It was the spring of 1903 when a 22-year-old cook named Ellen Burnett Jefferson started feeling a strange sense of foreboding. Something dangerous was going to happen. She was certain of it. Though she couldn’t pinpoint what the feeling was or where it was coming from, she was worried.
A few months later, Ellen fell into a trance. She claimed to have a vision of heaven. But that wasn’t all. God spoke to her, she claimed. God told her that Pine Bluff needed to be punished for its wickedness and the city was scheduled for destruction on May 29. Ellen claimed that God told her to warn the people of Pine Bluff to leave the city or perish.
Word spread, helped in no small part by Ellen, who told the story to anyone who would listen. Some who came to hear Ellen’s prophecy were convinced. Others remained skeptical.
Her vision of doom involved the weather. She warned her listeners that around 6 p.m. on Friday, May 29, a dark cloud would appear on the horizon and begin to make its way toward the town. At the same time, another dark cloud would come toward Pine Bluff from the opposite direction. The two clouds would crash into one another directly over the city, causing the death of most residents.
Tensions rose over the next week. At 7:38 p.m. May 20, a few people saw a pigeon land on the big hand of the Jefferson County Courthouse clock. Immediately, word spread that it was part of Ellen’s prophesy, which reportedly predicted a white dove would descend from heaven and land on the clock at exactly that time. Several of those who had been skeptical of her visions now had proof the woman was a true prophetess.
What had begun as a trickle of people rushing out of town now became an avalanche. Many homeowners sold their residences for a fraction of what they were worth. The Pine Bluff Graphic estimated as many as 8,000 residents left over the course of a couple of weeks. Mills and factories ground to a halt. Schools closed.
As the mass exodus continued, Sheriff James Gould served an arrest warrant on Ellen hoping that silencing her might help end the hysteria. The sheriff charged her with the crime of “lunacy” and whisked her away for a mental health evaluation at the state hospital in Little Rock.
On the morning of May 29, the day Ellen predicted Pine Bluff would be destroyed, meteorologists forecasted clouds and a small chance of rain. From her Little Rock jail cell, Ellen announced another vision. This time a storm would wipe out the Pulaski County jail unless she was freed. When the storm did not appear on time, Ellen told her jailers, “It’ll wait until tomorrow now.”
In Pine Bluff, the clouds grew dark as night fell on the city. Those who remained in Pine Bluff grew more alarmed as the light rain grew in intensity and developed into a hailstorm. By 11 p.m., the storm ended. The Arkansas Gazette mused, “The Pine Bluff cyclone gave a free concert in the streets and then canceled the date for the big show.”
The next morning, Ellen was released from jail and allowed to return to Pine Bluff. When asked why the cyclone did not materialize, she replied that perhaps there was enough repentance in the city that it was spared. As she boarded the train, Sheriff Deputy Barney Stiel warned her “to keep her next vision quiet or the weather bureau would never give her a job.”
Fortunately for Ellen, there was no social media in those days. If there had been, can you imagine the memes she would have inspired?
Source: Arkansas State Archives