This mystery begins in a graveyard.
Amid a grove of junipers in a Southwest Austin park sits a family plot guarded by a high mesh fence. Four legible stones stand among the rubble. Three of the same family design — decorated with bas-relief garlands — face the trail.
"Father: John Bargsley: March 13, 1828-Oct. 13 1904."
"Mother: Sarah Bargsley: Sept. 2, 1834-May 4, 1922."
"Ada Lena Bargsley: July 6, 1877-May 4, 1922."
Why did family members of different generations die on the exact same day?
During one of their frequent trips to Longview Park, Kevin Davis, who lives nearby, noted the death dates to his wife, historian Chantal McKenzie.
They drew no conclusions. Later, however, McKenzie was browsing through the Austin History Center website when she ran across an arresting picture: In harrowing grays, a funnel cloud swirls around the dome of the State Capitol.
The date for the tornado: May 4, 1922.
Did the Bargsleys die in the double tornado that killed 13 people on that day, McKenzie wondered.
I must admit that, aside from the famous image of the Capitol, I knew almost nothing about the city’s deadliest tornado. Time for an always-welcome trip to the history center.
Preserved there is Frederic William Simonds’ 24-page "The Austin, Texas, Tornadoes of May 4, 1922," published in the University of Texas Bulletin for Feb. 15, 1923.
Simonds was a professor of geology who witnessed the more westerly of the two twisters.
"About four o’clock, the writer was suddenly summoned from home," Simonds writes, "a block and a half north of the campus of the University of Texas … by excited shouts directing his attention to an unusual cloud display in the north. Reaching the street, he saw in a direction west of north, a quickly advancing, dark and threatening mass of storm clouds which pended a rapidly whirling funnel so characteristic of tornadoes."
Simonds calmly, chillingly records their paths. The first touched down in four places, starting six miles north of Austin near Spicewood Springs, then a mile to the southwest. After that, it smacked the State Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths on Bull Creek Road between 38th and 45th streets. It finally belted the Deep Eddy recreational camp.
Copious photographs published in the Bulletin — and others housed at the history center — show smashed buildings. One person died in the first tornado.
The second tornado split off and raked the Texas State Cemetery in East Austin before bouncing in a "hit and miss" action over Travis Heights. It severely damaged three buildings on the St. Edward’s University campus, then destroyed businesses around Penn Field, including Woodward Manufacturing and a big water tower. It roared south to damage the school in the town of St. Elmo and the Hartkoff Dairy.
"From appearances after the storm, a veritable rain of timbers, planks, splinters and roofing must have swept over the Post Road leading from Austin to San Antonio," Simonds writes. "As automobile traffic on this highway is, as a rule, quite heavy, it is nothing short of miraculous that no lives were lost."
The tornado was not finished.
"Two and a half miles southeast of Oak Hill, eight or more miles from its origins in Austin, the tornado completely destroyed the Bargsley home, causing the death of six persons," he writes. "The violence of the storm at this point is shown by the fact that, of the house, scarcely a vestige remained, barring the stones used for the chimney. … Visitors on the scene were amazed to find that even the fowls had been plucked of their feathers."
All told, the second twister killed 12 people, half of them at the Bargsley house. Today, one can explore Longview Park and the attached preserve to find stacked stone fences and other evidence of farming or ranching. A few small private ranches survive nearby, although the surrounding neighborhoods were developed as early as the 1970s.
On May 5, 1922, headlines for the Austin Statesman read: "13 Dead, 44 Injured, Property Loss in Storm in Excess $700,000: Tornado Leaves a Trail of Ruin in its Path."
Remembering the paper’s response in a 1960 report, William J. Weeg said he was working at the Statesman offices at Eighth and Brazos streets. Managing editor E.J. Walthall, "was just fixing to leave when he saw the twister coming. He yelled, and we both got on the phones, calling the composing room crew and the stereotypers back to work and checking for information."
After reporting on Travis Heights damage, Weeg took other first-hand accounts by phone.
On the front page back in 1922, the Statesman listed among the dead: "Miss Ada Bargsley, 46" and "Mrs. John Bargsley, Sr., 89." The others who died at their home that day were "John Thompson, 26," "Mrs. Alta Thompson, mother of John Thompson," "Maria Kinchion, 70," and, in a sad sign of the times, "Harper, girl, negress, 10."
Over the following decades, this newspaper published the living memories of survivors, including a story written by J. Frank Dobie and rendered in flinch-worthy dialect.
Historian Mike Cox gave a clean account and interviewed experts for a 1970 newspaper article.
"In 1922, Austin only had about 20,000 residents," meteorologist David Barnes told Cox. "If you think what could have happened if that tornado had hit this year, the death rate might have easily been 10 times as great."
Now imagine that today.