The earthquake that struck Haiti two years ago today reminds us that generations throughout history have experienced the physical and psychological destruction accompanying this violent act of nature. For example, from December 1811 to February 1812, four major quakes originating along the New Madrid fault in what is now Missouri caused extensive property damage, landslides, and geographic upheavals so extraordinary that for several hours the Mississippi River appeared to reverse course. Some of the responses of Kentuckians to the New Madrid earthquake can be found in the collections of WKU’s Special Collections Library.
In Bowling Green, druggist John E. Younglove preserved the comments of old-timers who had experienced the disaster. The earthquake “was felt here for several days,” they remembered, “the houses shaking so much that the dishes in the cupboards and shelves rattled and caus[ed] great consternation among the inhabitants of this region.” Many citizens were so terrified “that they met in the churches for Prayer and supplication.”
In February 1812, Joseph Underwood wrote to his uncle in Barren County from Lexington where, he reported, “the repeated shocks of earthquakes have alarmed the timorous inhabitants of this place.” A man told Underwood that his wife had not eaten anything for days. “I suppose she was under the dreadful apprehension of being swallowed up by the opening of the earth.” Stories circulated of night watchmen hearing “aerial songs,” voices from above “which seemed to portend an awful desolation,” but Underwood suspected only “a base attempt to impose on the credulity of the people, who are now ready to believe in and wonder at miracles.”
Twenty-five years after the quakes, Betsy Taliaferro passed by the town of New Madrid on her steamboat journey from Louisiana to Versailles, Kentucky. She feared coming near “that awful place” where “the earth yawned,” and found it “scarcely improved” since the disaster. The real tragedy, however, was not property damage but damage to the human psyche. “What must the inhabitants have experienced during that awful period!” Betsy wrote in her journal. “That the inhabitants were horror stricken is not to be wondered at, but that they were anything but lunatics afterwards is.”