While looking for an event that took place on July 1 in our German Family Tree, I ran across a simple phrase that led me to an event that took place on a different day. It turned out to be one of those stories that I just felt I had to tell. It is a story about one of the most deadly natural disasters to take place in American history, and it is one that affected some people connected to our German Lutheran heritage.
That simple phrase was this one: “deadly wounded in the tornado waiting for a streetcar”. It is attached to a young man by the name of Theodore Poppitz, who happens to be a birthday boy today, born on July 1, 1876. That day of birth would also have been just three days before America was going to celebrate its centennial on the Fourth of July in 1876. As it turns out, Theodore would not even reach his 20th birthday because on May 27, 1896, he found himself in the midst of a deadly tornado which went through St. Louis, Missouri.
In looking at the church records of Old Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis, I found that Theodore was not the only member of that church to lose his life as a result of this tornado. There were six. Here is an image of a spreadsheet of those records.
Three people were crushed under the rubble of a residence that was struck by this tornado at the corner of 8th and Barry Streets. The record goes on to say that those three were unburied then next day. Here is a city directory from 1895 that shows John Lehlein’s address.
Before I describe this horrific tornado, let me tell you a little about Theodore Poppitz. He was the son of Gotthilf and Pauline (Pechmann) Poppitz of St. Louis. Theodore’s grandfather was August Wilhelm Poppitz who was one of the original immigrants and lived in the Seelitz area of Perry County. He is a character that has already been mentioned n several previous posts because he had numerous children from three different wives.
Here is a St. Louis city directory entry from 1895 that shows the Poppitz family living at 2501 S. Broadway which was not far from Trinity Lutheran Church.
Theodore’s father was part of a company called Kluegel & Poppitz, which was a furniture business. I find it interesting that the Kluegel and Poppitz families can be found on the same page of a passenger list of the Copernicus in 1839. The Gottlob Kluegel shown here was one of Theodore’s sponsors at his baptism.
The tornado that struck St. Louis and East St. Louis on May 27, 1896 was the third most deadly tornado in American history. It is reported that 255 people lost their lives in this disastrous event. Here is a headline that showed up in a New York City newspaper.
It just so happens that the worst tornado in terms of loss of life is one that also affected Perry County. That was the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925. That event was described in the post, The Deadliest Tornado. In the case of the 1896 tornado, it did not stay on the ground as long as the 1925 tornado, but because it occurred in such a populated area, it caused so many deaths.
When I saw the reference to the tornado in the Old Trinity records, I immediately asked myself whether this was the tornado that I had heard about that had destroyed their church building. It indeed was. I suppose we should be thankful that the church records were not also destroyed in this tragedy. Here is a photo of the damage done to Trinity Lutheran Church which is located in the Soulard area that, along with the Lafayette Square area, was so impacted by this tornado.
Trinity managed to rescue their pulpit, baptismal font, and some parts of their pipe organ. This congregation built a very similar sanctuary on the same location which still serves as their church to this day. The steeple is not quite as tall, and it no longer contained a clock that had been there. The church that was destroyed was built in 1864, so it was just 32 years old.
The story of Theodore’s demise mentions waiting for a streetcar. I found this photo of this tornado’s damage that shows an overturned streetcar. I do not know if it is associated with Theodore’s death, but I find it interesting.
The janitor’s house was located on Barry Street (which no longer exists as far as I can tell) that was near Rutgers St. I found several photos that were taken in the neighborhood of Rutgers and 7th or 8th Streets. The damage is astounding.
Here is a map that shows the path of the tornadoes that passed through St. Louis on that day in 1896.
This tornado would also cross the river and cause damage to St. John’s Lutheran Church in New Minden, Illinois. Their church has been hit by tornadoes on three separate occasions. This one was the first. The other two times were June 8, 1907 and more recently on November 17, 2013. Like Trinity Lutheran Church in St. Louis, St. John’s Lutheran in New Minden was one of the charter member congregations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Much more information and many more photos can be found on this website:
This tornado certainly caused much loss to the people of the St. Louis area in both lives and property. The Trinity congregation had to deal with the funerals of six of its members and the loss of its church building. However, as we have so often seen in other stories of great loss, these people picked up, rebuilt, and carried on, firm in their faith.