History: in their own, sensational words

As we gear up for the kickstarter chaos and I head into the final lap of creating the book, I’ve decided to revisit one of the inspirations that lead me to this story in the first place. I’m currently re-reading “History of the New Richmond Cyclone” which you can find in it’s entirety at the Wisconsin History website. Immediately following the New Richmond tornado, a woman named Mary Adeline Boehm (or “Mrs. A. G. Boehm ” as title page confusingly names her) wrote a book detailing the stories of the survivors.

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Written in the most lavish, uncensored, over-the-top prose imaginable, Boehm gives us everything from the (now sort of out dated) science of tornadoes, to horror novel-esque scenes of personified fire (not kidding here) slowly approaching its victims, trapped helplessly under tornado debris. There are numerous accounts of seeing the storm forming which all seem to match up and be reasonably factual. But then there are also stories that seem mildly embellished and still more that were probably made up all together.

Published less than a year after the event, it already held the feel of a legend. Without the proliferation of cell phone cameras, hand held video recorders, and 911 calls, the stories of the survivors were the closest thing to coverage of what actually happened that day. Much like the newspapers of the time, Boehm ads literary flourishes that would make any modern writer blush with embarrassment, for example, breaking mid-paragraph to exclaim “Merciful God!” or “Oh! The sights that met the gaze of the survivors!” In fact, there are a lot of exclamation points used in general! More than a modern reader would think possible! More than any document needs really!

The language of it is simultaneously fascinating and totally distracting. It feels embarrassing to read about a natural disaster in this way, because it affected real people and would now be considered insensitive. It’s hard to imagine reading about Hurricane Katrina or the Joplin, Missouri tornado in this writing style. The dead are named and often described as being “burnt to crisp” or “mangled beyond recognition” and even “head severed completely from body”. Then the grisly details are hastily followed by more kindly descriptions: “Mr. Martin was much esteemed by his acquaintances as a congenial good fellow, possessing many engaging qualities, which endeared him to all who knew him.”

Given the intense power of tornado winds, it’s difficult to separate the facts from the tall tales. While it’s feasible that the tornado picked up a three-ton safe and dropped it several blocks away, it’s not so likely that black-haired men had their hair turned white by the horrors they witnessed. Or that a man driving his stage coach down main street was lifted up, horses and all, and deposited safely some distance away, with the horses never missing a step. There are countless stories involving the whereabouts of parlor pianos and iron cook stoves.

The reason I’ve returned to this endearing work of literature, is that it is the voice that I’ve adopted in writing “The Circus and the Cyclone”. It didn’t feel too outlandish to invent my own story here, because the event itself has become a tall tale of its own. The language is topsy-turvy and sensational enough for the two  topics and I’m really enjoying working with both the historical materials as well as the imaginary ones.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Mrs. Boehm. I took this as a personal challenge of sorts when I first read it:

“The bare truth of the New Richmond storm is so vastly superior to the tale of a dreamer that one hesitates to repeat it.” – Mrs. A. G. Boehm, 1900