5 Tragic Turns in St. Louis History—Part 2

1, October 2016

Like any community, the St. Louis region has had its share of heartache over the years. Here's a look at some of the tragic moments in St. Louis history from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century.

1. 1896 Tornado

Sepia-toned photo of wreckage from the 1896 tornadoMore than 30 people lost their lives in this building at Eighth and Rutger streets when the Great Cyclone hit. Photo by B. Atwater, 1896. Missouri Historical Society collections.

May 27, 1896, began like any other day with mere thunderstorms on the horizon. Yet as the day continued, black and green clouds appeared, and by 5pm the sky was completely dark. Tornadoes had formed in Missouri and Illinois, causing damage and taking a number of lives. One particular tornado, the Great Cyclone, left a path of destruction a mile wide as it traveled from the Tower Grove area to East St. Louis. Over the course of 20 minutes, it killed more than 250 people and injured over 1,000. To see more photos of the devastation caused by the Great Cyclone, head to our photo gallery.

2. 1927 Tornado

Black-and-white photo of wreckage from the 1927 tornadoDamage along the Hodiamont street car tracks at Cook Avenue after the 1927 tornado. Missouri Historical Society collections.

The tornado of September 29, 1927, was the second deadliest in St. Louis history. Similar to the forecast on the day of the Great Cyclone, a mild storm was expected but nothing severe. The barometer fell suddenly around noon, and about an hour later a tornado touched down near Manchester and Kingshighway, moving northeast through town and onward to Illinois. This tornado touched down for just five minutes, but it left a 12-mile-long path of destruction in its wake, including over 460 destroyed homes, hundreds of damaged homes, and numerous cars scattered throughout the city. The 1927 tornado claimed 78 lives and injured more than 550 people.

3. 1943 Glider Crash

Black-and-white photo of the victims of the 1943 glidercrashThe victims of the fatal glider crash at Lambert, shortly before take-off, 1943. Missouri Historical Society collections.

A pilot himself, Mayor William Becker was eager to fly aboard the new CG-4 glider built by local company Robertson Aircraft Corporation for the aircraft's first public demonstration. The mayor and nine others, including Robertson owner Bill Robertson, boarded the glider on the afternoon of August 1, 1943, and took off from the runway, towed by a transport plane. As the cable released the glider over 1,500 feet above the ground, the right wing broke off the body of the plane. The aircraft immediately nosedived toward the ground, killing all 10 people aboard in front of a crowd of shocked onlookers. The cause of the crash? A bolt that failed because of a metal fitting that had been manufactured too thinly.

4. 1953 Kidnapping of Bobby Greenlease

Photo of Carl Austin Hall, one of Greenlease's kidnappersKidnapper and murderer Carl Austin Hall, ca. 1953. Missouri Historical Society collections.

Six-year-old Bobby Greenlease was at his grade school on September 28, 1953, when he was called out of class. Bonnie Heady, a woman claiming to be his aunt, told the school that his mother had suffered a heart attack. She then left with Bobby in a taxi to meet her partner in crime, Carl Austin Hall. The three of them crossed state lines, where Hall proceeded to shoot the young boy with a revolver.

Knowing Bobby’s father was a multimillionaire automobile dealer, Hall and Heady sent a ransom message to the boy’s family: The Greenleases could have Bobby back in exchange for $600,000. Not knowing their son was already dead and desperate for his safe return, the Greenleases agreed to pay the ransom. After the exchange, Hall and Heady rented an apartment in St. Louis on October 5. Hall then left Heady in the night, taking all but a couple thousand dollars of the ransom money. He got a taxi, picked up a prostitute, and headed to the Coral Court Motel. However, because he had unwisely flashed too much money in front of the taxi driver, Hall was arrested the next day. Heady was arrested as well; Bobby’s body was found buried in Heady's backyard in St. Joseph, Missouri; and the two kidnappers were executed for their crimes before the end of the year.

5. 1993 Flood

Photo of cow being rescued from the flooded Mississippi in 1993Rescuing a cow from the flood zone. Photo by Andrea Booher, 1993. Image courtesy of FEMA.

The Great Flood of 1993 lasted from April to October, with above-flood-stage levels lasting over 140 days. The previous year had seen above-average rainfall and lower temperatures than usual, followed by heavy snowfall and spring storms that saturated the soil further and raised reservoir levels. Unable to soak into the ground, rainfall ran off into rivers, and the Mississippi rose more than 13 feet above flood stage. Levees broke, both the Mississippi and Missouri rivers overflowed, and over 55,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. The Great Flood of 1993 was one of the most costly floods in the United States up to that point, causing more than $15 billion in damages.

—Ashley Preuss, Communications Intern

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