Gail-Force Winds

A few years ago, while writing an announcement for a famous equestrian attraction that was coming to town, I paused in the middle of the word “Lipizzaner.”  I knew there was a double consonant in there somewhere, but was not absolutely certain which one it was.  After testing the spelling as “Lippizaner” in the window of an Internet search engine, I scored twenty-or-so returns on the first page.  Ah, I had gotten it right on the first try.  Or not.  What I found a few minutes later was that, no matter how you manage to mangle “Lipizzaner,” you’ll probably find your choice reassuringly confirmed by similar misspellings scattered amid the dark cubbyholes in the World Wide Web.

I was reminded of those false returns a few weeks ago after hearing from Keith Jones, a researcher in Marshall County, Kansas.  Keith suggested that in my posting “There’s No Place Like Irving,” I had fallen prey to a popular urban legend concerning “The Wizard of Oz,” one asserting that L. Frank Baum had named his young heroine after a victim of the tornadoes that struck Irving, Kansas, in 1879.  I generally try to make sure that the stories I pass along on these pages have at least a solid provenance, and must admit that I was perplexed after being unable find Dorothy Gale or any other Gale among contemporary lists of those who lay dead or injured in the wake of the famous pair of Irving twisters.  While doing a last-minute search before hitting “publish,”  the name “John Gale” finally turned up in a couple of sources as the owner of a house in Irving that was nearly demolished in the storm, and soon afterward I came upon the story of the L Frank Baum connection recounted in the pages of Lee Sandlin’s “Storm Kings.”  If the author of “Wicked River” found it convincing, it seemed to be worth passing along.

After hearing from Mr. Jones a few weeks ago, I started following the trail of the legend, which, of course, never really claims that anyone named Dorothy Gale perished in Irving along with the rest of her family - only that L. Frank Baum once read a newspaper report saying that she had.  Many versions of the “Dorothy" tale include the macabre detail that the little girl was hurled head-first to the ground with such force that only her legs remained visible, sticking up out of the mud.  While an eyewitness to the destruction at Irving wrote about just such a pathetic sight, the victim in that case was a grown woman, which might explain why, in some early variations of the developing myth, “Dorothy” was not supposed to be the name of John Gale’s daughter, but his wife.

According to Keith Jones, the most reliable source of information about the Irving twisters is contained in “Professional Papers of the Signal Service,” and is the product of Sergeant John P. Finley’s dedicated research into the storms that struck Kansas and neighboring states at the end of May 1879.  Finley was dispatched to the scene immediately after the disaster, and surveyed the devastated towns for weeks before returning to St. Louis to prepare his report.  

(The house) owned by Mr. John Gale, situated 20 rods (101 m) NE. of Mr. Ship’s, and about the same distance SE. of the storm’s center, was unroofed and the walls torn down to the first story.  The debris was carried to the NE. and N.  It was a very old building and considerably out of repair. Mrs. Gale’s baby was carried out of the house into a Wheatfield to the NE., a distance of 30 rods (151 m), and a little girl carried E. into a small ravine, distant 28 rods (141 m).  Four other members of the family, including the father and mother, were carried to the E. at distances varying from 10 to 15 rods (50 to 75 m), and their clothing torn into shreds and partially stripped from their bodies.

If none of the children in the household was killed, it certainly wasn’t because Mother Nature didn’t give it her best shot, punting a baby more than half again the length of a football field, and hurling a child only a few years older nearly as far, both of them landing without noteworthy injury.  Perhaps it’s only an odd coincidence that Sgt. Finley’s description of the Gale family tallies with the number of members found in most retellings of the urban legend, a tradition which has some or all six of the Gales perishing in the twister.

There was a family living in Irving at that time and for a few years afterward, who were surely the “Gales” referred to in Finley’s report, even though their actual surname is only a homonym.

John Lockwood Gail had married Prudence Adelia Stoneman in Buchanan, Iowa, in 1870.  The family was in Illinois when their daughter Alta was born in 1874, but had moved to Irving, Kansas, before the birth of their youngest, Nellie, in December 1878.  The Gails thus had a baby and a five-year-old who would have been the two children flung into the air like rag dolls on May 30, 1879.  The names of the two other members of the household who were strewn among the wreckage along with John and Prudence Gail remain unknown, but probably can be guessed.

The Gails were reduced to a family of four in the 1880 Marshall County census, where John is listed as a farmer.  By 1885 John and Prudence were running a millinery at Irving, which also employed Prudence’s 23-year-old sister, Emma Stoneman.  Since John was a shopkeeper for most of his life, it seems reasonable to assume that it was also his vocation before the tornadoes struck.  He may have fallen back on farming while the shop was being rebuilt (not to mention, much of the town).  The two mystery guests blown into the streets of Irving along with the Gails a year earlier, were probably Emma and another sister.

Unfortunately for believers in the Baum legend, there was no Gail or Gale named Dorothy anywhere in sight during the Irving twisters.  However, there is a wonderful story attached to the baby who survived being drop-kicked 165 yards by a tornado in 1879, one with a much happier ending than the popular myth.  But, that’s for another time.

(Nellie Gail’s remarkable story continues in Seeing Nellie Home)

© Dale Switzer 2023