A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. Photo credit: George E. Marsh
The early European explorers thought the Great Plains was unsuitable for agriculture. The land is semi-arid and is prone to extended drought, alternating with periods of unusual wetness.
But the federal government was eager to see the land settled and cultivated. After the end of the Civil War in 1865, a series of federal land acts were passed granting settlers hundreds of acres of land. These acts led to a massive influx of new and inexperienced farmers across the Great Plains.
A stretch of unusually wet weather in the beginning of the 20th century confirmed the belief that the Plains could be tamed after all, leading to increased settlement and cultivation.
Farmers ploughed through the land eliminating the native grasses that held the fine soil in place. When crops began to fail with the onset of drought in 1930, the bare soil became exposed to the wind, and it began to blow away in massive dust storms that blackened the sky.
These choking billows of dust, named “black blizzards”, travelled across the country, reaching as far as the East Coast and striking such cities as New York City and Washington, D.C.
“The impact is like a shovelful of fine sand flung against the face,” Avis D. Carlson wrote in a New Republic article. “People caught in their own yards grope for the doorstep. Cars come to a standstill, for no light in the world can penetrate that swirling murk… We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions. It is becoming Real.”
The term “dust bowl” was coined by Edward Stanley, Kansas City news editor of the Associated Press. Originally it referred to the geographical area affected by the dust, but today the entire event is referred to as the Dust Bowl.
After the winds passed and the dust settled, President Franklin Roosevelt initiated a huge project to plant hundreds of millions of trees across the Great Plains to create a giant windbreak. Known as a shelterbelt, it consisted of 220 million trees stretching in a 100-mile wide zone from Canada to northern Texas, to protect the land from wind erosion.
On May 1, 1915, the ship departed New York City bound for Liverpool. Unknown to her passengers but probably no secret to the Germans, almost all her hidden cargo consisted of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort.
As the fastest ship afloat, the luxurious liner felt secure in the belief she could easily outdistance any submarine. Nonetheless, the menace of submarine attack reduced her passenger list to only half her capacity.
On May 7, the ship neared the coast of Ireland. At 2:10 in the afternoon a torpedo fired by the German submarine U 20 slammed into her side. A mysterious second explosion ripped the liner apart. Chaos reigned.
The ship listed so badly and quickly that lifeboats crashed into passengers crowded on deck, or dumped their loads into the water. Most passengers never had a chance. Within 18 minutes the giant ship slipped beneath the sea. One thousand one hundred nineteen of the 1,924 aboard died. The dead included 114 Americans.
Walter Schwieger was captain of the U-Boat that sank the Lusitania. He watched through his periscope as the torpedo exploded and noted the result in his log, “The ship stops immediately and heals over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow.
It appears as if the ship were going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. In connection therewith great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first and founder immediately.”
In the ship’s nursery Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the world’s richest men, and playwright Carl Frohman tied life jackets to wicker “Moses baskets” holding infants in an attempt to save them from going down with the ship.
The rising water carried the baskets off the ship but none survived the turbulence created as the ship sank to the bottom. The sea also claimed Vanderbilt and Frohman.
The sinking enraged American public opinion. The political fallout was immediate. President Wilson protested strongly to the Germans. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, a pacifist, resigned.
In September, the Germans announced that passenger ships would be sunk only with prior warning and appropriate safeguards for passengers. However, the seeds of American animosity towards Germany were sown.
On 27 January 1903, 52 people, all female, lost their lives when a fire swept through the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum.
This high death toll marks the tragedy as the worst peacetime fire in London’s history since the medieval period. Yet it’s rare to find a Londoner who’s heard of it.
Colney Hatch Asylum in New Southgate, operated by the London County Council, was an institution housing over 3,000 of the “pauper insane”.
The facility had been identified as at significant fire risk by authorities — many of the inmates were housed in temporary timber wings, and the complex was famous for its long corridors.
In 1903, the inevitable happened. One of the timber wards caught fire and, aided by strong winds, the conflagration spread. The asylum’s fire-fighting ability was limited, and the local fire authorities had to dam a stream to raise sufficient water for dousing.
A press report from the Boston Evening Transcript paints a very grim picture of the ensuing tragedy:
Some of the lunatics were burned in their beds, and the charred remains of others were found huddled together in corners, while groups of partially consumed bodies on the site of the corridors showed that many persons lost their lives and sacrificed those of others in their frantic efforts to force a passage through the flames to the main building.
In the early 20th Century, psychiatric patients were held in very low regard. The same press cutting offers several insights into the views of the time. Beneath the headline “50 Lunatics Perish” runs the subheading “Many Escaped and Are Now at Large”, as though these unfortunate women were dangerous criminals.
It’s also noted that the fire occurred in the Jewish Wing — this may have been partly for practical reasons, such as shared dietary needs, but the temptation is to suspect a prejudice.
Very little further information can be found online.
A Times cutting describes the disaster in less lurid tones, others are gathered here. The Wikipedia page for the institution offers just one sentence.
After the fire, the Colney Hatch Asylum was renamed Friern Hospital, and remained a centre for psychiatric care until closing in 1993.