Today I am sharing a very moving and disturbing historic letter written in the days following the hurricane that killed thousands of migrant workers and pioneer farmers south of Lake Okeechobee on September 16th, 1928. It is not an easy letter to read; please be warned. I do not believe it has ever been shared publicly before…
So how did I come upon this remarkable letter?
In January of 2017 I made it my goal to learn more about the communities south and around Lake Okeechobee. At this time, after a discussion with my historian mother, I offered my services as a volunteer at the Laurence E. Will Museum of the Glades in Belle Glade. This made sense as my mother’s friend, and Stuart local, Linda Geary, had opened the museum. Thankfully, present Museum Director Dorothy Block accepted my offer.
For weeks I went through old files and later, myself and a young Pahokee student from Palm Beach Community College scanned hundreds of photographs of the 1928 Hurricane for archival purposes. This was quite the education.
After one of my “museum days,” while having dinner at my parents, my mother, noting my interests in the 1928 Hurricane subject gets up from the table saying: “I do think I have a letter written after the 1928 Hurricane. It was given to me by Iris Wall.” (Some of you know, Iris Wall is a legend of Indiantown and the state of Florida.)
When my mother brought the hand written letter down, I read it out loud at the table, struggling with some of the cursive handwriting of the era. In spite of not getting every word, at one point tears streamed down my face. To think of what Floridians lived through, and reading it first hand almost a century later really puts things in perspective. I have read and listened to many first hand accounts of the storm, but this may top them all…
Letter About the Aftermath of the 1928 Hurricane, transcribed by historian Sandra Henderson Thurlow. Letter was given to Sandra by Mrs Iris Wall of Indiantown in 2003.
We arrived here at four A.M. this morning and tried to sleep for an hour and a half then started to work. This is undoubtedly as bad a mess as I ever care to see. They are bringing in dead people all the time and they are swollen up about as big as cows and stink something awful. The old Dog Fennels are where they are lodged up. The water is about three feet over the farms and deeper in other places. The town is about two feet deep all over. Everything is ruined. Houses look like trash heaps—lot of them are scattered for a mile, just a piece here and there. Dead cows and hogs everywhere. The place smells like a corpse. It is awful but I am about used to smelling it now. Don’t know what I will do when I smell fresh air again. The water in the lake is awful on account of the dead things in it. They will not allow us to even bathe as all the water we get comes in on boats and is used to drink and cook with. We cannot even shave on account of the danger of cutting ourselves and getting it infected and we have to [be] looked over ever so often and any scratch doctored.
Awful does not describe it at all. I saw one man identify his father, mother, and brother and wife in a batch of bodies brought in. Now that was a pitiful sight. He had not closed his eyes since Friday looking and waiting for them and then to find them all downed and they were in awful shape. Hardly any clothes left on them, just rags. One man identified his fifth child this afternoon and his wife is still missing. One old man about eighty identified his wife this morning when they brought her in with hardly a rag on her, that was awful to see the old fellow. Some bodies come in with all the skin and hair gone and their eyes swollen until they have busted and their tongues sticking out and swollen larger than your hand and their faces all out of shape. One man brought in here looked as tho he would weigh about 250 pounds they said only weighed about 110.
They do not embalm them any more, just put them in a box and haul them to Cities Center and bury them. Two trucks have been busy now two days hauling bodies out to the solid ground and two hauling in coffins. I guess they built about 20 coffins out of rough lumber today and they have to wait for boxes –some bodies have to lay on the ground for several hours before they have any thing to put them in.
The State is sending in a bunch of antitoxin to inoculate us with tomorrow to prevent us from getting sick. I saw a paper today but they don’t describe it near as bad as it is.
The town is under Martial Law and they are sending people out of here as fast as they can get a means of getting them out. They have to get them out because there is no place for them to sleep and nothing for them to eat.
I took a second lieutenant in tow this afternoon. He was drunk and just raising sand and Chesterfield told him to quiet down and he was in for getting his gun and he was standing right in front of me. I grabbed his arm and got a “Hammer Lock” on him and believe me he hit the ground like a sack of sand and…I held my holt until a deputy took him over. That is the only fun I have had since I left Arcadia.
I am on guard duty now and have been on for eight straight hours. Got up at 5:30 and it is nearly two A. M. now. How is that for a day. All I have to do is sit here and see that there is no stealing. My orders are to stop them and if they did not stop use my own judgement. Things are pretty quiet so don’t guess I will have any trouble. Most of the people are gone and no one is allowed in here.
There are houses or rather what is left of them, with lily pads on top of them the water was so high. The people say that when the dykes broke the water came in a wall and a lot of people were drowned before they could get out of it. Cars are left in the road right where the water caught them. There is a steel coal care one mile from the track and two big Gul Ref. Co tanks about four miles from town where they were washed. The water just picked up about a mile of the railroad track and just turned it bottom upwards. Now that was some force. The embankment was not washed away either.
Well, Papa, it is time for my relief so will close and try to mail this tomorrow.
Love to you all
No need to write as no mail comes in and I will have to meet a train or find someone who will to mail this as the train does not come closer that 12 miles. DBJ
Palm Beach County Historical Society, Hurricane of 1928: http://www.pbchistoryonline.org/page/-hurricane
Laurence E. Will Museum of the Glades: http://www.museumoftheglades.org
Mrs Iris Wall’s biography: http://www.freshfromflorida.com/Divisions-Offices/Marketing-and-Development/Agriculture-Industry/Agricultural-Awards-and-Honors/Woman-of-the-Year-in-Agriculture-Award/Iris-Wall
Historian Sandra Henderson Thurlow: http://www.sandrathurlow.com