Volunteers, cash donations and emergency supplies continued to pour into Sherman on May 22, 1896 a full week after a terrible twister destroyed much of the North Texas town and took dozens of lives.
Four years shy of the 20th century, the community within spitting distance of the Red River was home to 7,500 people, a sixth of the present-day population. The seat of Grayson County was named for Sidney Sherman, a hero of the Texas Revolution, not the Union general who laid waste to Georgia.
The fatal funnel first appeared over Denton and Pilot Point late Friday afternoon on the 15th of May but did not touch down until it reached the outskirts of Sherman at a little before five o’clock. Without the early alarm system of today, the unsuspecting populace had no warning of the imminent danger.
H.L. Piner presented a gripping if somewhat over-the-top account of the worst day in local history in his book Sherman’s Black Friday. As the professor told it, the violent vortex made landfall 5 miles southwest of the city limits and announced its presence with a deafening “death-dealing blast” that could be heard for blocks.
“The horrible calamity swept across the city with overwhelming suddenness. Many were prostrated at the news, more at the sight of the disaster. The living suffered the agonies of the dying,” Pine wrote.
Frightened parents grabbed their children and headed for the family storm shelter. Shop owners and their customers in the downtown business district ducked for cover, while everyone in city hall rushed downstairs to the basement.
As the storm cut a swath of destruction through residential neighborhoods, 400 students and staff at two women’s colleges huddled together in prayer. Mary Nash College, open since 1877, and North Texas Female College, which dated back to the Civil War decade, faced each other on opposite sides of the same street.
By all rights, the sister schools should have been flattened. But at the last moment the F-5 tornado with its shrieking and swirling 250 mile-an-hour winds “zigzagged to the west” narrowly missing both educational institutions and leaving the schoolgirls and teachers to wonder for the rest of their lives why they were spared.
Other inhabitants were just as fortunate. One lucky family was blown into the basement of their frame house scant seconds before the structure collapsed into kindling. In a scene straight out of The Wizard of Oz, the twister picked up another house and carried it at an altitude of 30 feet to the other side of town before returning it to earth undamaged. The family that went along for the amazing ride suffered only bumps and bruises.
Like all tornadoes, the Sherman twister had its share of odd occurrences. Here’s just a sample: A piano was found covered by a rug and in perfect playing condition. A dead snake was wrapped tightly around a limb in one of the few trees still standing. A thin splinter pierced six full cans of lye like a shish kabob. A display cabinet custom-made for photographs landed intact in a field more than halfway to Denison, the nearest town.
The funnel cloud was on the ground for 28 miles. The path of destruction that began 5 miles southwest of Sherman ended in the farmland north of town.
Lifeless bodies were everywhere—in streets covered by uprooted trees and every kind of debris imaginable, in creeks, where unconscious victims drowned in the shallow water and, of course, in what was left of more than 50 demolished homes.
The gruesome chore of identifying the dead was made even more difficult by the condition of the corpses. In one heart-rending instance, a husband examined the battered face of a woman three times before he finally recognized her as his missing wife.
By the next afternoon, authorities had confirmed the passing of 65 citizens, all of whom had been killed instantly or died within minutes. Another 58 were being treated in the local hospital for a wide range of injuries, many life-threatening, while an undetermined number were recovering in private homes.
The final death toll may have been as high as 75 or 80. If that is the case, the Sherman tornado of 1896 was the third deadliest in Texas history behind Goliad in 1902 and Waco in 1953, where twisters killed an identical number of Texans—114.
Sherman turned out to be just the first stop of an historic “super storm” that unleashed 38 confirmed tornadoes across nine states in the central U.S. over a span of 14 days. Two hundred and fifty-five perished in East St. Louis alone, and the grand total of 484 fatalities could have filled a graveyard.
Mattie East was the blind daughter of a former minstrel, who had inherited her mother’s gift for music. She wrote and often sang a song about the Sherman tragedy that included this verse:
“We heard the crash of timbers, of buildings falling down./ Distressing screams of victims, oh, what a dreadful sound./ It would melt the hardest heart to hear them loudly cry./ ‘Oh, God, have mercy on me. Is this my time to die?’”