The Town That Fled a Fake Earthquake

In 1812, the lower 48 states — that’s the United States but minus Alaska and Hawaii — were struck by what is generally considered the largest earthquake to ever hit that region. If you had to guess where it was, you’d probably guess that it happened in California. It’s home to a number of fault lines, most famously the San Andreas Fault. (Here’s a map.) But you’d be wrong. The American Midwest is home to the New Madrid Fault Zone, which runs over the Mississippi River valley from about Memphis, Tennessee, to lower Illinois. (Here’s a map of that, too.) And on February 7, 1812, an earthquake of an estimated magnitude of 8.0, centered on the small town of New Madrid, Missouri, uprooted life in the area. As one blogger relays, the quake “entirely destroyed the town of New Madrid, damaged homes and toppled chimneys 150 miles away in St. Louis, and caused the nearby Mississippi River to run backward. It rang church bells in Philadelphia and was felt as far away as Canada.” 

Nearly two centuries later, the people of New Madrid and the surrounding areas hadn’t forgotten what had happened on that date. They knew that they were living in the fault zone, and another, similar event was always possible. Which is why a man named Iben Browning was able to scare the living daylights out of them.

Browning was a scientist, but one who rarely put his formal education to work. In 1948, he earned a Ph.D. in zoology and he also took coursework in genetics and bacteriology — if you were looking for someone to talk about evolution or the like, he would have been a very good person to speak with. But for reasons unclear, he found lifeless things more interesting — and, in particular, became fascinated by the moon. Browning came up with a pseudoscientific theory that volcanic eruptions and earthquakes were caused, at least in meaningful part, by tidal forces, and therefore could be predicted by the position of the Earth and moon relative to each other and to the sun. He made a lot of predictions and some matched up with actual disasters; for example, according to an Associated Press report, he projected that Mount St. Helens would erupt in 1980 (although, per the AP, “most scientists say it was hardly a daring forecast [as] the volcano was already quivering [and the news was] full of warnings from geologists” by that time). 

His reputation, though, was generally somewhat positive — more than a few people saw him as an early warning system of disaster. In August of 1990, per the New York Times, “Dr. Browning said [ . . . ] that his calculations showed that on December 3 [of that year], plus or minus 48 hours, the area had a 50-50 chance of being the center of a destructive earthquake.” The town of New Madrid, as well as many other towns within the general area, took the warning seriously. According to WREG Memphis, “some folks decided to pack up and move. Businesses and factories closed, sending workers home for the day.” As Buzzfeed reports, “some 40,000 students in portions of Missouri and surrounding states — Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Indiana — had the day off, and some districts had canceled Tuesday and Wednesday as well” in case the big one hit. A newspaper in Wausau, Wisconsin — more than 650 miles from New Madrid — dedicated an entire page of its December 2nd issue to earthquake coverage. 

All of that preparation and coverage, thankfully, was for not. As many scientists noted at the time — and as is still true today — there’s no reliable way to predict earthquakes. Few if any believed in Browning’s methodology. New Madrid was not struck by an earthquake that week and, for good measure, hasn’t fallen victim to a strong one in over a century. 

Browning, to his credit, later claimed that he never intended for his predictions to be made public. As Buzzfeed explained, he asserted that he only shared his prediction at “appearances in the business community” and acknowledged that, in his words, “panic can kill more people than an earthquake.” In this case, though, there were no reports of deaths from either cause.

Bonus fact: In February of 2012, a 6.8-magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Negros Oriental, Philippines, claiming more than 100 lives. The effects could easily be felt in Cebu City, approximately 120 kilometers away (here’s a map; the red flag is near the epicenter). Despite the fact that Cebu City is not on the same coast as where the earthquake struck, many people in the area started running from a reported tsunami. The reports, though, were wrong — and most likely caused by a rumor mill that overheard something that wasn’t said. Per a local news source, a man was calling out for his daughter in the aftermath of the quake. His daughter, though, was named Chona Mae — which some nearby misheard as “tsunami.” That mistake spread, leading to mass panic — but thankfully, no significant reported injuries.

From the Archives: Kentucky, Disconnected: Just south of New Madrid is a small part of Tennessee that’s officially in Kentucky. The bonus item is about the 1811-12 earthquakes.