Even though it only lasted about twenty minutes, the Great Cyclone of May 27, 1896 was the single deadliest event in St. Louis history. The tornado created a ten-mile path of devastation that cut through south St. Louis city, starting west of Tower Grove Park and continuing east across the Mississippi River into East St. Louis. It killed 255 people, leveled 311 buildings, and damaged thousands of other structures. It also sank almost twenty riverboats, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The aftermath was swiftly and extensively documented by local newspapers and photographers. Several of these photographers capitalized on the sensation by publishing souvenir booklets containing photographs and illustrations of the destruction. Special Collections owns a copy of one such booklet, Pictured Story of the St. Louis Tornado, which contains forty-four images of some of the most heavily damaged buildings.
Special Collections also owns three copies of The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896: Being a Full History of the Most Terrifying and Destructive Tornado in the History of the World, with Numerous Thrilling and Pathetic Incidents and Personal Experiences of Those who Were in the Track of the Storm. It is a compilation of stories and photos from local newspapers chronicling the days immediately following the tornado. The text includes eyewitness accounts, descriptions of the disaster, a list of the people killed or missing, and an estimate of the insurance losses caused. The publisher’s notice details the community’s desire to document faithfully the disaster and to raise money for those affected; ten percent of the book’s sales were designated for a relief fund for victims.
The book was issued in at least three colors of cloth binding, with varying degrees of blind-stamped or gold-stamped lettering on the cover and spine, offering the buyer a range of price and quality.