This is a podcast transcript, originally published as part of the Crimes & Witch-Demeanors Podcast.
Hello and welcome to another episode of Crimes & Witch-Demeanors, I’m your host, Joshua Spellman. I feel like every week this year has felt like a month…how is it only the end of January? Sorry there was no episode last week—my computer broke and I had no way of recording. So suffice to say that last week was a whirlwind and I cannot even begin to imagine what this week will bring. Oh, that’s right, a whirlwind! Because on today’s episode we’re covering the legend of Louisville’s Witch Tree and the storm that sprouted it: the Storm Demon. But we’ll talk more about that name and poor reporting later.
This is a case where the truth is stranger than fiction…or at least more disturbing. The articles I’ve read about the legend of the witch tree made it seem like the Storm Demon was this little itty bitty tornado that swept through Louisville destroying one neighborhood and all was well…but all of the articles about the Witch Tree left out that this tornado was part of a mass casualty event with hundreds dead. So, without further ado let’s hear the legend as it’s typically told and then learn the horrifying truths of what really transpired.
On the corner of Sixth and Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, stood a large, tall maple; straight as a pole. It had been there for centuries and provided shade to the citizens of Louisville by day…but by night, below its leafy crown that stretched upwards towards the stars, witches would gather to cast their spells and worship their old gods. Or, as some may mistakenly believe: the devil. However, in 1889 a chain of events would be set into motion that would topple not only this sacred maple, but half the city of Louisvile.
Mr. Mengel, of the famous Mengel Lumber Company, was head of the city’s planning committee and was scouting for trees to be used for Louisville’s May Day celebration when he laid his eyes upon the majestic maple. He knew that he had to have that tree, it was so tall and so straight, it was born to be a May pole. The news quickly reached the ears of the witches, perhaps even before the thoughts formed in Mr. Mengel’s mind.
One night, under the cover of darkness and a velvet hood, the priestess of the coven knocked on Mr. Mengel’s door. He answered, displeased, and she implored him not to cut down their beloved maple.
“I will do no such thing!” he bellowed.
“Please sir, I beg you to consider your actions very carefully. I will ask once more for you to please not fell our sacred tree.”
“And I will tell you once more that I will be chopping down that tree”
“Very well,” the priestess said calmly, looking up from beneath her hood, “I asked you nicely and you refused, now you shall face the consequences.”
Before Mr. Mengel could even ask what she meant dozens of cloaked figures emerged from all directions: from behind the trees, around the street corners, and some even seeming to appear out of thin air. They slowly began to gather together, holding hands as they chanted:
This tree shall stand and not be cut,
We’ve fed her with our laughter.
Our leafy haven you’ll not gut.
Or pay forever after.
But if you, Wooden King, prevail,
And Mother Maple dies,
The force of Fate shall strike this town
And right between the eyes.
If our tree falls, yes, Fate will call
To teach you, heartless Dunce,
That all man’s work can disappear.
BEWARE ELEVENTH MONTH!
And just as quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Leaving only the head witch on Mr. Mengel’s doorstep. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you Wooden King. Remember, wood burns.” She smiled a wry smile, swept her cloak, turned on her heel, and disappeared into the night.
Mr. Mengel paid no mind to the witches’ warning, and he proceeded with his plans. The tree was chopped down, and as its heavy trunk smashed to the ground horrid shrieks could be heard echoing through the city.
However, the May Day celebration went off without a hitch. The trunk of the maple was adorned with ribbons and decorations of all kinds as men, women, and children danced about it. Afterward, it’s carcass was tossed into the Whitsuntide bonfire where to was turned to ash. Everyone had forgotten about the witches’ warning, but 11 months later, to the very day, the curse would take effect.
On March 28, 1890, the witches whipped up a hell of storm to terrorize the city of Louisville. They first sent it down Maple Street, proving it was their craftwork, and into downtown. Here, the storm flattened buildings, killing and injuring many – and among them were the members of the May Day committee and two members of the Mengel family.
And then, according to eyewitnesses, the twister made a bizarre right-hand turn down sixth street. As it barreled down Sixth Street toward Park, the storm hurled a lightning bolt straight into the stump where the sacred maple had once stood. From this charred base grew what is now known as the witches’ tree: a gnarled wretched thing with great burls and thin branches like the bones of a witches’ hand.
Since the day of the storm it is said that coven has returned to cast their spells beneath the twisted branches of the witches’ tree. Visitors to Louisville place flowers at the base of the tree and hang beads and charms from its branches as gifts to the city’s witches, in hopes that they may cast a spell in their favor. Meanwhile, the citizens of Louisville have never dishonored the wishes of a witch since in fear that their city may once again fall to ruins.
What a cute little story, right? Wrong. The articles about the witches’ tree make it sounds like there was this little twister that rolled through Louisville but no…on March 27, 1890 there was a tornado outbreak and it was the most deadly tornado event in United States history. I didn’t know that a tornado outbreak was a thing? But now that I know it is, I am absolutely horrified.
You may have caught that I said March 27th and not March 28th. This is another case of modern journalism recounting the date that an event was reported, not the date that it occurred. Much like the Carnegie medal situation in episode one.
So, on March 27th 1890 there was a massive outbreak of tornados, dubbed the Storm Demon by some papers, though it appears tornados may have just been called this as I saw newspapers for years after and prior calling them storm demons. Which may be more errors in modern journalism, but I digress. This outbreak created a number of storms ranging in intensity from F2 to F4 on the Fujita scale (which goes to 5 by the way).
The tornado that hit Louisville was an F4 storm with winds ranging from 207-260 miles per hour and it destroyed 766 buildings totaling 2.5 million dollars (the modern equivalent of $71 million dollars) in damage. The storm killed an estimated 74-120 people though initial estimates were around 800, with most of the victims being those within the Falls City Hall building.
Now, one of the newspapers I read listed off all of the confirmed dead at the time, and I was not able to find the name “Mengel” anywhere within them. Two of Mr. Mengel’s relatives were said to have died. This at the moment is unconfirmed. Also, before we get into the real horror, because I want to read eyewitness accounts, I wanted to talk about the witches’ warning. It has been told many ways – the way I told it was much more dramatic. The chant I said was said to have been left on a note nailed to the tree, but other sources, or should I say the same exact source said that the warning had been uttered as a simple warning of “Beware 11th month” to Mr. Mengel. This same source I am talking about is the author and historian David Domine who gives haunted tours. It is hard to take his word for it when he has been quoted with two distinct stories, and I don’t know what his book on Louisville says occurred…I didn’t want to buy a physical copy and I can’t get the e-book version from the library. He’s a professor, so I’m sure things may be cited in his book but I have to stay the story is a bit crumbly.
The newspapers at the time had a slew of eyewitness accounts. Now, I will be forthright to say the sources I acquire historic newspapers from did not have the newspapers from Louisville for this time range. But, fortunately, many newspapers back in the day would run columns verbatim from other areas if it was major news and I was able to acquire them this way.
Like Falls City Hall.
An excerpt from the Greenville Journal from Thursday, April 3 that describes what happened at the city hall:
“The great center of death is the Falls City Hall where more than two hundred men, woman, and children are entombed. It is situated on Market street, near Twelfth. The structure was three stories in height and when struck by the tornado, several meetings were being held within it. The loss of life at this place far exceeds that at any other one locality and of the great numbers known to be under the debris it is certain that none will be recovered alive. The ruins are now scarcely one story high so thorough was the work of the wind.”
It goes on to detail some of what was going on in the building at the time:
“On the second floor of this building Miss App was teaching a dance class of young children, and there were present the mothers, fathers, and other attendants of the gay juveniles. In one of the rooms on this floor the executive body of the Roman Knights was in session. Of the seven members present all escaped but one.
On the third floor Jewell Lodge No. 2, Knights and Ladies of Honor was holding a meeting. This was one of the largest lodges of the order, and there were 150 members present when the building fell. A mere handful of these escaped.”
It describes more in attendance and recounts the tale of A.J. Reed the Past Grand Master LOOF of the State (I don’t know what that is) said:
“I was entering the hallway when the tornado struck the building at the southeast corner. There were several crashes and the structure began to rock, whereupon the men and women from the Knights of Honor meeting began pouring out of their lodge room adjoining shrieking in terror. It was only for a moment though for the building collapsed and I found myself on top of the great pile. I was stunned and blinded by the dust, but recovered myself and crawled out. The agonizing shrieks of others were terrible. I was finally taken away by a rescuing party.”
So I know that was a lot of reading, but this is the main building where the most life was lost. I’m unsure if the children in the dance class were okay. There are some pretty terrible accounts from the Sacramento Daily Record from Saturday the 29th.
Lewis Simms Jr.’s wife and four kids were in the dance class and he paced outside city hall for hours while workers searched the ruins. Eventually the dance room was reached and his wife was found fatally wounded. Three of the four Simms children were recovered unconscious and not expected to live. To make matters worse, before his fourth child could be found, a fire erupted in the wreckage and no more bodies were able to be recovered.
Poor Miss App, the schoolteacher, was one of the bodies recovered before the blaze broke out.
I’m going to read a few more stories, I hope you don’t mind. I know this episode is really depressing and heartbreaking. But I feel like this particular legend is another example of a city attempting to cope with a horrible tragedy.
3 Apr 1890, 2—The Greenville Journal at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/652924466/?terms=%22tornado%22%22Louisville%22&match=1
28 Mar 1890, Page 20—Logansport Pharos-Tribune at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/4266239/?terms=%22storm%20demon%22&match=1
29 Mar 1890, 1—Memphis Daily Commercial at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/586983136/?terms=%22storm%20demon%22&match=1
29 Mar 1890, 1—The Buffalo Commercial at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/269471310/?terms=%22storm%20demon%22&match=1
29 Mar 1890, 5—The Morning Post at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/409953020/?terms=%22tornado%22%22Louisville%22&match=1
29 Mar 1890, Page 1—The Record-Union at Newspapers.com. (n.d.). World Collection. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from http://newscomwc.newspapers.com/image/85658032/?terms=%22tornado%22%22Louisville%22&match=1
A Scene of Ruin. (n.d.). ArcGIS StoryMaps. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/a98efe3cb3f340b88d10079e10299e87
Dominé, D. (n.d.). Ghost story | The wicked witches’ tree. The Courier-Journal. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.courier-journal.com/story/entertainment/2015/10/29/ghost-story-wicked-witches-tree/74680150/
Fujita scale. (2021). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fujita_scale&oldid=998728230
KET – Kentucky Educational Television. (2019, October 31). The Witches Tree in Louisville | Kentucky Life | KET. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-lAQ3pfiwIc
Limke, A. (2020, May 22). Bizarre Circumstances, History, And Mystery Combine At The Witches’ Tree In Kentucky. OnlyInYourState. https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/kentucky/witches-tree-ky/
Lumber truck, Louisville, Kentucky, 1928.: Caufield & Shook Collection. (n.d.). Retrieved January 24, 2021, from http://digital.library.louisville.edu/cdm/ref/collection/cs/id/3489
March 1890 middle Mississippi Valley tornado outbreak. (2020). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=March_1890_middle_Mississippi_Valley_tornado_outbreak&oldid=976255968
US Department of Commerce, N. (n.d.). Tornadoes of March 27, 1890. NOAA’s National Weather Service. Retrieved January 22, 2021, from https://www.weather.gov/lmk/tornado_climatology_march271890
Witches Curse Louisville, the Tale of the Witches’ Tree. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://spectrumnews1.com/ky/lexington/news/2019/10/30/witches-curse-louisville–the-tale-of-the-witches–tree