Yazoo City, Mississippi, May 26, 1904: A horror from the depths of Hades was unleashed on our town, yesterday, as a freakish, wind-swept fire totally obliterated our entire business district of 124 buildings, and those same flaming winds made ashes of 200 of our citizen’s homes.
But, even as Satan spewed his sparks of destruction, God was still there to protect us and provide miracles. Not one of our 7000 residents died in this horrible conflagration and only a scattered few suffered minor injuries.
These frenzied flames started innocently enough late yesterday morning in the home of Miss Pauline Wise at the corner of Mound and Commercial Streets. She was in her parlor planning her wedding when she smelled smoke and saw a tiny blaze in the corner of the room. She said she thought about stomping it out with her foot, but decided quickly to call the nearby fire department, just to be safe. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, extremely high winds struck Yazoo City. Pauline’s windows were open. The tiny fire in the corner was fanned fiercely and swiftly became an inferno, spreading throughout the house and beyond in a matter of seconds. Pauline stumbled from her home unharmed.
Nearby, Emma Lee Stubblefield said she raced from her house and saw “flames leaping through the air three blocks at a time. People were running through the streets screaming like they were wild.” The wind was relentless.
The 20 volunteer firemen were overwhelmed with the sheer number of burning buildings and stood helplessly as the old waterworks system failed to provide adequate water pressure to put out a fire at even one house, much less the entire town. Nothing could stop the flames.
Yazoo City is wiped out, but everyone here is still alive to rebuild our structures and rebuild our lives. The work has already begun.
Just six hours after the fire began, W.T. Bradley, the manager of the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company had re-established long distance telephone service on a street corner. He was making calls for help.
Throughout the night, help was pouring in by train, horseback and wagon. We are grateful so many people are pitching in to assist us.
But, this must be said, as the fire died last night, and the clean up began, it was hard to escape dozens of conversations among our citizens saying this tragedy was predicted 20 years ago by that loathsome reclusive woman we’ve heard about all our lives who lived on the edge of the swamp, just outside town. Many still refer to her simply as “The Witch.”
The legend is specific. The sheriff had found two skeletons hanging in “The Witch’s” shack. He wanted answers. A posse chased her deep into the swamp on the night of May 25, 1884. She ran into quicksand, and as she sank to her death, she placed a curse on Yazoo City, swearing she would rise from the dead in 20 years and burn the town to the ground. Our fire yesterday occurred exactly 20 years to the day after her curse.
As for realism, the citizens of Yazoo City showed incredible resilience in the aftermath of what has proved to be the worst town fire in the history of Mississippi.
Living conditions, of course, were primitive for months, but, within one single year, Yazoo City had been built back better and safer than it was before the fire.
As for the witch’s curse, no one knows if the woman referred to as “The Witch” ever really existed, or even if the sheriff’s posse actually chased her into the swamp, or, if the sheriff really placed a chain around her grave to keep her in place, or if that chain was found broken the day of the fire. All death records, law enforcement records, and past newspaper articles were burned in the fire. No official written records exist in Yazoo City prior to May, 1904.
So, is the curse true? Like all folklore, there are likely some elements of truth. But, what is known for sure is that popular Mississippi writer Willie Morris, who died in 1999, wrote extensively about “The Witch” legend in many articles and books that were distributed throughout the world for years, fanning “flames” of interest and insuring that this “loathsome lady,” real or not, will be a part of Southern Memories for as long as people are fascinated by the story of a witch, a curse, and destruction.