As I wrote this — late Friday
afternoon — there were jokes around
the newsroom about the possibility
of the world ending the next day.
Obviously I didn't believe May 21
was going to be Judgment Day, or why
would I be writing a column for
Still, the conversation drifted to
what we might have for a last meal,
and after a lot of consideration — a
Garibaldi from Paisan's, a fish fry
from the Laurel, steak and hash
browns from Smoky's — I decided that
for any number of reasons, mine had
to be a cheeseburger.
Don't ask me from where, the
question is too overwhelming. But I
also knew what my last words would
be: "Lutefisk never passed these
Actually, what all the doomsday talk
did is remind me that there is
nothing new under the sun.
There have been other dire Judgment
Day predictions, and doubtless there
will be more in the future.
Once, however, the doomsday scenario
was specific to Madison.
Few people know about it, but it
happened, and a surprising number of
people took it seriously.
I first heard about it in a 2007
book by Eau Claire author Chad Lewis
"Hidden Headlines of Wisconsin:
Strange, Unusual and Bizarre
Newspaper Stories 1860-1910."
Lewis quoted a June 1906 article
from the Eau Claire Leader that said
"a religious exhorter" had claimed
that Madison's lakes would rise up
and engulf the city.
I was intrigued enough to go into
our microfilm collection at the
newspaper and check out editions of
the Wisconsin State Journal leading
up to June 17, 1906, the day — I
learned — that some feared Madison
would suffer its apocalypse.
The first mention of Madison's
doomsday appeared in the in the June
7 State Journal — 10 days before the
The front page story carried this
headline: "MADISON IS DOOMED: LATEST
DOPE BY WOMAN."
The deck, or secondary headline,
read: "Unknown Female Prophet is
Said to Have Made a Wild Prediction
About the Capital City."
The State Journal story mocked the
prediction, as the story's lead
indicates: "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 Lake Mendota and Monona
will rise and sweep over the once
beautiful and proud municipality."
The paper noted that "according to
street talk," the prediction was
made by an unnamed woman who had
predicted the San Francisco
earthquake two months earlier.
To the apparent dismay of State
Journal journalists, who dubbed the
woman "Calamity Jane," many in
Madison took the prophecy seriously.
A page one story two days before the
purported doomsday 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 on 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."
The next day, D-Day minus one, the
State Journal headline read: "ARE
YOU ONE OF THE FOOLISH ONES?" The
story opened: "Madison — foolish
Madison, has actually taken stock in
the prediction that a calamity will
befall the city tomorrow."
The sun came up on June 17, and,
well, nothing happened.
Would the State Journal let it go
and not say I told you so? Of course
The next day's headline read:
"Madison is safe." And 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."
If you're reading this, I guess May
21 wasn't so bad either.
Until the next Judgment Day, take
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or
firstname.lastname@example.org. His column
appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday