This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 4, "Tower of Babel: A Special Report on the Nuclear Industry." Find more from that issue here.
Pine Bluff, Arkansas May 29, 1903.
On a normal day in 1903, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, was a city of 22,000 persons, almost equally black and white. Laborers and dirt farmers stood with wealthy landowners and merchants, waiting for the trains to rumble past the tracks on Main Street, clearing their way for a visit to the aptly named Big Store or, perhaps, Wiley Jones’ Saloon. Foundries and lumber yards blended their screeches and blasts with the bleating train whistles to create the distinctive cacophony of a growing, aggressive city.
Friday, May 29, 1903, was not a normal day. The foundries were silent, the lumber yards deserted, and the railroads carried only outbound passengers.
An estimated eight to 10 thousand residents of Pine Bluff abandoned most of their property and fled to the countryside, where they sat in wagons beside the dirt roads leading out of town, huddled in makeshift camps in cotton fields, or crowded into the pineboard sharecropper’s shacks of kinfolks.
They were awaiting the destruction of their city.
The exodus was precipitated by the prophecy of a sincere young black woman named Ellen Burnett. Little is known about her. Witnesses say she was 18 to 20 years of age, although jail officials would later guess that she was 25 to 30. She was short and stockily built, and dark skinned. In conversation she was articulate and self-confident, but she spoke very deliberately.
Ellen lived in the black section of town, on Fourteenth Street; attended the Sanctified Church; and had worked as a cook, nurse, and house maid for white families. Her mother, Liza, was employed in the home of Rev. Ross Moore, the young pastor of Pine Bluff’s largest white Baptist church.
In January, 1903, Ellen began feeling apprehensive, as if she were in danger, for no apparent reason. Finally, on May 8, she had her first vision.
“I went into a trance and saw a vision of the city of Pine Bluff being destroyed. I could not tell how it was being done and could see the town only by the vivid flashes of lightning in the darkness that was so deep that I could almost feel it. I saw mothers throw their infants away from them in their frenzy, thinking it was better that they should perish, if by doing so they could get away. And I saw mothers and fathers trample on their children, and the strong trample over the weak in their efforts to get away. Then I thought that I was taken to a place I suppose was heaven, although I did not hear any one speak its name. I saw a man sitting on a great white throne, and all about me was a great white floor. I heard the man on the throne, who I knew was God, say to another tall man who wore a white robe and was barefooted, but whose face I could not see, to go and weigh the city. And he went and seemed to weigh the city in a great scale, and I heard him report to God that sin and grace were on an equality, and the God said: I am a just man, and I will not permit the just to suffer with the unjust.’ And then He said to me: ‘Go and warn my people to leave the city, and not to stop under six miles from it, for I will destroy the city and all that are therein.’ Five nights later I saw great clouds come out of the south and the Lord appeared to me again and tola me that He would destroy the city at 5 p.m. on May 29.”
Many of the white citizens first became aware of the excitement when the May 18 edition of the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic ran a front-page story headlined: “AWFUL CALAMITY To Befall Pine Bluff Says A Crazy Negro Woman.”
The paper reported that Ellen had related her visions to Rev. Moore, who said that he knew of several “servants” who had quit their jobs or been discharged as a result of their belief that the city was doomed.
Alarm increased, as blacks held daily and nightly meetings to discuss the validity of her dreams. Crowds lined up a block away from Ellen’s small home, hoping to hear her story first-hand. The Sawyer and Austin lumber yard was already “crippled,” and the manager of the Hotel Trulock told the Graphic that all of his black employees had given notice that they would not report for work on May 29.
The newspaper urged the sheriff or chief of police to take Ellen into custody. Also in the May 20 edition was a letter from Dr. Isaac Fisher, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute and friend of Booker T. Washington, who was president of Branch Normal College, an all-black school located on the outskirts of the city. At the request of the editors, Fisher quoted scripture in an effort to allay the fears of those who were disturbed by the prophecy, and stated his firm intention to remain in the city. Some businessmen were taking a wry approach to the situation, as evidenced by this advertisement: “TAKE WARNING! Hear the Words of the Prophetess! Do Not Delay. “All ye leave Pine Bluff before two o’clock Friday morning, May 29, or be destroyed by wind and water,” but before going be on the safe side by getting a cyclone policy from Geo. M. Wells and company. Rates: 20 cents per $ 100.”
Dozens of fantastic rumors began to circulate among the public. One story given wide credence was that Deputy Sheriff Mason Philpot, a dour man disliked by many blacks for his alleged cruelty, had gone to Ellen Burnett’s house with the intention of placing her under arrest, only to be driven from the home by seven angry doves. Even more widely believed was a rumor that Ellen had predicted that God would send a dove from heaven to light on the clock tower of the county courthouse, beside the Arkansas River on Main Street, as a sign that her visions were genuine.
On the night of May 20, a “dove” did appear on the courthouse clock; it was sent, not by God, but by some local firemen. At about 7:30 p.m., a group of men from the nearby Fire Station Number One placed a pigeon on the minute hand of the east dial of the clock and secured it there with a rubber band. Within minutes, hundreds of people had gathered to witness the “miracle.” Workers inside the courthouse, unaware that the bird was fastened down, flashed the electric lights which illuminated the dial on and off several times in an effort to scare it away. This served only to intensify the crowd’s frenzy. Then someone threw a goose into the audience from the roof, at which time one old black man reportedly cried, “Lawd, I’se seed enough of your hand,” ran to his home, packed his belongings, and left town. Finally, according to the Graphic, Deputy Tom Meeks, ordinarily a quiet, serious man, released another pigeon which he had concealed in his pocket. The bewildered bird flopped around amid the terrified crowd for several minutes before it could escape.
After an hour of such antics, the bird on the clock managed to free itself, and flew south. Those gathered in the street took the bird’s route as an indication that they should flee in that direction.
News of the controversy surrounding Ellen Burnett dominated the next edition of the Graphic. In a second, more adamant letter, Dr. Fisher prayed for the understanding of the white community, and warned the blacks that they were only enhancing the prevailing racial stereotypes. “If we make no effort to awake from this nightmare,” he said, “we must not cry out, or complain, or wince when the public men and press pour out upon us the vials of their contempt and wrath.”
The headline that day read: “Ellen Burnett In Jail.”
She was reported to have been arrested and taken to the insane asylum in Little Rock. Also reported were the results of an examination of the Burnett woman by Rev. S.A. Mosely and Dr. Flippin, “two intelligent colored citizens.” They observed that, although she acted calmly and spoke quietly, during her account of the dreams her pulse jumped from normal to 101 per minute. They concluded: “Her story is a conglomeration of dreams and visions, of huge stars, pearly white thrones, men in flowing robes, spring balances, grace, justice, mercy, black flying clouds, sin, shrieking, whistling wind storms, crying voices, northern lights, rolling thunders, huge rain drops, zigzag lightning, and pleading prayer – the typical sayings of a paranoiac, which she is. As she is highly religious and sincere, we do not doubt that she believes all she says, yet after having carefully examined the statements of this woman, we are unable to see anything in the story that should alarm anyone.”
Handbills were distributed throughout the city that day, giving notice of a mass meeting at 8:00 p.m. in front of the courthouse. The notice was signed by Sheriff James Gould, a young man held in high regard by both blacks and whites. Two thousand people attended the meeting, and heard many prominent citizens, including Dr. Fisher and Mayor H. King White, call for a return to reason. Mayor White “got off a number of his jokes, for which he is locally famous, and when he finished the assemblage applauded him enthusiastically.”
On Friday, May 22, the Graphic had to retract part of the previous day’s headline story. Ellen Burnett had not been arrested. Deputy Philpot was quoted as saying he didn’t think the matter was serious enough to warrant her incarceration.
By Saturday, the Pine Bluff Weekly Commercial had picked up the story. It fanned the spread of rumors by claiming that “she now says the alligators are taking from the tall timbers to the city districts to devour the many humans who will perish in the flood.” The Commercial’s reaction was blunt: “She will take another drink of gin probably today or tomorrow and there will be other reports of things to occur on the fatal day. Ellen should be judged a ‘crazy coon’ and sent to the ‘foolish house’ at Little Rock for repairs. She’s cracked.”
Ellen’s dream was the main topic of conversation over the weekend. Some noteworthy blacks aligned themselves with her followers, and tempers began to flare, inspiring at least one argument which ended in fisticuffs. The exodus began to pick up steam.
By Tuesday, three days before the predicted storm, the Pine Bluff Brick Company was closed because of a labor shortage. By late Wednesday, an estimated six thousand blacks had fled town. Between three and four thousand were said to have left on foot or by wagon; the rest had taken the Iron Mountain or Cotton Belt trains, which requisitioned two thousand extra tickets each to accommodate the rush expected yet to come. Trunks and other baggage were left at the railroad station to make room for more passengers. Bank officials reported that many blacks were withdrawing their savings, but denied rumors that all assets would be taken beyond the six-mile limit for safekeeping. While real estate in the city was being abandoned or sold at outrageously low prices, a citizen of Sulphur Springs, seven miles south, reported that all of the homes there had been rented.
Those citizens who had considered the affair amusing became more somber as the economic impact became apparent. The Pine Bluff Iron Works and Dilley’s Foundry announced that they would be closed until Monday. The Bluff City Lumber mills were being readied for a shutdown. Black barbers announced their intention to remain, and volunteered to replace Negro waiters, who had declared that they would not be on duty Friday. Signs were posted at the Hotel Trulock: “No Help To Be Had, Guests Will Please Bear With Us In This Hour of Tribulation.”
Sam Franklin telephoned his brother in Little Rock, asking for workers to be sent so that his American Excelsior Laundry could remain open. As the white businessmen pled with their black workers to stay, many of the blacks became suspicious, convinced that the whites were secretly planning to suddenly evacuate on May 29, leaving them behind. The Sawyer and Austin Lumber Company tried to reassure its employees by announcing that a train would be standing by on the company tracks, ready to leave on a moment’s notice at any indication of danger.
The white community was uneasy over the independence of the blacks in the face of strenuous efforts to coerce them into staying. Indeed, the emotional climate apparently inspired unusual acts of defiance. A front page story told of a Negro preacher who mounted a box at Fourth and Main: “Among other things he said that a nigger had the right to marry a white woman if he wanted to do so. That kind of talk soon reached Sheriff Gould’s ears and the ‘coon’ was soon escorted to the sheriff’s office and given just so much time to leave the city.”
The Graphic’s editorial response was terse: “A few jerks with a leather strap might not have been amiss with that negro preacher who made that street corner harangue about the marriage of negro men and white women. It is such negroes as this parson that causes most of the race troubles.”
Sheriff Gould had little time to deal with the impudent pastor. Earlier in the day, he had finally given in to pressure and locked Ellen Burnett in the county jail, saying she was “about as mentally unbalanced” as any person he had ever seen. By late afternoon the sheriff was on the Cotton Belt train to Little Rock, escorting his celebrated prisoner to the state penitentiary, but Ellen was held at the prison for only an hour before jail officials concluded, “She talks well and does not give the impression of being demented.” Ellen was released in the custody of Gould and another officer.
On Thursday, the day before the predicted storm, a few blacks reconsidered and returned to the city. But hundreds more were leaving by all conceivable means. Several small towns south of the city reported a large influx of refugees.
More businesses were forced to close. The Light and Water Company expressed fears that a lack of labor could result in a water shortage. Sam Franklin’s plea for laundry workers had been unrewarded, and shirts were being shipped to Little Rock for cleaning.
Seven convicted prisoners at the county jail, including a murderer and one woman, requested that they be transferred immediately to the state penitentiary, fearing they would drown in their cells. Their request was granted.
Sheriff Gould was back in Pine Bluff Thursday afternoon, without Ellen Burnett, busily distributing handbills warning against looting of abandoned property. Police were ordered to patrol residential areas, and the Jefferson Fencibles, a detachment of local soldiers, was said to be standing by.
The panic had now transcended racial lines. Some whites were reported to be planning to leave the next morning, having prepared enough food to last through the weekend. Others claimed “urgent business out of town.”
Although the weather forecast had called for “showers” Thursday night and Friday, a brief storm Thursday evening convinced many doubters to pack up and leave. The sky was clear at dawn on Friday, May 29. Nevertheless, the extent of the exodus was evident early at the city’s black schools. The Missouri Street, Merrill, and Greenville schools, with a combined enrollment of 975, reported a total of only five students present. The Missouri Street school, with only two out of 400 children in attendance, announced that graduation ceremonies scheduled for that night had been postponed until Tuesday. Officials at the white Pine Bluff High School declared that their graduation would be held as planned. At Branch Normal College, President Isaac Fisher was a disappointed man. Although he had persuaded all of his faculty to ignore Ellen’s prophecy, 60 percent of his students had fled.
At ten o’clock clouds began to move overhead. Telephone and telegraph operators and local newspapers were receiving calls from newspapers throughout the country requesting updates on weather conditions. By early afternoon the clouds over Pine Bluff had turned darker, prompting a few remaining skeptics to board the three and four o’clock trains. Others were seen walking away, with only small parcels under their arms.
Ellen Burnett, who had mysteriously disappeared after the trip to the penitentiary, was located and moved to the Pulaski County jail. In Friday’s edition the Graphic published a remarkable interview with her. It is unclear where or when the conversation took place, but it is significant that, for the first time, the newspaper chose to include her frequent denial of responsibility for the “dove.” “I don’t know anything about the dove that they say was on the clock,” she said. “The Lord told me that I must tell the people, and I did so, and it caused so many to leave that they arrested me. They call me crazy, but I must expect persecution for doing the will of the Lord.”
As the appointed hour drew near, clouds overhead grew ominous. A small contingent of blacks huddled together on the courthouse steps, bolstered by a rumor that Ellen Burnett had predicted that the building would withstand the storm.
Almost exactly at five o’clock, thunderclaps jarred the town and rain began to fall.
The intensity of the five o’clock storm is in dispute. Newspaper reports the next day described it as “light” and “not enough water to settle dust.” Black and white eyewitnesses disagree, insisting that the first storm was substantial. Regardless, all sources agree that a second downpour arrived that night at 9:30. It was one of the most spectacular electrical storms ever to strike the city, and it left many of those who had scoffed at Ellen cold with fear.
When the lightning, rain and wind began, several hundred residents were attending the Pine Bluff High School graduation at the Elks Theatre. The noise of the rain pounding on the roof was loud enough to interrupt the valedictorian’s speech several times. Then, in the middle of the program, the electric lights went out. The crowd sat nervously in the darkness until kerosene lamps were located and put in service. The storm was still underway when the new graduates filed out of the theatre.
It was later learned that all of the electrical power in the city had been turned off by the Citizens Light and Transit Company, as a precaution against damage to their machinery.
Ironically, many of the places to which Ellen’s believers had fled suffered weather as bad or worse than that in Pine Bluff. In Sulphur Springs refugees “prayed and moaned” under tents which had blown down on top of them, while in Hot Springs they were terrified by high winds which uprooted trees and caused considerable property damage.
At midnight it was over. No one had been seriously injured.
Saturday’s trains were again crowded, this time with returning passengers. However, many of those who had taken flight stayed away for several days, embarrassed by reports that the city remained intact. Some, in fact, never returned. Their fear of ridicule was well-founded.
“Pine Bluff Still on Map,” proclaimed the Graphic while the Commercial crowed, “ELLEN IS SHO’ BAD ACTOR.”
One of the persons who had not returned was Ellen Burnett. She was released from jail Friday afternoon, apparently judged to have suddenly recovered from her “insanity.” Shortly before she left her cell, a reporter managed to speak with her.
“How is it that Pine Bluff is still on the map?” he asked.
“Well,” she replied, “there is plenty of time yet. You know the Lord did not say the destruction of the city was to be until about five o’clock.”
“But if the city is not destroyed, how will you explain it?”
“That ain’t for me to explain. Maybe it will be saved. I hope it will be. Lots of people think just because I made the prophecy that I have prayed that the town would be destroyed. God knows that every time I go to my knees I pray that the town will be saved.
“I didn’t want to make this prophecy. I tried to get out of it, but the Lord wouldn’t let me. He just made me do it. He told me to go and warn everybody without regard to color, and I did it. Lots of men wanted to give me money when I warned them; but I told them all that the word was not to be sold. It was to be given away. Some folks say I was paid by farmers, so as to run the niggers out of town and on to the farms, and some folks say the insurance men paid me, but nobody paid me. The Lord selected me, and I just had to do what he said.”
“If the cyclone does not occur as you said it would, will it occur later?”
“No sir. I don’t know anything about any cyclone but the one I prophesied, and if it don’t come I guess the Lord has heard the prayers of the people. I hope if another one is to come He’ll give the word to somebody else. I’d kick mighty hard before I’ll take it, for it’s caused me a lot of trouble. But then I had to do it.
“There wasn’t any use of so much excitement. What the people ought to have done was to get together like they did at Ninevah when Jonas made his prophecy, and pray, instead of getting scared and raising so much excitement.”
“Are you afraid to go back to Pine Bluff?”
“No sir, I know if my time has come the Lord will take me, but He will save my soul, and if he wants to He will save my body.”
Minutes later she was seen marching sturdily down West Markham Street, dressed in a gingham blouse, a gray woolen skirt, and a white apron, carrying a cheap suitcase, on her way to Union Station. No ceremony accompanied her departure. Sheriff Schader gave her enough money to buy a ticket to Pine Bluff. A bystander joked with her as she said goodbye to the few persons present. Shortly after eight o’clock the train pulled out of the station and “the incident which has been talked of by thousands and written in hundreds of papers, in hundreds of cities, was closed.”
Almost closed, but not quite. Somewhere between the two cities Ellen got off the train. Evidently fearful of her welcome, she was not seen in Pine Bluff for several days. Evidence indicates that she did return to the city at some point, living a quiet life, and being given deference by those who feared her “supernatural” power. “After all,” remarked one resident, “she did predict the storm, even if it didn’t kill nobody.”
In 1943, Mrs. J.B. Dalrymple and her husband returned to Pine Bluff after a long absence out-of-state. Mrs. Dalrymple is the daughter of Rev. Ross Moore, the white minister to whom Ellen first confided her dreams. One day that year, Ellen Burnett appeared at her door. The two women talked about their common past, but no reference was made to the events of 1903, and Ellen gave no indication of whether she had married or of her current circumstances. After a few other brief, equally uninformative chats, Ellen stopped her visits.
Mrs. Dalrymple is the last person known to have seen Ellen Burnett. Extensive efforts to locate her after 1943 have produced only frustration. It is possible that she is still alive, nearing one hundred years of age now. It is more likely that her body lies in an unknown grave, in which case it can only be hoped that she was comforted in her passing by another glimpse of the man on the great white throne who tested her faith so severely.
About My Sources
All of the major characters in the drama which surrounded Ellen Burnett are now gone, and few persons remain who were old enough to be fully aware of the events leading up to the panic of May, 1903. Most of my sources were either very young then, or they were told the story by their parents, who in many cases were important figures in the drama.
Several elderly blacks have told me they were fairly sure that Ellen returned to Pine Bluff at some point, but none actually saw her or spoke to her. Her name does not appear in a city directory or telephone book. She is not buried in the main black cemetery. The oldest members of the long-established churches have no recollection of her after 1903. No living relatives can be found.
One complicating factor is that the newspapers of the day were flagrantly inconsistent. While she was usually referred to as Ellen Burnett, her name was also given at times as Helen Burnett, Ellen Turner, and Ellen Jefferson. Sometimes a paper would use a different name from one day to the next. However, searches under those names have also been fruitless and no one who knew her recalled her being married. Copies of the two “colored” newspapers then serving Pine Bluff have disappeared.
The people interviewed were generally warm and receptive, but there were some interesting exceptions. One man refused to talk to me and others who must have witnessed the incident pretended they knew nothing about it. A few asked to remain anonymous, apparently because they are still embarrassed that their families had joined the exodus.
The one man who does remember is Professor W.H. Zachary, who will be 100 years old this January. He lives today in the same house his father bought in 1895, at the end of a quiet street in the same black neighborhood where Ellen and her mother lived 76 years ago. Professor Zachary knew them both, and his account of the incident has provided details not reported by the white press.
In 1903, Zachary was a 23-year-old music student, the seventh son of a minister, and part of the well-educated black community which centered around Branch Normal College. He was among those who joined with the college president in urging the public to remain in the city on May 29. Even if he had believed the prophecy, Zachary was in no condition to make travel plans. “I was sick in bed that day,” he recalls, “so I couldn’t have left even if I had wanted to.”
When the storm arrived, as Ellen Burnett predicted, many people who had spoken in opposition to her warning had second thoughts, and Zachary admits that he was among them. “I thought the Lord had come to take me away, so I put my trust in Jesus. I was going to drown in that bed,” he laughs.
Professor Zachary went on to pursue a remarkable career as a pianist, organist and teacher of classical and church music. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music twice – in 1916 and again, at age 63, in 1943. Sixteen years later he studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. In 1967 he traveled to Europe, visiting the birthplace of Mozart and playing in London and Rome. He was 91 when the American State and National Association of Music Teachers honored him at its convention in Hawaii in 1971. In between his studies, Zachary taught music to hundreds of black children in Pine Bluff. In fact, he still works with a few students, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren of former pupils. The lessons are based strictly on hymns and the classics. The term “popular music” loses much of its meaning to someone born in 1880. “Lots of music been popular,” Zachary points out.
He and I have spent some good times on the front porch swing, talking about friends and acquaintances of his, most of them dead for 50 years or more. We’ve admired photos of Reverend J.C. Battles, the imposing light-skinned preacher whose sermons once thundered down from the pulpit of the Barraque Street Baptist Church, and swapped stories about Wiley Jones, the saloonkeeper who became Pine Bluff’s first black millionaire before he died in 1906. But one question lingers; a question that seems to puzzle Zachary’ as much as it troubles me. Whatever became of Ellen Burnett? “I just don’t know what happened to that girl.”
My sources include articles in the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic, the Arkansas Gazette, and the Pine Bluff Weekly Commercial, J. Harvie Hudson, “The Ellen Burnett Prophecy,” Jefferson County Historical Quarterly, IV (2), 1973; James W. Leslie, Saracen’s Country: Some Southeast Arkansas History (Little Rock: Rose Publishing, 1974); and interviews with Florence Dalrymple, Chaddy Jones, Marion Perry, Jr., Everett Tookes, Goldie Meeks Wallace and W.H. Zachary, all of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Robert Moody is a native of Pine Bluff, Arkansas. He is news director of WAKY Radio in Louisville, Kentucky, and is at work on a novel. (1979)