Disaster victim identification tools lacking during 1913 flood investigation

Local death and missing totals remain in doubt

Disaster victim identification tools lacking during 1913 flood investigation

(March 25, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of Hamilton’s worst flood. As the Great Miami River rose, its swift, filthy water devastated the community. This is the 15th in a series on local aspects of the flood and its aftermath. For more details on the 1913 disaster, consult Jim Blount’s 2002 book, Flood: Butler County’s Greatest Weather Disaster, available at outlets listed below, or by contacting Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Road (Ohio 126), Shandon, OH 45063, or phone 738-2962 or 523-4005.)

Compiled by Jim Blount

One of the enduring mysteries of the March 25, 1913, flood is exactly how many Hamilton citizens died in Ohio’s greatest natural disaster. There were inconsistent death and missing persons numbers reported in the weeks immediately after the local tragedy. For the last 100 years, 200 deaths is a commonly cited estimate. Unknown -- in addition to its accuracy -- is the source, or sources, of that figure. Circumstantial evidence indicates casualty tabulations lost importance in early April 1913. By then, local newspapers focused on cleanup and rebuilding efforts in the city of more than 35,000 people instead of the sad details and cold statistics of the calamity.

Was that media shift a natural one? Or, was it part of a conscious effort to project the city as resilient and its industry and economy back to normal?

During the most critical period, March 23-27, body counts weren’t a priority. The urgency was to move people to higher ground and to rescue those already surrounded by the rising, violent water. The flood’s severity was a surprise, a factor emphasized in numerous survivor accounts. National warning systems, by present standards, were primitive in 1913. Local weather information in late March lacked immediacy, urgency and specifics.

By the time the city was inundated -- and danger at its peak -- local government was unable to provide much assistance. Police and fire departments -- undermanned for such a crisis -- were disabled and scattered by the time the situation worsened after noon Tuesday, March 25. Elected officials and city workers were struggling to survive and save their families.

After the river peaked between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Wednesday, March 26, efforts turned to rescuing residents trapped in debris, collapsed houses, clinging to trees and utility poles and in buildings surrounded by muddy, contaminated water. Their needs were food, potable water, clothing, shelter and, in some cases, medical attention.

Local newspapers 100 years ago made no mention of city or county planning or training for crisis management of any type of crisis -- tornado, blizzard, fire, railroad accident or flood.

The need for a disaster response plan had been demonstrated less than three years earlier. The holiday afternoon of July 4, 1910, passenger and freight trains collided on the Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad north of Trenton in Butler County. The head-on crash killed at least 24 people and injured at least 35.

Pleas for help, mostly by telegraph and some by telephone, were slow to reach south to Trenton and Hamilton and east to Middletown. Railroads had no radio communications in 1910. Rescue efforts and the initial investigation were hampered by about 2,000 spectators -- most of them scrambling for souvenirs among the wreckage and carnage. Witnesses claimed scavengers were at the site before doctors and other assistance arrived.

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From the perspective of 100 years, it’s notable that local newspapers in 1913 didn’t cite "official sources" (police, coroner, etc.) as the basis for death and missing reports. Attribution was, and remains, a basic journalism principle.

Excerpts from Hamilton’s two 1913 daily newspapers -- the Journal and the Republican News -- exemplify the uncertainty of casualty counts. Separate stories within the same edition didn’t agree. Here are examples:

** 1. The April 14, 1913, Republican News said: "In the City of Hamilton and Butler County, the number of those claimed as flood victims has varying estimates at no less than 300." . . . "Many lost in the flood have not been found, even at this time, two weeks after the savage waters had begun."

In that edition, there were 73 names in a list headlined "Identified Dead." Another list on the same page, headed "Reported Missing," named "over 100" missing and added to the confusion by noting some names were on both lists.

** 2. The same day, the Journal reported 78 dead and 200 missing. In another story, the same paper said: "After days of careful investigation, it is believed that Hamilton’s death list . . . will reach approximately 150." Many will "never be recovered, becoming lodged in debris or covered by gravel and mud at points south of Hamilton."

** 3. A day later, the Journal noted that "scores of dead bodies" are in the temporary morgue in the Butler County Courthouse. The unidentified bodies were numbered and descriptions were published in the newspaper. The Journal also said "the morgue was closed 10 days after the flood" and "over 70 [bodies] were turned over to the public morgue."

** 4. The April 18 Republican News reported 86 dead, 200 missing in Hamilton in one place and in a different story claimed 72 Hamilton deaths.

** 5. The April 19 Journal described an earlier sobering event. Sunday, March 30, it said "Hamilton buried its first dead after the flood." A mass public funeral service was conducted at the courthouse for 49 victims, including nine unidentified. Burials couldn’t be done earlier because Greenwood Cemetery workers weren’t able to dig graves because of water-soaked ground.

** 6. The Republican News published an impressive souvenir magazine Aug. 13, more than four months after the flood. Its contents focused on post-flood relief for Hamilton citizens. Not mentioned in the 40-page second is an updated death toll and information on people still missing.

** 7. Also available in 1913 were souvenir booklets, featuring photos taken during and after the flood. "The Flood Disaster Illustrated" was produced by the Republican News. In the introduction, it said "up to April 19th, 80 bodies have been found and identified as flood victims and it is estimated that more than 100 persons are missing." Photographer C. S. Jacobi published "Hamilton’s Disastrous Flood" with "100 photographic views." A one-page "In Brief" section said: "85 known dead. Missing, 150."

In preparation for a Journal-News 60th anniversary special section, this writer -- with expert assistance -- scanned local sources in reconsidering the 1913 total casualties. This involved estimating people who died later in 1913 because of injuries and illnesses related to the flood -- pneumonia, typhoid fever and exposure, for example.

That unscientific exercise projected about 285 to 300 flood-related deaths -- including at least one suicide -- by the end of the year. Doubts about the 200 estimate also were questionable after reading and hearing recollections of numerous 1913 residents.

For decades after 1913, for example, survivors recalled neighbors who didn't return to their residences after the flood -- most said to have been renting -- to claim their personal possessions. This included individuals and families who had resided in houses that were not damaged or subject to only minor damage. It was unknown if the neighbors perished or simply relocated elsewhere.

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Disaster victim identification (DVI) wasn’t a recognized science or profession in 1913. Tools commonly used by 21st century DVI teams were in formative stages or yet to be discovered and developed 100 years ago.

Fingerprinting, not a new idea in 1913, wasn’t a common practice. It was used in criminal identification and applied to military and government employees in the early 20th century. It wasn’t until 1924 that Congress authorized fingerprinting by a division of what became the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

"The first United States disaster in which fingerprint individualization played a major role was when the USS Squalus sank May 23, 1939." wrote Jeffery G. Barnes, in a history of fingerprinting. "All the bodies were identified through the use of fingerprints." The submarine sank on a test dive in the Atlantic off Portsmouth, N. H.

In 1940, Barnes explained, "the FBI participated in disaster identification for the first time when a Pan Am Central airliner crashed in Lovettsville, Va., with an FBI agent and an FBI stenographer on board. The members of the FBI Identification Division’s Single Fingerprint Section were dispatched to identify the bodies of the FBI employees. FBI fingerprint specialists helped identify the bodies of all 25 victims from the crash. This was the beginning of the FBI Disaster Squad, which still responds to tragedies today.

"It’s often incredibly difficult to identify the remains of the victims," notes the FBI web site devoted to the Disaster Squad. "It requires special forensic expertise -- as well as the ability to endure tough conditions and gut-wrenching scenes." . . . "A Disaster Squad [is] a team of highly-trained forensic examiners who are deployed worldwide at a moment’s notice to identify victims of mass fatality incidents."

Forensic science -- not a common term 100 years ago -- is defined as "a scientific method of gathering and examining evidence," including "the use of pathological examinations that gather fingerprints, palm prints, footprints, tooth bite prints, blood, hair and fiber samples."

Also unavailable in 1913 was DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), defined as "the hereditary material that lies within the nucleus of all cells in humans and other living organisms." Research scientists were uncovering parts of the riddle before 1913, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that DNA science was on a fast track. In 1996, the National Academy of Sciences accepted the reliability of DNA evidence -- now a common part of identification in criminal and disaster investigations. The 1913 news stories didn’t mention attempts to match medical and dental records in the unpleasant task of naming victims.

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Bodies found within the city in 1913 were more likely to be quickly identified by family, friends or neighbors after the water receded. Residents were asked to call the county coroner, Dr. Henry Krone, if they recognized published descriptions of the deceased in the temporary morgue in the courthouse. An example: "No. 60, Male, Age about 17 years, White, Height 5 feet 6½ inches, Weight 136, Teeth good upper and lower, Brown eyes, Hair light brown and long."

Appeals from relatives were published in local newspapers. Among the missing was a man who "lived on Hanover Street near the river." Other clues included "30 years old, wore a fraternal order badge and carried a watch with the initials W.F.S. on the case."

More complex was attaching names to victims swept down the turbulent Great Miami River. In some cases it couldn’t be determined if the person had resided in Dayton, Hamilton or elsewhere along the river. Decaying remains usually had been battered by floating debris, which complicated recognition.

The body of a Hamilton man, who fell into the turbulent river Friday, March 28, was found four days later near Cleves and Miamitown in neighboring Hamilton County. He was identified when friends inquired at the morgue in Cincinnati, providing vital information (details on a gold-filled watch and keys that remained on the body).

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Hamilton wasn’t the only place where, according to recent research, flood deaths are believed to have been under counted. An apparent reason was the speed to publish reports on the widespread disaster. Another consideration is the expected chaos associated with large-scale disasters.

Some state and federal agencies issued statistics within a few weeks of the tornadoes and floods in several states. Obviously, the data didn’t include later flood-related deaths -- including injuries, typhoid fever, pneumonia and other diseases caused by exposure and unsanitary conditions. An unknown number of people were still missing when the early studies were issued.

In some cases, totals were based on mail inquiries, which weren’t always returned. Communities still searching for bodies, treating the sick and injured and rebuilding couldn’t be expected to give a mail questionnaire much time. Also, it is doubtful the mail surveys were directed to all sources that had reliable information.

A century later, the only certainties about 1913 deaths, injuries and damages are (1) that there is evidence that the numbers are usually under reported, and (2) there are no exact figures. Later -- including 2013 -- the media and other sources merely repeated early 1913 casualty and damage reports without considering losses more than a week or 10 days after the event.

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When citizen attention shifted to post-flood concerns -- combating associated health threats, cleanup of houses and businesses, removal of assorted debris, etc. -- local press interest faded in totaling the dead and missing.

How many persons were still missing months later? How many deaths later in the year were linked to flood complications? How many bodies were discovered years later?

One hundred years later, those are a few of the unanswered questions regarding the unfortunate victims known in 1913 as "missing" or "unidentified."


(Photos from The Flood Disaster, a booklet published by the Republican News in 1913, courtesy of the Rob Wile Collection and the Michael J. Colligan History Project, Miami University Hamilton.)