Thursday, March 7, 2019

Prophecy Dooming Pine Bluff Caused Stir in 1903

Pine Bluff, Arkansas, Circa 1900, two unidentified men
Courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives

Many people have made end-of-the-world predictions over the years, but in 1903, one young woman prophesied the city of Pine Bluff would meet its end.

In the spring of 1903, Ellen Burnett Jefferson, a 22-year-old cook in Pine Bluff, began having strange feelings that something dangerous was going to happen. “(B)ut I could not tell what it was or where the fear came from,” she said.

Then, at the beginning of May, her feelings intensified, and she fell into a trance. Jefferson claimed she had a vision of heaven while in the trance. She said God told her Pine Bluff was going to be destroyed after 6 p.m. May 29 by a flood and a cyclone because of the city’s wickedness. She also said God told her to warn the people of Pine Bluff to leave the city or else perish. 

Jefferson opened her home to anyone willing to listen to her prophecy. Over the course of the next few weeks, Jefferson’s neighbors were treated to her sermons about the destruction of the town. Many who came to hear her were convinced, while others remained skeptical. She warned her listeners that around 6 p.m. on Friday, May 29, a dark cloud would appear on the horizon and begin to make its way toward the town. At the same time, another dark cloud would come toward Pine Bluff from the opposite direction. The two clouds would crash into one another directly over the city causing the death of most of the city’s inhabitants. Word spread slowly, but people began to listen to her prediction.

Tensions built over the next week. At 7:38 p.m. May 20, a few people saw a pigeon land on the big hand of the Jefferson County Courthouse clock. Immediately, word spread through the crowd on the street that it was part of Jefferson’s prophesy, which reportedly predicted a white dove would descend from heaven and land on the clock at exactly that time. The weight of the pigeon prevented the clock’s hands from continuing to move. R.H. Stearns, a jewelry store owner, climbed the tower and shooed away the pigeon before resetting the clock. Jefferson later denied having made such a prophecy, but the damage was done. Several of those who had been skeptical of Jefferson’s visions now had proof the woman was a true prophetess. 

What had begun as a trickle of people rushing out of town now became an avalanche. Many homeowners sold their residences for a fraction of what they were worth in order to afford a quick train ride out of town. The Pine Bluff Graphic estimated as many as 8,000 Pine Bluff residents left over the course of a couple of weeks. Mills and factories ground to a halt, and schools closed because there were not enough teachers. Hotels closed for lack of visitors and no bellhops to assist the few visitors who dared to come to town.

As Pine Bluff’s citizens continued to leave the city, Sheriff James Gould served an arrest warrant on Jefferson hoping that silencing her might help end the hysteria. The sheriff charged her with the crime of “lunacy” and whisked her away for a mental health evaluation at the state hospital in Little Rock.

On the morning of May 29, the day Jefferson predicted Pine Bluff would be destroyed, meteorologists forecasted clouds and a small chance of rain. Jefferson, who sat in a Little Rock jail cell, declared she had another vision. This time a storm would wipe out the Pulaski County jail unless she was freed. When the storm did not appear on time, Jefferson told her jailers, “It’ll wait until tomorrow now.” 

In Pine Bluff, the clouds grew dark as night fell on the city. Those who remained in Pine Bluff grew more alarmed as the light rain grew in intensity and developed into a hail storm. By 11 p.m., the storm ended and all was calm. The Arkansas Gazette mused, “The Pine Bluff cyclone gave a free concert in the streets and then canceled the date for the big show.”

The next morning, Jefferson’s jailers decided to free Jefferson and allow her to return to Pine Bluff.  When asked why the cyclone did not materialize, she replied that perhaps there was enough repentance in the city that it was spared. As she boarded the train, Sheriff Deputy Barney Stiel warned her “to keep her next vision quiet or the weather bureau would never give her a job.”

After being ridiculed, Jefferson and her husband left Pine Bluff and settled in Ruston, Louisiana. It is likely she had become a pariah in town, especially among those who had sold their property at a severe discount to escape the destruction she falsely predicted. After her move, Jefferson began to predict cyclones for Ruston. The people of Ruston, however, decided not to believe her. Ruston still stands to this day.

For information about the history of Pine Bluff, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, or call 501-682-6900.