Dodging doomsday in 1906

By Doug Moe


05/30/07 - The Capital Times


AN EAU CLAIRE author named Chad Lewis has published a new book of old Wisconsin newspaper stories, and the best one out of Madison is headlined: "Cursed City Still There."

The story in the book is not from a Madison newspaper but rather the June 19, 1906, Eau Claire Leader.

It begins: "Sheepishly, quiet and shamefacedly, 1,500 residents of Madison came back to their homes last night after having spent 24 hours in waiting to hear that Madison had sunk and been engulfed by the inrush of the waters of the surrounding lakes. The prophecy of a religious exhorter, which created consternation among certain residents, did not come true. He declared that the lakes would rise up and engulf the city. The man who made the prediction called himself Professor Jones.' "

After reading this bit from Lewis' book, which is titled "Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin: Strange, Unusual and Bizarre Newspaper Stories 1860-1910," I thought immediately of the late Madison attorney Edward Ben Elson, who in 1973 made it into Time magazine when he claimed that the comet Kohoutek would be landing on the shore of Lake Monona to take his chosen few away from certain doom.

Time noted: "In McFarland, Wis., the self-proclaimed head of the Church of Odd Infinitum, Edward Ben Elson, is selling tickets at $10 each for his intergalactic spaceship. He says it will take off Dec. 24 before the comet's gases can ignite the earth's oil supply and bring death to most of mankind."

As mentioned, the 1906 newspaper story about the prediction of a disastrous flood in Madison appeared in a newspaper in Eau Claire.

On Tuesday I checked to see if the Wisconsin State Journal had covered the doomsday prophecy. I guarantee you The Capital Times would have been on it, but there was no Cap Times until 1917.

The State Journal did indeed cover the nervous days leading up to Madison's 1906 potential apocalypse, although the details are significantly different from what wound up in the Eau Claire paper after the fact.

The first mention of it appears to have been in the June 7, 1906, State Journal.

A front page story carried this headline: "MADISON IS DOOMED: LATEST DOPE BY WOMAN." The secondary headline read: "Unknown Female Prophet is Said to Have Made a Wild Prediction About the Capital City."

The story began: "Madison is doomed. On Sunday, June 17, the fair city of the west, with its capitol, splendid university buildings and good people, will collapse, and the waters of Lakes Mendota and Monona will rise and sweep over the once beautiful and proud municipality."

There is no mention in this story (or any subsequent State Journal stories) of the Professor Jones of the Eau Claire article. The tone of the first State Journal story mocks the doomsday prediction, though it did run on Page 1.

"According to street talk," the story continued, "such a prediction has been made by a woman who is said to have anticipated the 'Frisco calamity."

Two months earlier, in April 1906, San Francisco had been hit by a devastating earthquake.

A week after the first State Journal story, the paper had given her a nickname and played its second story at the top of Page 1, though they stopped short of taking it completely seriously: "Whither Goest Thou on Sunday?" the headline read. "Calamity Jane's Prophecy to Have Direful Effect."

The story noted there were "Madison people who have a sneaking dread that there may be some basis to the predictions that an awful calamity will overwhelm Madison next Sunday (when Mendota is to rise, or the Capitol hill is to sink, or the skies are to fall, or something. It would be interesting to know how many people in Madison have some secret dread because of the preachings of Calamity Jane.' It seems quite clear there are some."

By Friday's paper, the State Journal had concluded that a great many in Madison were taking the threat seriously. On Page 1 the paper noted: "It is astonishing and ludicrous how widely the prophecy of Madison's destruction is discussed. One woman is reported to have drawn $700 from her bank and sent it to Chicago friends. She will leave the city before Sunday. A milkman reports that all but three persons on his route have informed him that they want no milk Sunday. That means they will not be in the city. Several people are going to Blue Mounds because that is the highest point in the state.' "

Saturday, the day before the predicted apocalypse, brought this State Journal headline: "ARE YOU ONE OF THE FOOLISH ONES?" The story began: "Madison -- foolish Madison, has actually taken stock in the prediction that a calamity will befall the city tomorrow. ... The fact is no one knows just exactly where the story of Calamity Jane' started." The paper quoted city resident D. K. Tenney: "I never knew Madison had so many idiots."

Monday's paper had a story with this headline: "Madison is safe." The story began: "Howdy, everybody. And wasn't it a lovely, quiet and uneventful Sunday. A great many people left town so they don't know. Calamity Jane' proved to be all of a joke."

A great story. I remember again my old friend Eddie Elson, who for years after the comet Kohoutek failed to land on the shore of Lake Monona on Christmas Eve 1973 answered every inquiry with the immortal words:

"What comet?"

Heard something Moe should know? Call 252-6446, write PO Box 8060, Madison, WI 53708, or e-mail dmoe@madison.com

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