The Great Kansas Tornado Swarm of 1864 went largely unnoticed in the popular press at the time, overshadowed by the war and General Price’s raid. But the twister, later estimated to have been an F4 or F5 on the Fujita scale, caused immense devastation in the mostly rural areas it passed through on May 25 and 26 of that year. For those that lived through it–and at least 75 and perhaps as many as 115 did not–the Great Tornado Swarm was particularly unusual in that (much like the Blackwell/Udall tornado swarm nearly 100 years later) there was a great deal of unusual electrical activity, including St. Elmo’s Fire and ball lightning.

Flynn Karam Baum, a failed bookkeeper of distant Syrian and Sephardi ancestry, lived through the tornado when it tore apart his ramshackle (and illegal) homestead. Apparently impressed with the electrical discharges he had seen, and astonished that he had survived while his livestock and neighbors had not, Baum began to believe that he had been witness to a divine experience. In the aftermath of the disaster, he set out to share his revelations with the world.

Disasters and especially cyclones, Baum taught, were in fact conduits to a higher plane of existence–an afterlife of sorts where metaphysical concepts, virtues, and fancies were made manifest. Someone who was sufficiently resourceful could, in this place, rise to power and gain eternal life and supernatural servants at their beck and call. The most skilled and resourceful could even return to earth, as Baum believed he had, to spread the word.

The former homesteader attracted a following of fellow oddballs and iconoclasts largely because his creed, which he claimed was wholly compatible with the prevailing Kansas religious orthodoxy of the day, was highly individualistic. Baum claimed that the land to which storms and death bore the deceased and the disappeared was populated by whatever adherents believed it was. The vibrant folk art his movement inspired depicted all manner of strange dwarves, monkeys, lions, and motile creatures of china or straw.

At its height, the Baumites (as they became known) had perhaps 3000-4000 members scattered across Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Because adherents underwent no conversion and continued to attend their original churches–choosing only to wear the rainbow badge that identified them as Baum’s followers–there were no systematic pogroms or persecutions, though individual Baumites reported harassment. But their numbers were never stable, due largely to their millenarian view that death or disappearance, preferable in a violent storm, were necessary to reach Baum’s promised land. So the influx of new recruits was almost always mitigated by the deaths of older Baumites, many of whom declined medical treatment or even committed suicide.

By the late 1880s, the Baumite communities had dwindled, especially following Flynn Karam Baum’s death in the Lincoln Twister of 1885. By 1888, only a few scattered Baumites remained, mostly in South Dakota and northern Nebraska. It’s not clear when the movement died out entirely, but there are no records of the Baumite rainbow badges being made after 1900 and by 1910 Baumite art and furniture was already mildly collectable for wealthy fans of Americana.

Perhaps the most profound effect the Baumites had, though, was on a young Chicagoan who had moved to South Dakota in 1888 to start a (doomed) mercantile business. With the same surname as Flynn Karam, and amused by the Baumites who frequented his shop to purchase items on credit (which they never paid back), the Chicagoan eventually wrote a satire of the Baumite beliefs-and their ever-present meditative hum of “ozz, ozz”–that attracted worldwide notice and which continues to overshadow and color perceptions of the movement even today.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!