The Cordele and Gainesville Tornadoes, April 1936

The first week of April in 1936 has long been remembered for two of the deadliest tornadoes of the twentieth century: the Tupelo, Mississippi storm (often rated as an EF5) on April 5th and the Gainesville, Georgia storm (often rated as an EF4) on April 6th. These have often been labeled the fourth and fifth deadliest tornadoes in United States history. Not as well known, however, were EF4 tornadoes that occurred earlier in that week at Greensboro, North Carolina and at Cordele, Georgia. In Georgia on April 2nd, tornadoes also hit Athens, Dawson, Leesburg, Lincolnton, Sasser, Tignal, and Washington. On the 6th, in addition to Gainesville, Acworth, Lavonia, and Woodstock also suffered damage. This blog entry will not repeat the information that has been summarized well on other sites. Instead, I will use records from the Georgia Archives to examine other aspects of the tragedies at Cordele and Gainesville.

In recent years, a great deal of information about the Gainesville, Georgia tornado of April 6, 1936 has appeared online. An especially thorough site is the Digital Library of Georgia’s “The 1936 Gainesville Tornado: Disaster and Recovery,” http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/tornado/. The site uses materials from several sources including the Georgia Archives, the Hall County Library System, and the Georgia State University Library’s Digital Collections and contains an interactive map, photographs, postcards and even clips of motion picture film. Morris Technology, owner of several Georgia newspapers, has posted images of newspaper front pages covering the Gainesville disaster, and links may be found at the tornado page of the Gainesville Times, http://www.gainesvilletimes.com/flat/tornado36/. Perry Williams compiled weather observations from the first week of April in 1936 and posted his analysis of the conditions that produced the tornadoes at this site: http://www.alabamawx.com/?p=43454. Unfortunately, there is not much about the Cordele storm currently online.

The Vanishing Georgia Collection of the Georgia Archives has only one photograph of the damage at Cordele. This was the home of J.J. Williams, Sr. on 14th Avenue.

Cordele tornado damage, 1936 crp013

The Gainesville tornado of April 6, 1936 was much better documented in photographs.  Proximity to Atlanta allowed news photographers to get to the scene very quickly.  The visit of Franklin Roosevelt to the city a few days later also increased national interest as he promised federal assistance for the cleanup and rebuilding.  The following two photographs provide a sample of the photographs in the Vanishing Georgia Collection.

Gainesville, April 1936 hal007

Gainesville, April 1936 hal118

Governor Eugene Talmadge dispatched the National Guard to both cities immediately.  The Georgia Archives has copies of the proclamations both in the Governor’s Proclamations and in the official records of the Adjutant General.  The language of the Cordele and Gainesville proclamations is identical except for the names of the officials requesting assistance:  Superior Court Judge A. J. McDonald and City Manager J. R. Brown of Cordele, and Judge B. P. Gaillard and Sheriff I. L. Lawson of Hall County.  The following is the Cordele proclamation.

Georgia Archives, RG 22/1/10 Defense-Adjutant General

Lindley W. Camp, the Adjutant General sent Col. Lewis C. Pope, 121st Infantry, to Cordele and Col. Thomas L. Alexander, 122nd Infantry, to Gainesville.  The following is Alexander’s letter from Camp authorizing him to go to Gainesville immediately.

Georgia Archives, RG 22/1/10 Defense-Adjutant General

 

Alexander and five companies of the 122nd rushed to Gainesville to help coordinate the search and rescue activities.  Also, hundreds of federal CCC and WPA workers from all over the northeastern part of Georgia came to Gainesville.  First to arrive, however, were a large number of policemen and firemen from the city of Atlanta.

I have been interested in how casualties from disasters were reported in the newspapers.  Frequently numbers in early reports were inflated.  In some areas the racial makeup of the casualties and survivors also made tracking casualties somewhat difficult.  I was especially interested in what has become a standard observation for the Tupelo tornado.  I found language like this on a number of websites:  “This death toll is also inaccurate because African-Americans were not counted.”  The Tornado Project site in its discussion of Tupelo has a more detailed explanation:

Since only the names of the white injured were published in newspapers, it is not possible to follow up on the fate of the black injured. This racial aspect of tornado documentation was common until the late-1940’s, and occasionally present, in some form, until the mid-1950’s.

In order to test this assertion, in this blog post I have evaluated the way African American and white deaths were reported in both the Gainesville and Cordele tornadoes.

I have labeled this Georgia Weather History blog as being an occasional blog.  Research and pulling together information from old records still takes time even in this electronic world.  I  am presenting this draft now because many folks will be looking for information about the Cordele and Gainesville tornadoes during the first week of April.  I still have many more sources to check and corrections to make.  My evaluation [certainly not exhaustive at this point] of the press coverage of the Georgia tornadoes shows that the number of African American deaths was reported with reasonable accuracy.  In Cordele, the names of African Americans were not published; but in Gainesville, the names did appear on all of the published lists.  Initial reports often exaggerated the number of casualties.  For example, the Associated Press on April 2, 1936 quoted the City Manager of Cordele as saying that “at least thirty-three were killed in Cordele, eight white persons and twenty-five Negroes.”  The article went on to list names of five of the whites and none of the African Americans.  By the next day, the AP reported the Cordele total as eighteen.  The final total was twenty-one.

A source that allows us to check the casualty counts in the newspapers is now open for research.  In 1919, Georgia began a system of uniform registration of deaths.  By law, the certificates are closed for seventy-five years.  The 1936 certificates only recently became available for public use at the Georgia Archives.  I compiled a spreadsheet for the Cordele tornado deaths and one for the Gainesville deaths.  I then matched up the names on the death certificates with the names in various available newspaper accounts.  To ensure that I found all of the deaths, I looked at all of the April death certificates for all of the surrounding counties.  The Cordele deaths were all recorded in Crisp County.  Some of the Gainesville deaths were recorded in Fulton County because victims had been transported to Grady Hospital, and two deaths occurred in the State Tuberculosis Sanitarium in Alto in Habersham County where a number of injured were taken.  The following is an example of a death certificate from Hall County.

George Cheek death certificate

The following is a spreadsheet showing the 21 dead from the tornado in Cordele.  Please scroll across to see the entire entry for each storm victim.  Spelling has been transcribed exactly the way it appears on the death certificates.  At the far right is a column checking off the names that appeared in the newspapers.

The final death toll was 21 of whom nine were white and twelve victims were African American.

The spreadsheet below includes all of those who died in the 1936 Gainesville tornado or later from injuries received in the tornado and had a death certificate filed with the state of Georgia.  If you scroll to the far right, you will find a column showing if the person was listed in newspaper accounts.

I am still working on these spreadsheets and have not yet consolidated all of the lists published in the Atlanta and Gainesville newspapers or found all of the published obituaries. The “final ” death toll appeared in the papers on 4/16/1936, but the last death certificate for a storm victim listed April 23rd as the date of death.  There is a discrepancy between the number of death certificates (136) and the numbers of dead reported by the Red Cross to the newspapers.  It appears that the difference largely comes from the reports of the building collapse and the subsequent inferno at the Cooper Manufacturing Company or the pants factory as it was known.  The Gainesville Eagle reported on 4/16/1936 in a caption under a photograph of the ruined building that over 100 lost their lives in the building.  Not all of the death certificates stated where the body had been found, but over thirty certificates were for pants factory employees (almost all white women).

There are clues in the newspaper reports about why totals varied so much. Early newspaper reports around the country on the afternoon of April 6th were that at least 48 had died at Gainesville.  The next afternoon, the Atlanta Journal  listed 183 known dead including 119 identified whites, 17 Negroes, and 47 bodies burned beyond recognition.  The paper also had a report that a Cooper official stated that 125 had been trapped and 60 to 65 were still in the collapsed building.  On the 8th, the Atlanta Journal fixed the total at 188 known dead including 154 identified and 34 unidentified with about 25 still missing.  The paper said that 48 bodies had been recovered from Cooper Manufacturing Company.  The same day, the Gainesville News had an official total of 184 but noted that Red Cross officials admitted the list “is not absolutely accurate.” The so-called “final official” total from the Red Cross that appeared in the Gainesville Eagle on April 16, 1936 was killed 149, missing, 17, and “reported dead but no death certificate” 29.   The racial makeup was white 127, and “colored” 23.  The list of victims by name had 152 names, two “charred bodies,” and one unidentified “colored” baby found in a cistern.

The generally accepted death toll for the 1936 Gainesville tornado appears to me only a best guess.  Who were these people reported dead with no death certificate?  The Atlanta Journal on April 7th probably had the best explanation for the variation in counts when it described the Cooper factory’s collapse: