1927 tornado destroyed swaths of Indianapolis in minutes, sounded 'like a huge siren'
Almost 100 years ago, a furious tornado flattened hundreds of homes and businesses in Indianapolis, an incident whose devastation might not be visible now save for the jaw-dropping photography of it.
A well-circulated panoramic image of the May 18, 1927, storm still crops up online, in books and in at least one store — Kirklin's White Lion Antiques — where IndyStar photographer Michelle Pemberton bought a framed print.
It captures more than 30 people who, despite their number, are dwarfed by the mass of shredded boards and gutted homes holding gaping windows that once witnessed calm sitting rooms and bedrooms on the near east side. Some of the individuals are staring at the camera, hands on hips, balancing on fallen walls and crumbled foundations. Their gazes are steely, determined, grim, sometimes cast down.
The storm's fury through downtown and the east side lasted less than 10 minutes — 600 seconds that spun what the Indianapolis Star and News initially estimated to be about $3 million in damage, which would be more than $51 million in 2022.
The story behind the tornado is terrifying for those who endured it, horrifying for the families of two boys who died and unbelievable for the apparent miracles that held off even more tragedy.
Homes thrown up against one another like matchboxes
The storm arrived in the city between 7:51 p.m. and 7:55 p.m. that Wednesday, after spinning in from the west and touching down in the Ben Davis area, where it caused some damage. The tornado lifted and then dropped again, unfurling more fury by whipping through businesses along the National Road downtown — what's now known as Washington Street.
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But it saved its worst for the east side, between Arsenal Avenue and Lasalle Street, Washington and Michigan streets. The Indianapolis News likened the homes to "matchboxes, banged against one another and left in piles of jumbled wreckage."
Contrary to urban myth, tornadoes hit cities as well as rural areas, said Cody Kirkpatrick, senior lecturer in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Indiana University. Thunderstorms that produce tornadoes require a certain balance of humidity, heat, warmth, strong winds at high altitudes and something to cause the air to rise upward and produce clouds, he said. Hoosier weather delivered that in May 1927.
The tornado is now considered to be an EF3, with winds between 136 and 165 mph, said Kirkpatrick, who referenced Thomas Grazulis' book "Significant Tornadoes." Today's experts base ratings on photos of the damage since the tornado occurred before the advent of the Fujita scale and the advancing technology of the past 70 years, he said.
Inside those few minutes, the winds blew quickly and fiercely.
"A tornado moving through would only impact your house or your building for 30 seconds or a minute and then it's over after that," Kirkpatrick said. "The danger of that event that only lasts, what, maybe 60 seconds, is when you have no warning, right, you have no time to prepare for something that extreme and short-lived."
“Before, almost, horror-stricken mothers could rush to the cribs of their little ones, the thing was over,” the News reported.
'A terrifying noise—like a huge siren'
With the devastating winds came violent sounds. The News compared them to the "rear and hum of a fast-speeding railway locomotive or a high-powered airplane," and the accompanying lightning and thunder "rolled like pieces of heavy artillery."
“My only thought was, ‘Oh, Lord, how far is it coming?’” Ed McCammon of 857 Drexel Ave. told the Indianapolis Times the day after the storm. “We had just gotten home when I heard a terrifying noise—like a huge siren. I said to my wife, ‘Get in the cellar, something’s going to happen. I never heard anything like that.’”
Unlike today's 12- or 13-minute notice before major Indiana storms, people in the early 20th century would have had no warning to vacate, Kirkpatrick said.
What's more, regulations that lasted through the early 20th century actually prohibited forecasters from using the word "tornado." Fear of public panic and the belief that there was a relatively small chance of human injury were among the reasons, according to Marlene Bradford's "Scanning the Skies: A History of Tornado Forecasting." In 1950, a Weather Bureau memo addressed the issue, stating that "There is no regulation or order against the forecasting of tornadoes."
Still, people often knew to seek shelter if they could.
"This is an experience that they are somewhat familiar with. They know to go to the basement, they know to huddle down in (the) interior part of the house and that sort of thing," said Nancy Germano, an instructor of history at Butler University who has studied weather history in the context of Terre Haute's 1913 tornado and flood.
W.E. Beatty sensed the approaching winds at a dry goods store and took his 10-year-old daughter home to 32 N. Keystone Ave.
“There was such a terrific noise that Mabel could not hear me call her for an instant. Finally a flash of lightning enabled me to see her. I called and ran to her," he told the Times.
“Just as I grabbed her clothing, a terrific wind nearly blew us into the street. With timbers and bricks flying on all sides I held my daughter between my legs and made up my mind that whatever came it would strike me first.”
By a minute or two after 8 p.m., the News noted that the worst had passed in the city.
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In the aftermath of the tornado, photo studios likely were allowed in to take images of the devastation before cleanup began, said Susan Sutton, director of access and preservation at the Indiana Historical Society. The W.H. Bass Photo Co. probably documented the scene without a paying client, at least at first, because one isn't listed in the archives, she said.
Another such business was Starkey and Brown, whose moniker and address at 715 Massachusetts Ave. are on the panoramic photo Pemberton bought. It's in the area of the 100 block of Hamilton Avenue, according to a comparison with another photo a street name attached in the Indiana Historical Society's archives.
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"The main thing to me is: That panoramic shows the scale of destruction and the fact that these homes were in neighborhoods that were considered to be well-kept," Sutton said.
Police had to escort what the News called "a parade of sightseers on foot and in automobiles" away from the damage, only letting in those with homes and businesses in the area.
Downtown proved to be a mess as well, with large swaths of merchandise soaked at D. Somers & Co. furniture store, New York Waist Store and L.S. Ayres and Co., among others. Car accidents had occurred in the streets. The Washington Park baseball grounds saw damage to its fences, scoreboard and more. An electric crane weighing between 40 and 45 tons at Hetherington & Berner iron works was sent flying for 15 yards near Kentucky Avenue and the White River.
North of there, at Washington Street, a 250-foot brick stack of an Indianapolis Water Co. pumping station blew over. Watchman George Brown crossed the street to make a phone call right before it toppled — a move that saved his life, the Star reported.
It was one of many near-misses residents related. A roof beam sailed through a firefighter's house while he slept, ripping off part of his pajamas but leaving him with only a wrenched arm, according to the Star. In another incident, John Gasper raced down the stairs after the roof was torn off and just escaped the house before it collapsed.
At 61 N. Keystone Ave., William Stuart, 70, freed himself from the wreckage to find his wife trapped beneath a side of the house.
"With only lightning flashes to illuminate the junk heap, the husband worked for nearly an hour, trying to free Mrs. Stuart's arms and legs," the Times reported.
She sustained a punctured lung, cuts on her shoulders and head, and a sprained shoulder, according to the account.
A teen and a young boy die
At first, newspapers reported with relief that no one had died. The injury list initially sat at more than 100, they said, with people suffering from cuts and bruises from flying glass, falling plaster and furniture as well as from lacerations, fractures and broken bones.
A day later only about six were in critical condition in hospitals. The stories offered the sense that it could have been many more.
But a 17-year-old died the day after the storm. Earl Wolverton and friend Roger Frey had darted from their car to shelter in entrance of the Arthur Furniture Co. at 2215 E. Washington St. as the storm ripped through the building. Pinned under the wreckage, they rapped on the boards until someone found them, and rescuers lifted the pile on top of them with a jack, according to newspaper accounts.
Wolverton did not survive what were thought to be internal injuries and a fractured collarbone.
On June 6, 1927, a gut-wrenching second death appeared in the news. The storm had thrown 9-year-old Amos Day Jr. against a radiator in his family's 5260 Guilford Ave. home — one of only two struck in the north-side neighborhood, the Times reported.
Days later, his side started to hurt, and then it felt numb. He'd suffered a fractured hip and the bone was rotting away, according to the newspaper. The boy was a Times carrier; the son of city fireman Amos Day, who was on duty during the storm; and a brother to three siblings ages 4 to 12.
Indianapolis' May 1927 storm was one of seven of the EF3 category that have been recorded in Marion County, said Kirkpatrick, who noted that experts rely on newspaper archives for older tornadoes since official records weren't kept before 1950.
The 1927 tornado isn't among the city's well-known historical weather events, perhaps in part because people simply wanted to move back toward normal as soon as possible, Germano said. But before they did, they documented it. Starkey and Brown might have sold a lot of prints, Sutton said, which could be why copies still float around today.
"This was something to remember," she said, "even though it's an unpleasant memory."
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Contact IndyStar reporter Domenica Bongiovanni at 317-444-7339 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter: @domenicareports.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: 1927 Indianapolis tornado blasted through downtown and the east side