Waiting for the Tidal Wave
Walt McDougall

The Cast

Francis Warrington Dawson
 Francis Warrington Dawson, 1840–89. A native of England, Dawson crossed the Atlantic to fight for the Confederacy, yet he did not share white South Carolina’s conviction that racial inequality was a higher law. As editor of the Charleston News and Courier, he became one of the most powerful figures in the postwar South. When the earthquake struck, he took charge, rallying Charlestonians, receiving contributions, and organizing the relief committee. He was killed less than three years later, silencing his progressive voice and opening the door to seventy years of segregation and discrimination.

Sarah Morgan Dawson
Sarah Morgan Dawson, 1842–1909. The Civil War diarist married Francis Dawson in 1874. She and their two children were traveling in Europe at the time of the earthquake, and Dawson’s poignant letters to her, now housed at Duke University, form a rich resource. He wrote to her, “Had you been here you would have been dead, or in a lunatic asylum.” When she returned in 1887 she brought with her a voluptuous young woman who would lure Dawson’s killer into the household.  

Benjamin Tillman
Benjamin Tillman, 1847–1918. The farmers’ advocate denounced Dawson from the steps of Charleston City Hall: “Dawsonism,” he thundered, “is the domination of that old, effete aristocratic element that clings to power like an octopus.” A huge crowd cheered wildly. Tillman went on to become governor of South Carolina and a U.S. senator, building his career on a foundation of white supremacy: “We stuffed ballot boxes, we shot [black men], and we are not ashamed of it.” 

Willam Ashmead Courtney
William Ashmead Courtenay, 1831–1908. The dynamic mayor of Charleston was on vacation in Europe when the earthquake struck, but upon his return he took charge of the city’s relief and recovery efforts. Though he worked closely with Dawson in 1886, he soon turned on the editor and helped start a rival newspaper to bring him down. After Dawson was murdered in 1889, Courtenay sent praise to the attorney who successfully defended the killer.

Rev. William Henry Harrison Heard
Rev. William Henry Harrison Heard, 1850–1937. This African Methodist Episcopal minister, born a slave, organized black leaders to challenge the city’s relief policies. He traveled throughout the country, seeking funds for black sufferers, and sued the railroads for racial discrimination. Heard said that his travels after the earthquake “opened up a whole new world.” He worked tirelessly on behalf of the A.M.E. Church, for which he was elected bishop, and served as U.S. minister and consul general to Liberia. 

Dr. William Demosthenes Crum, 1859–1912. The son of a white father and a free black mother, Crum attended medical school in the North. There he married Ellen Craft, the daughter of William and Ellen Craft, fugitive slaves who fled to England and wrote an acclaimed book about their escape. Crum assisted Reverend Heard in organizing protests after the earthquake. President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him collector of customs in Charleston, a post that gave him authority over white men. Frank Dawson’s successor as editor of the News and Courier wrote that Crum “is a colored man, and that in itself ought to bar him from office.” President William Howard Taft named Crum consul general to Liberia.

Marie Hélène Burdayron
Marie Hélène Burdayron. Born in Switzerland, she moved to Charleston with Sarah Morgan Dawson and the Dawson children in 1887 to serve as an au pair. Whenever Hélène walked along the streets of the city she turned men’s heads. When the Dawsons’ neighbor, Dr. Thomas B. McDow, began stalking her, she flirted with him, even loaning him a racy novel from her employers’ library. The world came to know her as the “French maid” during the trial of Dawson’s killer, when a journalist reported she had a "bust fit for Venus."

Dr. Arthur B. McDow
Dr. Arthur B. McDow, d. 1904. The Dawsons’ neighbor was embroiled in controversy: he was said to have performed abortions, falsified death certificates, abused cocaine and morphine, and killed another man in his youth.  McDow began to pursue Hélène Burdayron in February 1889 and proposed marriage on their second encounter, though he already had a wife and child. On March 12 he shot Frank Dawson to death and attempted to hide the body under the floor of his office. His trial for murder electrified the nation.

Grover Cleveland
Grover Cleveland, 1837-1908. Elected U.S. president as a pro-business Democrat in 1884, he owed much of his support in the South to Frank Dawson. The president was fishing when the earthquake struck, and at first sent neither relief nor sympathy. (Even Queen Victoria showed more concern). When Dawson complained, the President turned a cold shoulder to Charleston. Dawson stuck with him in the 1888 election, but the country turned out for the Republican Benjamin Harris, who pledged to "bring freedom and equal rights" to southern blacks.

Jumbo, 1861-1885. This African elephant was the featured attraction of P. T. Barnum’s circus from 1882 until his death in a train accident. Barnum, unwilling to give up on his star just because he was dead, purchased a female elephant named Alice from the London Zoo, dressed her in black crepe and jet beads, and exhibited her alongside Jumbo’s skeleton as his widow. When the circus came to Charleston after the earthquake, more than twenty thousand people, desperate for distraction, flocked to see Jumbo’s bones.
Clara Barton

Clara Barton, 1821-1912. Almost a month after the earthquake, the founder of the American Red Cross came to Charleston. She toured the city and proclaimed its needs “fully covered.” She distributed $100 to each of five charities and gave silver dollars to some individual patients, then left the relief effort in the hands of Confederate veterans. The earthquake was a turning point in Clara Barton's career.  She retooled the Red Cross so that, by the time of the Johnstown flood in 1889, it was better prepared to act quickly in emergencies. 

Henry Grady
Henry Grady, 1850–1889. The managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution felt the earthquake while at home. He hurried to his office and found dozens of accounts of damage from throughout the east coast—everywhere but Charleston. The next day he headed to “the Earthquake City” by train, boat, and horse. His reports were printed throughout the country, leading to an invitation to speak to the New England Society in New York. There he delivered his famous “New South” speech. Grady and Dawson battled for journalistic dominance.

William John McGee
 William John McGee, 1853–1912. This noted scientist was sent to Charleston as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Earthquake Commission. His explanation of the causes of earthquakes calmed many fears. McGee tracked the earthquake in fine clothes and can be seen in many USGS photos wearing a bowler hat. The Charleston earthquake alerted American scientists to the need to study seismicity in North America.  Improvements in seisemoscopes and siesemometers soon followed, though no one has yet discovered a reliable way to predict earthquakes.

Ezekiel Stone Wiggins
Ezekiel Stone Wiggins, 1839–1911. A self-proclaimed “weather prophet,” this Canadian announced after the earthquake that an even more powerful disaster would occur at 2 p.m. on September 29. People throughout North America panicked, quitting work, dressing in “ascension robes,” and waiting for the end of the world. Wiggins based his prediction on invisible moons he claimed to have discovered. In a long career of predictions he also said that dinosaurs continued to live on the bottom of the oceans.

The New York World Covers the Earthquake
Walt McDougall, 1858-1938

As soon as the first reports of the earthquake reached New York, Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the aggressive, circulation-hungry New York World, sent his favorite illustrator, Walt McDougall, to Charleston. McDougall had already made a name for himself as a political cartoonist. But McDougall also functioned as a kind of human camera, illustrating news stories. His pictures were crude, dashed off in a few minutes, but they had the power to bring events to life and sell thousands of papers. His drawings still have the freshness of immediate observation — they provide the kind of informal snapshot that nineteenth-century cameras were incapable of taking.     
         According to The World Encyclopedia of Comics, McDougall was “in the forefront of several movements in the comics.” Before being hired by Pulitzer, he had sold drawings to Harper’s Weekly, Puck, and the New York Graphic, the first illustrated daily paper in America. He produced the first cartoon to be printed in color in a U.S. paper and the first color comic strip. His two-page spread in 1898 was “probably the largest single-panel cartoon in color in an American newspaper . . . and [he] once had front-page drawings in color in New York’s Herald, World, and American, all on the same Sunday.” Later he drew a number of comic strips, including The Wizard of Oz, with the help of Oz author L. Frank Baum.

McDougall was served an almost-bald ear of corn in Summerville after the quake. When he complained, his waiter scolded that he shouldn’t be so particular. “Dis de bes’ we kin do, and de Laud have mercy on our souls. It’s ’nuff to wait on the table, when we ought to be in de meetin’ prayin’, sah, widout bein’ ’bused fo’ bringin’ dat kine ob’ curn.”

Photo Credits

The Cast
Francis Warrington Dawson: Francis Warrington Dawson Family Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Sarah Morgan Dawson: Francis Warrington Dawson Family Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Benjamin Tillman: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

William Ashmead Courtenay: South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina

Rev. William Henry Harrison Heard: New York Freeman, May 7, 1887, Authors’ collection

Dr. William Demosthenes Crum: Authors’ collection

Marie Hélène Burdayron: Francis Warrington Dawson Family Papers, Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Dr. Arthur B. McDow: Charleston World, authors’ collection

William John McGee: U.S. Geological Survey

Images of the Disaster
“The Night of the Earthquake in Charleston, August 31, 1886.” (Authors’ collection)

Hibernian Hall. (Charleston County Public Library)

Medical College of the State of South Carolina. (Waring Historical Library, Medical University of South Carolina)

Fire on King Street. (Waring Historical Library, Medical University of South Carolina)

“Scene on Marion Square, Opposite The Citadel — A City of Tents.” (Charleston County Public Library)

“The Earthquake — A Street Scene in Charleston.” (Authors’ collection)

“Scene in the Garden of a Residence on Society Street — A Shock at Breakfast-Time.” (Authors’ collection)