tennessee — nearly 150 miles to the northeast. The tornado largely avoided structures as it continued on its path through northern Prentiss County, reportedly flattening swaths of trees before causing its final damage on a farm three miles southwest of Jacinto.

Around the same time, another supercell was dumping torrential rain over southern Yalobusha County. As the rain eased, it revealed a funnel cloud reaching down from the storm’s mesocyclone. Touching down just south of Bryant, the tornado immediately unroofed several homes and wrenched a large bell from atop the Bryant-Torrance School. As it grew in size and strength, it also became more visible, being “observed by many people as it traveled at a terrific rate of speed accompanied by a deafening roar.” Several homes near Elam Church were “blown into splinters,” killing one person and seriously injuring at least two others. In a nearby pine forest, hundreds of trees were “split to kindling.”

Growing into a large wedge as it tracked south and east of Coffeeville, the tornado bore down on the property of 27-year-old Olif Murphree. The home was completely obliterated in seconds. All five occupants — Murphree, his mother-in-law, his aunt, his wife and their three-year-old son — were hurled hundreds of yards, stripped of clothing and killed. One of the family’s dogs was carried more than half a mile. Pieces of roofing, shattered wall studs, articles of clothing and other debris from the home rained down for miles across the countryside.

A similar fate befell the home of Mr. and Mrs. Tom Shannon, which was torn apart and swept clean. Chickens on the property were “picked clean” and scattered. Large, mature trees were snapped, debarked or ripped up and thrown into a hollow. Even the well was destroyed, the curbing “twisted off two or three feet underground.” Fortunately, the Shannons themselves were spared. Acting on impulse, they’d gone to visit Tom Shannon’s mother nearby shortly before the storm struck. The elder Shannon’s property also suffered significant damage, but no one was seriously injured.

Several other homes were destroyed and another ten people were injured as the tornado carved a wide, arcing north-northeasterly path through Yalobusha County. It finally roped out three miles north of Pine Valley, leaving six deaths and 18 miles of wreckage in its wake. The parent supercell, however, raced on with undiminished fury. Feeding on a volatile combination of increasingly unstable air and locally enhanced wind shear as it approached the warm front, the storm took dead aim at northeast Mississippi’s largest population center.

Just as one tornado spun itself out over northern Mississippi, another dropped to the ground in Middle Tennessee. Forming from the same supercell that devastated the small communities of Beech Creek, Smith Branch and Hohenwald, the fledgling funnel set its sights on the phosphate mining region of Maury County. It first touched down near Hampshire, about 12 miles west of Columbia, before racing northeast and and carving a narrow path through the farming community of Cross Bridges. Nearly a dozen homes were damaged or destroyed, along with a number of barns and other structures. A general store was badly damaged, but “no trace could now be found” of the blacksmith shop that had stood next to it.

Moving quickly along a creek valley, the storm closed in on “Central City” — a string of settlements around the phosphate mines belonging to Armour Fertilizer Works, Federal Chemical Company and Monsanto. Narrowly missing the new $2 million Armour processing plant, the tornado instead zeroed in on the ramshackle little village where most of the (predominantly Black) workers lived. Nearly all of the 40-plus board houses were reduced to “splinter and kindling.” Clothing and other scraps were swept a half-mile downstream and scattered among a grove of trees. Parents and children alike were tossed from their homes in varying directions. Sixteen people were reported injured, but incredibly, most seemingly escaped with their lives.[d]

Two who did not were Burton and Ollie Shipp. The husband and wife sat talking in their living area — almost directly above an underground cellar — when they were struck by the core of the tornado. Their home was swept cleanly away in an instant, throwing them up a hillside about a hundred yards distant. Their car, previously parked in a small garage, came to rest just feet from their bodies. In the cellar, orderly rows of canned fruit and other provisions still sat virtually untouched on the shelves.

What remained of the Burton Shipp home after the tornado. At left, a man points to the glass jars that remained untouched in the cellar.
The Harlan home before the tornado.

A few miles to the northeast, Herbert Ricketts arrived home from a day out visiting relatives. The 21-year-old Ricketts was part of a crew that had arrived a week earlier to build a new spur line connecting the Armour mines to the main L&N railroad. During the project, he’d arranged to lodge at a boarding house atop a hill just to the northeast of the phosphate fields. The boarding house — run by Mrs. Ella Harlan, widow of a well-known farmer — was a stately, well-built Victorian home that often hosted workers as they passed through the area.

Ricketts was joined at the Harlan home by two other members of the railroad crew. Clovis Carroll was an earnest, fresh-faced 23-year-old who hailed from nearby Hohenwald. Green “G. L.” McCurry, 63, was a skilled carpenter from Talladega, Alabama, who joined the construction project as a foreman. Carleton McCurry, Green’s son, also lived nearby and had urged his father to stay at his home in light of the foul weather. “I’ll be all right,” his father replied. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

As the lodgers at the boarding house prepared to turn in for the evening, the first sign of danger came as a low, throaty rumble that seemed to shake the ground. Standing outside, Ricketts scrambled to a nearby barn for shelter. Sixteen-year-old Ruth Seeley, another boarder at the Harlan home, also heard the infernal rumble as she prepared for bed. She quickly bolted downstairs and sought shelter under a heavy oak table. Carroll and McCurry, oblivious to the weather, slept soundly in their beds.

The rain came like a thundering waterfall, followed quickly by large hail which fell so hard that it sounded “like stampeding horses.” Moments later, the tornado struck with sudden, irresistible violence. The barn was splintered to pieces, instantly killing Herbert Ricketts as he sheltered inside. The handsome boarding house was torn cleanly from its foundation and virtually disintegrated in the swirling maelstrom. Large oak trees near the home were stripped bare, broken just feet above the ground or ripped up and tossed. A vehicle parked at the boarding house was carried hundreds of yards and dumped into the Duck River as a ball of twisted metal.

Ella Harlan was tossed more than 200 yards from her home and gravely injured, suffering multiple broken bones and fractures to her skull. Ruth Seeley was sent tumbling through the debris, injured but alive. The other boarders from the railroad crew, Clovis Carroll and G. L. McCurry, were not nearly as fortunate. Carroll was killed when he was thrown against a barn that lay practically unharmed just outside of the twister’s narrow, intense damage path. McCurry wasn’t found until his son later discovered his body, clothing “torn to ribbons,” lying in a ditch more than a quarter-mile from the Harlan homesite.

The final known instance of damage in Maury County came when a home was partially collapsed along Knob Creek, five miles north of Columbia. Around half an hour later, “severe damage was wrought” in the farmland of southern Williamson County. Many trees were uprooted or snapped, barns and hen houses were blown down and homes were unroofed across the area. In Triune, a small settlement on the eastern fringe of the county, a number of homes were “demolished.” Fortunately, no major injuries were reported. It’s not clear whether this damage represents a continuation of the Maury County tornado, a separate tornado or destructive straight-line winds produced by the parent supercell.

As darkness settled in over the South, the utter stillness of the night did little to assuage Bill Patey’s growing sense of apprehension. The Tupelo grocery store owner with a preternatural sense for the weather had been unsettled all day as he paced his veranda, watching dirty cauliflower clouds bloom in the distance before racing off to the north. Now, he had even greater cause for concern. The dying light of day had revealed a dazzling electrical display, as an unseen storm in the distance filled the skies to the southwest with near-constant strobes of lightning.

A cautious and practical man, Bill had built a large “storm house” near his home when he and his family first moved to Tupelo’s South Green Street. The secure structure had thick concrete walls, bunk beds, chairs and even a hand-operated water pump. As word of Bill’s trepidation spread throughout the day, friends and neighbors began trickling in and staking out their spots in the storm house. By the time the lightning display drew close enough to force the last stragglers inside, more than 50 people joined Bill and his family, packed like sardines into a space meant to accommodate fewer than 35.

Just across town, one of Tupelo’s much younger residents was having a premonition of his own. On a dirt road just off South Thomas Street, Tim Burrough and his family could see the cold, bluish-white flashes inching closer to their flimsy home. The thunderclaps seemed to shake the ground and reverberate off the walls. The approaching storm unnerved Tim’s young son, who pleaded with his parents to retreat to his grandmother’s more substantial house on South Broadway Street. As the family piled into their car, they couldn’t help noticing the dark, indistinct blotches of storm clouds illuminated by the flashes of lightning to their west.

Before setting off, Tim stopped at his brother’s home just down the street to urge them to shelter as well. Jim Burrough and his wife, Jennie, were proud of their large family. They had 11 children in all, ranging in age from two to 21. Like many in the neighborhood, Jim was a worker at the Tupelo Cotton Mill. And, as with most mill workers, his home was hardly built to withstand a storm. Nonetheless, Jim sent his brother away. Tupelo was no stranger to strong springtime storms, after all, and it was no small feat to pack up and move a family of 13 for a little wind and rain. He and his family would ride it out at home, as they always did.

Well to the southwest of Tim Burrough and Bill Patey, the same supercell that had killed Olif Murphree and his family near Coffeeville was bearing down on eastern Pontotoc County. After briefly cycling, the storm once again began to gorge itself on unusually warm, humid air. Latching on to the frontal boundary draped over northeastern Mississippi, it tapped into the enhanced convergence and vorticity to quickly intensify.

Beneath the rear flank of the storm, a narrow funnel undulated and dipped toward the earth. Gradually growing to 250 yards in width, the tornado ripped through the predominantly African American community of Black Zion. The poorly built homes offered little resistance and were easily swept away.

Continuing on for another four miles, the tornado tore through a sharecropper’s settlement, again sweeping away several small hovels. At least five people were killed, but the true death toll may have been higher.[e] Near the Lee County line, the tornado dissipated and lifted back into the clouds — briefly.[f]

In their Madison Street home on Tupelo’s north side, John Parrish and his wife, Carol, were going about their familiar Sunday ritual. After arriving home following church services, they settled in with their children, David and Lillie, to enjoy Jack Benny and Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour on the radio. They’d thought little of the blackening skies or of the deep, brooding lightning far in the distance. Outside of a few heavy rain squalls, all seemed normal as the children said their prayers and prepared for bed.

At the other end of Madison Street, Owen Sparks couldn’t shake a feeling of foreboding. The superintendent of the Tupelo Light & Water Department, Sparks had to be finely attuned to storms to help protect the city’s vital services. Convinced that severe weather was on the way, he prepared to head in to work at the Tupelo Light & Water Plant a few blocks away. He was joined by his wife Kitty and sons Robert and William, who were afraid of being left alone in the approaching storm.

Vernon and Gladys Presley with a young Elvis (1938)

Around the same time, Vernon and Gladys Presley sat quietly as services drew to a close at the local Baptist Church in East Tupelo. As always, they’d brought their young son along with them. Already a precocious child, Elvis Presley had been born in January of the previous year. Like many of Tupelo’s poorer residents, the tight-knit family lived in the slums of town in a small, two-room shotgun shack.

Further along to the northeast, a small crowd had gathered at the Auburn School to hear a Sunday evening gospel singing. As the weather outside deteriorated, the attendees began to discuss where they could seek shelter in case of a storm. The answer came from an unlikely source: 14-year-old Leon Marcy. Marcy explained that he’d recently helped his cousin build a storm shelter at his aunt’s house nearby, failing to mention that the pair had built it as a place to slip away and smoke cigarettes.

On the western outskirts of Tupelo, lineman William Reed had an uninterrupted view of the horizon. Perched atop a utility pole repairing a damaged telephone line, Reed had watched as dark, cauliflower-shaped clouds billowed into the sky around dusk. He saw the western horizon turn inky black, illuminated only by flashbulb lightning, but he brushed it aside as he continued his work. As the storm drew close, however, Reed witnessed something that left him frozen with dread. 

“All at once, those clouds were turned into a huge black funnel with a tip on the ground,” Reed observed. “That cloud, or funnel, traveled fast, and although it was quite dark, I could see big objects lifted off the ground and sent whirling upward and around.”

The tornado first touched down near “Metcalf,” about three miles southwest of Tupelo. Exploding in size and intensity as it rumbled across Coonewah Creek, it leveled several homes on the other side and killed five people. Chewing through rural stretches of central Lee County, the growing wedge tore up and snapped off trees, ripped apart barns and blew down any other structures in its path. The destructive winds were nearly deafening, producing a roar that was said to be easily heard for many miles.

Noah Presley with his school bus and a grocery store he owned in East Tupelo.

And indeed it was. In East Tupelo, J.D. Presley — Elvis’ grandfather — burst into the back of the Baptist Church to warn of the storm’s approach. Worried that their ramshackle house simply wasn’t safe, Vernon and Gladys instead raced to the parking lot and piled into a school bus belonging to Elvis’ great-uncle, Noah Presley. In addition to being the neighborhood bus driver, Noah was also the newly elected mayor of East Tupelo. More importantly, he was the owner of a large, sturdy home on Kelly Street that afforded far more protection than a humble shotgun shack.

Another Tupelo resident who heard the storm approach was Lena Price. She’d been relaxing at home while her husband, J. Fred Price, was away attending to his duties as publisher of the Tupelo Daily News. Believing at first that she was hearing a freight train in the distance, Mrs. Price quickly sprang into action as the sound grew louder. Grabbing her pet canary, she scrambled to the kitchen, frantically emptied out the heavy refrigerator and clambered inside it.

Shortly after 8:30 pm, the tornado struck with extraordinary force. In an instant, the air filled with the cacophony of a town being torn apart. The infernal gyre seemed to defy geometry, inhaling Tupelo’s straight, orderly lines in a black-hole spiral and expelling chaotic, unrecognizable shards of domesticity. Homes disappeared in clouds of splintered rafters and wall studs, generating thousands upon thousands of high-velocity projectiles. Bed frames and electrical wires wrapped around trees like twist ties. Bits of paper and shingle and insulation took flight, carried to incredible heights by the storm’s voracious updraft.

As it crossed South Thomas Street, the twister roared through the neighborhood that the Burrough brothers and their families called home. The unsubstantial structures that dotted Bryan Drive never stood a chance. Every home in the path was demolished, some swept away so cleanly that virtually no evidence of human habitation remained. Trees and utility poles were snapped like toothpicks or snatched up and tossed into the night. Cars and pickup trucks were battered and rolled and thrown about like toys.

Grinding inexorably along, the tornado moved into the wealthier neighborhood of Willis Heights. The homes were better, larger, more substantial — but it didn’t matter. They fell before the howling winds all the same, cut down “like a man going through a wheat field with a scythe,” as one witness described it. Multiple vortices whirled around the center at tremendous speeds, causing even greater and more erratic devastation as they spun into and out of existence.

Here and there, a fortunate family escaped the worst even as all of their neighbors were gravely injured or killed. On Milford Street, near the center of the tornado’s path, the foundation of one home was damaged so badly that the house couldn’t be rebuilt. A few doors away, several homes suffered little more than roof damage and broken windows. Lena Price’s home was largely destroyed, but her instinct to cram herself inside the refrigerator proved felicitous. Her canary, too, survived without injury.

In upscale Harrisburg Heights, a real estate dealer lost a heavy, well-secured safe after it was thrown from his demolished home. When the safe was later found by Robert Miller, a CCC worker tasked with helping the cleanup effort, it had been badly damaged and had its door ripped off its hinges. Despite being penniless, Miller returned the $600 he found inside, saying his conscience wouldn’t let him keep it. His good deed earned him a reward: $25.

Just west of Crosstown, where railroad tracks bisect the intersection of Main Street and Gloster Street, 12-year-old Bill Cooley was out of breath. After attending an evening service at the local church, he’d run home as fast as he could to beat what looked to him like a heavy rainstorm. Heading toward his parents’ room to let them know he’d arrived safely, he noticed a strange noise growing outside. As he reached the bedroom, the windows shattered into thousands of pieces. Suddenly, everything went black.

When he awoke, Cooley found himself unable to move and covered in bricks from a collapsed chimney. Neighbors worked to remove the debris and carry him to one of the few homes left standing in the area, where he was reunited with one of his three brothers. Both boys, suffering from severe injuries, were transferred to local hospitals and eventually reunited with their parents. Two other brothers, Joe and Bobby, were missing. Their bodies were later found in a pasture on another street, nearly a quarter-mile away from the family home.

Though not as hard-hit as some sections of Tupelo, several homes in the Crosstown area were still demolished.

To the north and east of Crosstown, the tornado unleashed its full fury on one of Tupelo’s most populous residential areas. The damage path reached a width of nearly three-quarters of a mile, but the most violent winds carved a streak a few blocks wide. Within the streak, vibrant and colorful neighborhoods were reduced to bare canvas and repainted in the sickly tones of shattered lumber, shredded furniture and stripped vegetation.

On North Madison Street, the streak of devastation intersected with John Parrish and his family. Before they could react, all four family members were carried off with the ruins of their home. When 11-year-old Lillie Parrish came to at the base of a sweetgum tree, she was shielded from the pounding rain by bits of houses and other debris that had accumulated around her. Digging out, she stumbled aimlessly through a muddy field, her surroundings rendered grotesque and unrecognizable by the terrible wind. Blood streamed from a large gash in her scalp, matting her hair and staining her evening dress.

As her senses slowly returned, she set out in search of her family. She found her brother a few blocks away, just as neighbors arrived to help free him from the tangle of wreckage that had nearly buried him. Brother and sister were loaded on the back of a truck and whisked away to seek medical care, worrying whether they’d ever see their parents again. Incredibly, the family was reunited within days at a hospital in Memphis. Despite injuries ranging from compound fractures to impalements, all four survived and eventually recovered.

During the tornado’s disastrous trek across Tupelo’s residential section, it may also have been joined by a small satellite vortex. Several survivors were left with the distinct impression that the city had been hit by two twisters, with a brief spin-up following the fury of the main blow. Some who surveyed the wreckage, including Judge C.P. Long, also noted a clear secondary path. In Long’s words:

“Up to date I have only mentioned the main path of the wind but there were minor paths separate and distinct from the other. There was one which crossed below Main Street, which was not over seventy-five yards wide, which did considerable damage to the lower end of town, where one of the biggest property damages was done at the Tupelo Oil Mill. In this streak, although it was narrow and although not so many buildings were blown away, trees were uprooted and much damage done.”

At the Tupelo Light & Water Plant, Owen Sparks could hear the drone of the tornado coming nearer. As his wife and sons huddled for shelter under a heavy drafting table, Sparks immediately recognized a looming danger: with power still flowing through Tupelo’s electrical system, downed lines could lead to fires and electrocutions. As the storm bore down on the plant, Sparks quickly flipped a series of switches to kill power across the town. The outer edge of the funnel struck the plant just as he scrambled to join his family, destroying most of the roof but leaving the rest of the structure standing.

Nearby, more than 50 people waited with dread inside Bill Patey’s storm house as the town above them was torn asunder. As the roar approached, several men lashed a rope around the shelter’s door handle to hold it closed against the force of the wind. The walls shook and rumbled as the storm passed, but the structure did its job. As people slowly emerged from the shelter, they found an overwhelming scene. Damaged homes and wind-driven debris were everywhere. Neighbors stumbled around in a daze, trying to process what had happened. What no one realized, however, was that they’d gotten off easy: their neighborhood had only suffered a glancing blow as the storm tracked to their northwest.

Less than half a mile away, the scene was one of utter desolation. On one block of Madison Street, between Jefferson and Walnut, there had been 28 homes and a two-story apartment building standing just minutes earlier. Now, there was nothing. Even much of the debris from the homes had been hoovered up and pulverized in the giant blender of the funnel. Dozens of people were killed — whole families — adding to a death toll that had already stretched beyond reckoning.

Even worse was to come for the area around Gum Pond, where many of Tupelo’s Black residents lived in small shacks on a hill overlooking the shallow 10-acre body of water. Home after home was wrenched apart and blown into the water, often with entire families still inside. Many of those who were fortunate enough to survive the initial blast became pinned under the water as everything from cars to cooking stoves rained down upon them. Others were thrown clear across Gum Pond and into a field on the other side. The town’s 50,000-gallon water tower, perched near the top of the hill, was torn from its anchored base and hurled into the night. It was later found in a field outside of town — three miles away.

On South Broadway Street, Tim Burrough and his family arrived safely at his mother’s home. The atmosphere, however, was hardly one of celebration. Though she was happy to see her son, Mahalia Burrough was filled with a sense that something dreadful had taken place. Her other son, Jim, had ignored his brother’s pleas and decided that he and his family of 13 would ride out the storm at home.

As soon as the roar of the tornado had passed, Tim set out to check on his brother. Though he still didn’t know the scale of the disaster, the sheer amount of debris he encountered at seemingly every turn was deeply troubling. After a much longer journey than usual, Tim finally reached the western edge of Tupelo. Driving along South Thomas Street, he encountered a neighborhood he scarcely recognized. As he approached the area, a neighbor stopped him to deliver the news both he and his mother had been dreading: the entire family was gone.

So, too, were any remnants of the home. Much of the wreckage had been blown away. A line of cedar trees in the yard were “cut off about head high, just as smooth as if they were done on purpose.” Even the yard itself was torn up, gouged by missile impacts and scoured by the extreme winds. The family pickup disappeared as well, only to be found later in a nearby lake. Not far away, Tim’s own home was similarly razed, his family’s lives spared only through his young son’s insistent pleas.

The lot where Jim Burrough’s home had stood was left completely bare.

With Tupelo left in ruins, the tornado raced on to continue its destructive rampage. It passed just north of East Tupelo, narrowly missing the Presley family as they sheltered in Noah Presley’s Kelly Street home. The event would come to be a defining moment in young Elvis’ life, as his mother often assured him that he was spared because he was destined to do great things. Many years later, when a violent tornado devastated McComb, Mississippi in 1975, the King threw a benefit concert that raised more than $100,000 to support relief and recovery efforts.

As it left Tupelo, the tornado scattered huge volumes of debris for many miles.

The violent, debris-laden wedge next closed in on the tiny locality of Auburn, mowing down a string of farmhouses as it approached. Having led nearly 20 people to the storm shelter he and his cousin had built as a stealthy smoking lounge, fourteen-year-old Leon Marcy braced for the worst. As the wind whipped up to a thundering fury, several men struggled to hold the shelter door shut. Out of nowhere, a car landed with a thud and rolled over the top of the storm house, showering the occupants below with dirt.

After what seemed like hours — likely just a few minutes — the air grew eerily calm and quiet. Climbing the shelter steps, the young Marcy encountered a scene that would stay with him for the rest of his life. His aunt’s two-story home, a short distance from the storm house, was gone. The nearby Auburn Church was swept away, pieces of its tongue-and-groove floorboards carried across the state line into Alabama. Despite the chaos, Marcy was struck by the utter quiet and stillness.

It didn’t last long. Soon, the air was filled with anguished cries and pleas for help. One of the first people he encountered was another cousin, who was looking for his family after his home had been blown away. Marcy joined the search, but they found only tragedy. First was the man’s father-in-law, who’d been blown a quarter of a mile and thrown head-first into a stump. His mother-in-law was next, followed soon after by his wife. All had been hurled great distances by the ferocious vortex. Altogether, the community counted at least seven dead.[g]

Near the eastern edge of Lee County, Eggville found itself next in the path of the storm. It fared little better than Auburn. As many as a dozen homes were completely razed as the damage path narrowed slightly to about half a mile. Roads were blocked throughout the area by rows of debris and stands of trees that had been practically clear-cut by the wind. Several people were killed in and around Eggville, but few bothered to keep an accurate count as the tiny hamlet fell under the shadow of the catastrophe at Tupelo.

Just across the Itawamba County line, seven-year-old Fay Turner was fast asleep in her family’s home near Shiloh. Suddenly, she awoke to find she was no longer in her bed. Nor was she in her home. Indeed, as she lay in the grass being held tightly by her older sister, it occurred to her that she could no longer even see her home. It had been completely ripped apart by the tornado, throwing Fay into the yard along with her father and sisters. Her mother had been away visiting a friend who was ill.

Though everyone in the Turner family escaped relatively unscathed, their neighbors were far less fortunate. As storms began to fire earlier in the evening, Fay’s father had offered to let the widow and her two daughters stay the night with his family. She declined. The Turners soon found the widow’s battered body as they began sifting through the field of debris covering their property. Her daughters were also seriously injured when their home was decimated, but they ultimately survived.

As on many farms throughout the area, the Turners’ livestock were killed and their farming equipment was totally wrecked. Tools were embedded in the soil and machines were tossed around and torn apart. A huge grain bin was heaved hundreds of yards and crumpled. Nonetheless, when Fay’s mother arrived home to witness the destruction, she remained undeterred. “You haven’t got anything,” a neighbor told her. “Oh, yes, I do,” she replied. “I’ve got my family.”

A few minutes later, the tornado again showed how fortunate the Turners were. It leveled yet more homes as it thundered across the hills and pastures north of Mantachie, killing several people a few miles southeast of Oak Grove Church. To the northeast of Mantachie, “a whole forest” was reportedly blown down.[h]

Passing over the bottomlands of the Tombigbee River, the voracious tempest continued its path of destruction. About five miles north of Fairview, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Stockton was razed to the ground. Both suffered serious injuries, but their 13-year-old son was killed instantly. A few miles away, seven-year-old Marshall Goodwin was thrown some distance and killed when his family’s home was “turned to kindling.” Another home was demolished north of “Pineville,” killing Cleo Collier and her young son. Altogether, the tornado destroyed about two dozen homes across rural northeastern Itawamba County.

In the community of Red Bay, Alabama, just across the state line, Royce Brooks was busy at the filling station he owned near the edge of town. He and his wife were joined by their employee, 17-year-old Frank Hutcheson, and a patron named Coley King. Without warning, the tornado tore through the outskirts of Red Bay, directly striking the Brooks family business. According to witness accounts, the tornado “lifted and dropped” the entire station, reducing it to a pile of rubble. King was killed instantly while Frank Hutcheson was gravely injured. Though seriously hurt themselves, Brooks and his wife carried Hutcheson over a mile through rubble-filled streets to seek help. Despite their best efforts, however, Hutcheson died the next morning at Russellville Hospital.

Elsewhere, the tornado savagely tore through the “Keeton Town” section of Red Bay. Luther and Lily Mae Frost were killed when their home was swept away so cleanly that there was “not a single brick or plank left.” Some of the Frosts’ belongings were later found 40 miles away in Lauderdale County. Around 50 homes were flattened across the northwestern part of Red Bay, killing eight people in all.

Though the twister finally began losing steam as it headed deeper into Franklin County, it still was not yet finished. It encountered about a dozen farms northeast of Red Bay, causing substantial damage and several injuries. Another group of homes were damaged west of Frankfort, where one destroyed vehicle was later found in a field “fully 250 yards from any roadway.”

Crossing into Colbert County, the damage intensified once again. Homes and barns near Crooked Oak were razed, causing multiple injuries and one unconfirmed report of a fatality. Trees were again snapped and debarked as the tornado barreled across Underwood Mountain Road, flattening a number of homes and crushing to death a man named Fred Isom. Finally, the tornado narrowed and dissipated in the woods northwest of Littleville.

In its wake, the Tupelo tornado left a massive swath of almost incalculable tragedy and devastation. It may have been on the ground for more than 70 miles, tearing through portions of four counties in two states. Commonly cited death tolls range from 216 to 233, but the final number will likely never be known. African American casualties were poorly tracked — when they were tracked at all. Likewise, the path outside of Tupelo was understandably overshadowed and scarcely documented.

Inside the city, the scale of the suffering was overwhelming. The hospital, itself damaged in the storm, was immediately taxed far beyond capacity. Gravely injured citizens were loaded into buses, trains, taxis and any other available transportation and shipped to hospitals across the region. Many others were brought to the Lyric Theatre, where doctors performed emergency procedures with instruments sterilized in popcorn machines.

At Gum Pond, a 54-year-old Black man named C. H. Harris moved out of his cottage to provide shelter for 25 “white folks.” He organized a search party with other Black residents and spent the night combing through debris, rescuing the injured and recovering dozens of bodies. Returning in the morning, he fixed breakfast for the white families staying in his home. Then, without stopping for sleep, he grabbed his skiff and spent all of the next day helping other volunteers trawl Gum Pond for victims who’d been blown into the water.

Volunteers worked for days at Gum Pond, using long poles and paddling skiffs in search of bodies blown into the water.

The extraordinary violence of the Tupelo tornado was on display throughout the city. Countless foundations were swept clean, only to be covered again by debris from neighboring homes. Vegetation damage was also severe in the hardest-hit areas. As one survivor put it:

“The ground is all plowed up and the trees are so stripped of bark and leaves they look as if they might have been dead for years. There are no landmarks on a lot of the streets and you cannot tell what street you may be on.”

In an empty field on the east side of town, a new Ford car sat twisted in a ball more than a quarter of a mile from any road. Debris from the hundreds of demolished homes rained down over a vast area in the wake of the storm. One World War I veteran’s heavy, braided military coat was reportedly found 50 miles away in Alabama. Several scraps of paper bearing names and addresses from the Tupelo area were carried more than 150 miles before falling near Lynchburg and Tullahoma in Tennessee. A check from one man who’d been killed in the storm made it all the way to a field in Middle Tennessee, more than 190 miles from The First TVA City.

Incredibly, while the Tupelo tornado dissipated over Colbert County, Alabama, the parent supercell — which had also produced the Coffeeville tornado hours earlier — was already recycling.[i] As it hurried along into far eastern Lauderdale County, the rapidly swirling wall cloud again began stretching toward the earth. The compact funnel touched down just east of Rogersville, injuring four people as homes were damaged and long stretches of TVA transmission lines were blown down.

In neighboring Limestone County, several farms were damaged or destroyed near Elkmont. On one property, the body of a horse was reportedly found nearly 800 yards from the leveled barn in which it had been standing. The narrow funnel blew down swaths of trees and destroyed three homes southeast of Ardmore, but otherwise traversed the northern section of the county largely without incident.

That changed quickly as the tornado entered Madison County. On a large farm estate south of Elkwood, tenant farmers Sherrill Swinford and Julius Kolle were asleep with their families on either side of a modest, two-room farmhouse. The tornado struck without warning, tearing the house into pieces “not more than 15 feet square” and sweeping it into a copse of scrubby trees on the other side of the road. A sturdy shade tree in the yard was snapped off and “shredded to chips.”

When neighbors arrived, they found Sherrill Swinford wrapped around a tree in the adjoining field, a “gaping wound” in his forehead. His wife was found even further from the home, “grievously injured” and wrapped around the stump of another tree. The couple’s infant son was found buried under pieces of the roof. Though Julius Kolle was alive when he was unearthed nearby, he was “mashed internally” and suffering from numerous wounds and broken bones. He died at the hospital the following day. His four children, including another infant, all survived.

As searchers continued picking through the wreckage and broken bodies, they feared that the final member of the Swinford family, a 5-year-old boy named Glen, had joined the rest of his family in death. When his limp, unconscious body was finally discovered, lying naked and twisted in a pile of burning bedclothes, their fears seemed to be confirmed. Miraculously, however, the boy had a pulse.

Wrapping him in a raincoat, a neighbor took him home and tended to his wounds as they waited for help. Though his face was badly cut and the side of his body was burned, young Glen never made a sound once he regained consciousness. When an ambulance finally arrived early in the morning, the neighbor wrapped Glen in a warm coat and led him out past the sheet-covered figures that had been his family. Still, he made no noise of complaint. Even as doctors treated his painful injuries at the hospital in Huntsville, “Big Boy” — as neighbors, doctors and newsmen affectionately called him for his bravery in the face of disaster — hardly flinched.

The Swinford and Kolle families took the brunt of the storm’s impacts in the Elkwood area, but dozens of others in the area also felt its wrath. Several other homes in the community were partially or totally razed. Near the state line, a barn was reportedly destroyed so thoroughly that it “nearly disappeared.” A tractor was thrown or rolled hundreds of yards, smashed to pieces and left in a drainage ditch. The home on the same property was nearly untouched — other than a massive timber that was said to have been hurtled through a kitchen window and ejected clear out the other side.

Racing on into rural Lincoln County, Tennessee, the tornado destroyed a school and blew the Primitive Baptist Church off its foundation near Belleview. A few miles to the east, five homes and a number of barns were leveled in the vicinity of Lincoln. The storm narrowly missed Flintville, but it demolished six homes on the outskirts of town. At one, a Mrs. Albert Davis was killed and her husband badly hurt when the floor of their home was “ripped up and folded over,” crushing them as they slept. Their three children were thrown from the house but suffered only cuts and bruises.

East of Flintville, two churches were damaged at “Shady Grove.” Some reports also mention a death in this area as a woman was killed when her home “exploded” in the wind. The tornado may have continued on for another 16 miles, causing “considerable damage” around Decherd before fizzling out in central Franklin County. Trees were “torn up and tossed,” many roofs and chimneys were collapsed and several homes were fully destroyed. If this damage was indeed the work of the same tornado, its path length may have exceeded 65 miles.

Across the region, other severe storms continued to roll on. Torrential rains forced many creeks and rivers to spill out of their banks. Destructive winds were reported area-wide, clogging roadways and unroofing hundreds of homes. Though no other tornadoes are officially recorded for April 5, a few communities may indeed have been visited by whirlwinds of their own. In Warren County, Tennessee, a half-mile-wide swath of damage was reported from north of McMinville to south of Rock Island. Thirty people were injured at Faulkner Springs, one gravely, when a number of structures were blown down. A few miles to the northeast, one woman was badly injured when her three-room home near Campaign was thrown 50 feet and broken apart.

Near Notchy Creek, in Monroe County, several homes were destroyed and the Colthart School was “flattened.” Injuries and heavy losses of livestock were reported. Nearby, nine 110,000-volt steel TVA transmission towers were “twisted from their concrete foundations and bent around like ribbons.” Between Battle Creek and South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, residents reported hearing the roar of a storm pass as it caused scattered damage to homes. Several orchards in the same vicinity were totally destroyed.

The storms finally began to wind down as dawn approached and thousands of people in dozens of communities from Arkansas to Alabama sifted through the rubble of their homes and businesses. Unfortunately, the outbreak that had already taken so much still had one last surprise in store.

High above the Deep South, the complex machinery of the atmosphere trundled on. A broad and powerful trough continued its push to the east, overspreading the Southern Appalachians with strong upper-level winds. Closer to the surface, as the low-pressure system and associated warm front began to lift to the northeast, it pulled in a deep, tropical airmass behind it. Throughout the night, a strong southerly flow caused temperatures and dewpoints to surge across North Georgia. Once again, the stage was being set for an atmospheric explosion.

The first spark came in far northwestern Cobb County, Georgia. Shortly before 7:30 am, a supercell developed near the town of Acworth. Passing just north of the community, it flattened a grist mill and damaged or destroyed a half-dozen homes. At the local general store, it collapsed the building while the owner and nine other people were inside. Luckily, everyone inside escaped without major injuries. Continuing on for about another eight miles, the tornado did scattered damage near the towns of Bascomb and Woodstock before roping out.

While the residents of Acworth surveyed the damage to their town a little over an hour later, they witnessed a surreal and ominous sight. Bits of tattered material, some of it singed and covered in soot, had begun falling lazily out of the sky like bizarre, misshapen snowflakes. In the coming hours, similar scenes would play out in areas as distant as Hendersonville, Tennessee. As people began picking up the larger scraps, they noticed a few of them seemed to have originated from a rather puzzling location: Gainesville, Georgia.

Nestled into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Gainesville is often hailed as the “Queen City of the Mountains.” It was a charming, bustling little city in 1936, built largely by the cotton industry and blessed with a beautiful natural setting. Its downtown square, always buzzing with activity, had quickly grown into a genuine commercial attraction. Though it had a population of less than 10,000, Gainesville was the “big city” to most people who called the region home. However, its successful development and tranquil, attractive views also hid a history marred by tragedy.

An aerial view of Gainesville before the tornado.
The 1903 tornado destroyed hundreds of homes from Gainesville to New Holland, killing over 100.

In 1851, a small fire started in a log building on the east side of the public square. Whipped by strong, cold winter winds, the spark quickly kindled into an inferno that engulfed most of the town. Another major conflagration struck in 1879, followed by subsequent fires in 1911 and 1925. On June 1, 1903, a narrow but intense tornado ripped through portions of the town, virtually destroying the Gainesville Cotton Mill. Just over 100 people were killed in all, including many children and young women who were laboring in the mill. By the spring of 1936, many of the city’s residents had either witnessed or experienced at least one of the traumatic events that had visited the area in the past.

Perhaps it was no surprise, then, when many Gainesville citizens awoke on the morning of April 6 with a distinct sense of unease. The weather outside was oppressive — even before daybreak it was unusually warm for early spring. The air felt heavy, almost thick, like being swaddled in a wet, woolen blanket. The skies were leaden, featureless apart from the occasional blotches of dark, brooding clouds. Late the previous night, some in Gainesville sat outside and watched as gigantic storms to their west put on a dazzling display of lightning.

In New Holland, a mill town directly adjacent to Gainesville that was built by Pacolet Manufacturing Company in the 1890s, 21-year-old Willie Hulsey Glover took notice of the disquieting weather. Glover, who’d only recently moved from rural Clermont, was a manager at the nearby Owen-Osborne hosiery mill. As she got ready for work, she and her roommate discussed the unsettling stillness that seemed to hang over the town. Something just wasn’t right, they agreed, though neither could quite articulate what it was.

At 8:00 am, Fred Grigg Jr. set out on his usual walk from his home near West Avenue to Gainesville High School on Washington Street. He, too, noticed that something was off. The muggy, uncomfortable air. The unnerving quietude. The vaguely threatening look of the clouds behind him. Still, he brushed it off and continued on to school. Around the same time, Fred Sr. stopped at the family’s store on South Bradford Street and prepared the day’s business for his father, a local druggist.

Once Dr. Grigg arrived, Fred Sr. returned home to help get the rest of his family ready for the day. He and his wife had seven children in all. The oldest, Frances, had already headed to work at Newman’s department store on North Green Street. With Fred Jr. off to school, Grigg and his wife shared breakfast with their remaining children — Malum, Nora, Carl, Dinwiddy and Clara — who ranged in age from 16 to 11.

Meanwhile, just outside of town, Arthur Smith was planning to head to Pruitt-Barrett Hardware Company to buy some farm equipment. As he’d done every morning for nearly a decade, he climbed into his trusty Chrysler and cranked the key. For the first time ever, the car refused to turn over. Angrily cursing his luck as he reached to open the hood, he stole a quick glance at the sky to his southwest. It had turned a deep, purplish-black, as if a bruise were spreading across the horizon.

At the corner of East Broad and South Green streets, City Commissioner H. Leon Gaines was walking to his car when he, too, noticed the menacing clouds growing closer. Instantly, his mind flashed back to 1903, when the city’s first terrible twister demolished his home, injuring his wife, Gertrude; his newborn daughter, Kathleen; and his longtime cook, Nicie. Snapping back to reality, he quickly ran inside to find his family.

Colonel Sandy Beaver, Director of Riverside Military Academy, stood shaving at his mirror on Gainesville’s north side when he heard what he thought was a low-flying airplane. As he paused to listen, the airplane seemed to turn into an entire squadron. Thoroughly puzzled, he peered through his bathroom window for a better look. He immediately called for his wife, unsure of whether he should believe what he was seeing.

In the distance, near the Atlanta Highway, a massive vortex was approaching Gainesville from the southwest. The dark, ragged mass seemed to pulse and undulate as it crept toward the city, growing ever larger as it went. Surrounding the funnel, Beaver could see broken timbers, shredded trees and all manner of other debris swirling around and being ejected out at great heights.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, the funnel that he’d witnessed was but one of three produced by the powerful storm system as it moved overhead. A brief, slender twister had already passed through the area around Brenau College, uprooting some trees and causing minor damage to the roofs of a few buildings. On the other side of town, an Atlanta Journal correspondent named William Brice had an uncomfortably close view of the disaster as it unfolded. Describing his experiences, he wrote:

Seeing two inky black clouds converge, making daylight almost as black as night; seeing trees begin to bend and sway, then hearing a mighty roar as of a hundred airplanes, those same trees lose their hold and fly through the air, houses all around you commence to collapse, brick and timber fly, not knowing what moment the hand of death would fall, is a terrifying experience, impossible to describe unless you’ve felt it.”

In reality, what Brice had witnessed was one of the most unusual tornadic events ever documented. While the large stovepipe tornado that Colonel Beaver had witnessed from his bathroom window tore through the southwestern part of Gainesville, a second tornado, perhaps even larger, paralleled the Dawsonville Highway as it raced toward downtown from the west. Much like the famous “twins” that devastated Midway Trailer Court near Elkhart, Indiana during the 1965 Palm Sunday outbreak, both funnels were intense and produced significant damage.

And the situation was about to get much, much worse.

Between West Avenue and Grove Street, just west of the public square, the twin tornadoes collided. The funnels merged, growing almost immediately into a violent tempest nearly half a mile wide. The combined ferocity wiped out the home of Mrs. C.J. Westbrooks in an instant as she stood in her living room with four neighbors. In the same moment, the floor “split as if riven by a huge blade,” dropping everyone inside into the cellar below. Though the home was swept cleanly away, leaving behind “only one piece of weatherboarding about five feet long,” no one was injured. Miraculously, the same scene played out across the street. Mrs. J.C. Nash was at home with her two children when the house was blown into a ravine and “splintered into bits,” but the collapse of the floor likely spared their lives.

As the tornado crossed Grove Street, it totally demolished more than a dozen homes and blasted St. Paul’s Methodist Church off its foundation. At the Gainesville Midland Railyard, several buildings were leveled and boxcars were rolled or tossed around. The Motor Inn on West Spring Street, owned by E.F. Hughes, was largely torn apart and sucked into the storm’s swirling maw. Incredibly, a check written by Hughes was said to have been found by his sister in Seneca, South Carolina.

A couple of blocks to the north, Fred Grigg Jr. reached Gainesville High School just in time. A teacher grabbed him and pulled him into a hallway as the tornado swept up Washington Street. Though it only suffered a glancing blow, the high school didn’t escape without damage. Windows were shattered throughout the school. The flag pole was “twisted into an S.” The gymnasium, which was still under construction, was hit hardest. Freshly installed steel girders, nearly 30 feet long and weighing three-quarters of a ton, were said to have been “bent as one would bend a twig.” Nearby, pieces of two-by-eight lumber were driven up to eight feet into the ground.

Beginning at the western edge of the downtown square, the tornado approached its maximum intensity. Violent winds tore at the large brick buildings lining the city’s commercial district, probing for any weakness or defect to exploit. On the corner of Spring and Main, a throng of teenagers rushed into Newman’s department store to escape the commotion. Instead, the two-story building began to crumble and pancake on top of them. The imposing Dixie Hunt hotel partially collapsed, as did the Hall County Courthouse. A one-ton bell that had rested atop the courthouse was picked up and tossed 350 yards into the streets below.

The Cooper Pants Factory inhabited a squat, two-story brick building at the intersection of West Broad and Maple. Inside the factory, there was a buzz of activity as the company’s 125 employees — mostly young women — set about the busy tasks of measuring fabrics, cutting patterns and sewing up seams. Few had time to take notice of the weather outside until a dull drone, barely audible at first, quickly rose over the din of the factory in a “roar like a thousand Niagara Falls.”

On the second floor, Mrs. Boyd Shaw was working on a project with a group of 14 other women when the clamorous storm swept into the square. Seated at her sewing machine, she quickly rose to follow the others as they ran screaming for the stairwell. Instead, she was jerked back toward her station as if by an invisible hand. Glancing down, her heart sank as she saw that she’d accidentally stitched her dress into the fabric caught in her sewing machine. As she struggled to free herself, the roof above her began to peel up and break apart in the howling gale.

Not far away, Mary Ann Sexton was already huddled in the stairwell. As the roof disintegrated above her and the violent winds of the tornado swept through the factory, another woman was snatched up and blown against her. At the same time, pieces of the walls and floor started collapsing inward. Several women on the first floor below were crushed to death, while others were pinned beneath the avalanche of debris. Reaching out as she tumbled down the stairs, Sexton grabbed an iron railing with her left hand and held on for dear life.

Still stuck fast to her sewing machine, Mrs. Boyd Shaw was sure she was about to die. Suddenly, just as the second story of the building crumbled around her, a great burst of wind struck her squarely in the back. Ripping her clean out of her dress, the blow propelled her into the air and deposited her a block away. Dazed, naked and covered with minor scrapes and bruises, Shaw was otherwise unharmed.

For Mary Ann Sexton, the wind would deliver no such salvation. Still clinging to the iron railing of the stairway, she could feel bricks and timbers from the collapsing structure piling up around her. She breathed a short sigh of relief as the winds began to ease, but the situation soon grew even more dire: she could smell smoke.

A couple of blocks away, a number of Gainesville’s other businesses were also falling before the wind. At Pruitt-Barrett Hardware Company, where Arthur Smith would have been shopping for farm equipment were it not for his decidedly unusual car trouble, Harold Head could see debris swirling though the glass storefront. The young assistant book-keeper quickly rushed to the office to take shelter in the business’ huge safe.

Just as Harold reached for the heavy iron door, the tornado blew out the front entrance and collapsed the entire four-story building. Head found himself trapped inside a pile of wreckage nearly 14 feet tall. Not far away, a red-hot cast iron stove at the back of the store quickly ignited the broken shards of lumber and scraps of flammable debris. As the crackling heat grew closer, Head frantically clawed and climbed his way out.

The four-story Pruitt-Barrett Hardware Store building collapsed and burned, killing seven people.

The elation of knowing he’d survived quickly turned to terror. There had been seven other people inside the store just before the storm struck, including owners Guy Barrett and John Rogers. None of them had escaped. Their fates were sealed as the entire wrecked structure went up in flames.

Just to the east, H. Leon Gaines felt as though he were reliving his worst nightmare. The City Commissioner whose home was destroyed during the 1903 Gainesville tornado again found his family under the gun. This time, he was intent on being there to protect them. He burst through the front door and found his wife, his daughter and his longtime cook huddled in a hallway. Throwing himself on top of them, he wrapped them in as tight an embrace as he could manage.

It wasn’t enough. All three were torn from the commissioner’s arms as large sections of his house were blown away. The walls of the hallway collapsed, trapping him in a narrow space against the floor. Wriggling free, he called for his family as he stumbled through what remained of his home. No answer came. One by one, he found their bodies strewn among the shattered walls and fragments of furniture that stretched over a block from his property.

As soon as the tornado churned past Gainesville High School, Fred Grigg Jr. took off for his family home. Leaping over rubble piles and shimmying under snapped utility poles, he sprinted down streets that no longer looked familiar to him. The Grigg home was located in an open area off West Avenue, just a few blocks west of the central square. At least, it had been located there.

As he ran down West Avenue, Fred Jr. could see that his home was now scattered over 100 yards to the north. He immediately began searching for survivors, but it was no use. His mother and father had been killed instantly. Three of his siblings also lay nearby, their broken bodies entangled in the debris field. Fred found another brother, Carl, bloodied and slumped over on his knees a short distance from the others. He picked him up and started carrying him, but Carl died in his arms before he’d even reached the road.

The youngest Grigg child, 11-year-old Clara, was nowhere to be found. Fred was only told that she was thrown into a tree and had been rushed to the hospital. For weeks, the only news was a report that her skull had been crushed and she lay dying in one of the hospitals in the region. Remarkably, brother and sister were reunited weeks later. Though she was in a cast “from her ankles to her neck,” young Clara eventually recovered from her injuries.

Another piece of good news came when Fred learned that Frances, his oldest sibling, had survived the collapse at Newman’s department store. Unfortunately, that news was quickly followed by another blow. Just across the square from Newman’s, the Griggs’ family store had also been reduced to ruins. Fred’s grandfather — likely standing at the front of the store and peering out the window, as he often liked to do when a storm came up — was buried under the building and crushed.

Gainesville residents walk through the collapsed ruins of the Grigg family store.

Great billows of smoke were still rising up from below the ruins of the Cooper Pants Factory, where Mary Ann Sexton had been trapped in a collapsed stairwell for more than an hour. Fractured timbers directly in front of and behind her had burst into flames, exposing her face to searing heat and melting the soles of her shoes. Occasional screams and cries and desperate confessions rang out from elsewhere under the rubble, only to sink back into the eerie silence of crackling flames as another victim perished.

Finally, Mary Ann could hear the muffled sound of voices above her. Police, firemen and ordinary citizens crawled over the smoldering rubble, digging with their bare hands in search of survivors. Hearing her cries for help, two men cleared away enough debris to pull her out and carry her to safety. She blacked out as she was rescued, waking some time later in a shop across the street. She’d suffered broken ribs and terrible burns, the skin on her face and arms blistered, but she had survived.

According to reports, Mary Ann Sexton is believed to have been the last person pulled from the rubble of the Cooper Pants Factory alive. Elsewhere, the city of Gainesville once again burned. The municipal fire department was partially destroyed, blocking the doors and preventing the tanker truck from being moved. Telephone service was disrupted, disabling the city’s fire alarm system and further complicating the initial response.

Although crews were swiftly called in from more than a half-dozen surrounding communities, firemen and other responders struggled to reach victims buried beneath Gainesville’s wreckage. The intense heat of the flames, combined with streets that were strewn with piles of rubble up to 10 feet high, made many fires virtually inaccessible. Low water pressure created yet another challenge, forcing crews to prioritize which fires would be fought.

For days afterward, volunteers and rescue crews recovered bodies and burnt remains as they sifted through the ruins of the former jewel of the Blue Ridge foothills. Loss and suffering were everywhere, but at the Cooper Pants Factory, the scale of the tragedy was incomprehensible. At least 70 people never made it out of the factory as it collapsed and burned. It remains the greatest tornado-related loss of life in a single building in American history.

After grinding through the downtown district of Gainesville, the great tornado again split into a pair of large and powerful twisters. At least one of the whirlwinds tore through nearby New Holland, sweeping away “scores of homes.” The Pacolet No. 6 textile mill, which had been the scene of the greatest destruction and loss of life in the 1903 tornado, was again heavily damaged. In this area, some trees were again left “standing without a limb or shred of bark.” Unfortunately, as in Tupelo, the path of the tornado(es) outside of the city received very little attention. It’s difficult to say precisely when or where either vortex dissipated, though some reports suggested damage may have continued as far as northern Banks County, about 20 miles to the northeast.

Regardless of the exact path, and regardless of whether it’s counted as one, two or even three tornadoes, the Gainesville tornado event stands as one of the most uniquely destructive ever recorded. The precise death toll again remains unknown, primarily because many of the victims were consumed in the infernal flames. The official toll is 203, but as many as 40 people were still missing at the time the count was taken.

This damage map, created shortly after the tornado by The Sanborn Map Co., offers a tremendously detailed overview of the destruction in Gainesville’s downtown area.

A little over an hour later, another tornado — possibly from the same supercell — produced a tornado that ripped through portions of Franklin and Hart counties. It flattened four homes near Carnesville and caused “significant timber damage” in a nearby forest. Sweeping northeast, it destroyed half a dozen more homes in Lavonia, claiming one victim before dissipating southeast of Gumlog.

At about the same time, a final tornado rumbled through Anderson County, South Carolina. Striking the Appleton Mills area, the twister destroyed two large mills and did hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. The funnel, more than a quarter-mile wide, then plunged into the northwestern side of the town of Anderson. Several dozen homes were “completely demolished or shaken from their foundations,” killing a 70-year-old man and injuring about 30 others. Three people were hurt at Anderson College when the storm blew out many windows on campus. Half a dozen farms also sustained significant damage north of Belton before the tornado lifted, finally bringing the outbreak to a merciful end.

The tornado outbreak of April 5–6, 1936 proved to be an unprecedented calamity. Never before or since have two tornadoes in a single outbreak killed more than 100 people — let alone more than 200. Though a full accounting of the death toll may never be possible, it’s clear that no outbreak in history — aside from the singular Tri-State Tornado — has ever claimed more lives.

The summer that followed it, much like the winter that preceded it, was also exceptional. It saw a scorching, long-duration heat wave embroil much of the country, shattering countless records and securing its place as the hottest summer ever recorded. And yet, in perhaps one of the most extreme and volatile years of weather the nation has ever known, the Tupelo – Gainesville outbreak stands alone.

^ a: It’s not clear whether this was the same tornado that struck Tignall. Initial reports from the U.S. Weather Bureau suggested two separate storms, while press reports, as well as the timing and the distinctive southeasterly direction of the damage paths, indicate the work of a single tornado, or multiple tornadoes from the same supercell.

^ b: As with the Tignall tornado, it’s not clear whether the Neyami and Cordele events were a single long-track tornado or two or more tornadoes in the same family. The Weather Bureau’s summary of Severe Local Storms suggests it may have been one tornado, but no evidence for a continuous path could be found.

^ c: Some sources list a death toll of 17, but this appears to include two victims who were killed by fallen electrical lines after the event, as well as one woman who had a heart attack upon seeing the devastation.

^ d: Because not all of the names were reported and little effort was made to follow up on the fates of the victims, it’s not clear whether all of the injured ultimately survived.

^ e: Newspaper reports indicated that the death toll in the “Negro settlements” of rural Pontotoc County was “expected to be heavy,” but no list of names or concrete figures was released.

^ f: Though generally considered a single tornado, reports from those who viewed the damage path suggest that little or no damage was done in the “Coonewah Bottom” area.

^ g: Once again, final tolls are difficult to determine due to the implicit disregard for Black citizens and predominantly Black neighborhoods at the time. Reports of “unidentified victims” being found in various numbers in Auburn appeared after the storm, but they were rarely followed up in the press.

^ h: After this point, the storm passed over the area around the Tombigbee River known as “The Bottom” — dense, swampy bottomlands that are largely hostile to human habitation. It’s possible the supercell may have cycled here, but there’s simply no way to tell in such a remote area. Given available evidence, I’ve plotted the event as a single tornado.

^ i: There’s no way to be certain that this event was produced by the same supercell that produced the Tupelo tornado, but it’s the most likely scenario given the timing, location, path orientation, etc.

10 comments on “April 5–6, 1936 — The Tupelo–Gainesville Outbreak

  1. Great blog, thanks so much for covering this one. I was actually hoping you’d cover the Gainesville “two tornado intersection” event some day. I have some of these pics in a publication called “A City Laid Waste,” which you probably have. In the back of that book, there is a large memorial section which includes only pictures of the white victims and empty “no photo” boxes for all the black victims. The Gum Pond photo of black men dragging the water is a great find. Nice job on the colorizing also.

    • Thanks James! I’ve read some excerpts from “A City Laid Waste” but I don’t have the book itself. It was quite startling to see how Black victims were treated, not only among local sources but even in major newspapers and official documents. I suppose it shouldn’t have been considering the time and place, but still.

      Anyway, glad you liked it!

  2. Fascinating, very well researched and well written blog! I am highly impressed. Very addictive as well. You truly bring the (terrifying) past to life. After reading this and several other entries, I have to ask – time and interest permitting – if you might be interested in looking into the 1944 Appalachian tornado outbreak. Not only was this a deadly event, most of the deaths happened in West Virginia, a state not known for powerful tornadoes, and one that is less prepared than most in the event of a repeat. Thank you!

    • Thanks! I’m working on the May 31, 1985 outbreak right now, but the 1944 outbreak is definitely one that’s been on my list for a long time. One of the most unique tornado events on record, and it rarely receives the attention it deserves.

      I don’t know whether I’ll ever get to it, but it’s one I’ve always wanted to research for sure.

      • I really look forward to that one! I’m from the (general) area, I wasn’t very close to the action that day but my father had coworkers and friends in Niles, Ohio; fortunately the facility where they worked only suffered light damage. Heard horror stories about the Pymatuning tornado and that was an F2. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I am a descendant of a niece of Jennie Bell Burroughs who was raised by the family after her parents were killed. My mother often talked about the family of 13 all dying together in a tornado. As a teenager, I thought this must be one of those horror stories southern people love to tell their children, but when I set out to find the truth, I was completely stunned and heartbroken. I have been trying to find out as much information about the family as I can for the last 20 years. I did not know that Jim’s brother Tim had tried to warn the family or that their mother’s name was Mahalia. My mother’s middle name was Mahalie. It is such an unusual name that we have long wondered where it came from. I suspect there is a connection here. Do you know of any other personal information about the Burroughs family or any pictures? I cannot even find a photograph of their family headstone in the Priceville cemetery. I would be so grateful for anything as I live across the country from Mississippi. This family means a great deal to me. Thank you so much for preserving these precious stories.

  4. I return to your wonderful blog every year or so to reread your posts. Always well-written, detailed, and excellent in every way. I was happy to see a few new posts, please keep it up!

  5. Natalie, I’m not sure you’ll see this message, but I am researching the Dill family in Itawamba county who lost their home in this tornado (and, oddly enough, who had a granddaughter adopted by Tim and Ola Mae). I have some newspaper articles about Jim and his family dying in this tornado. Their tombstones are also on Findagrave. Their last name is listed without the S at the end.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s