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June 7, 1953 | The Tragedy of the Madsen Family

Nebraska tornado part of a much wider outbreak
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Posted at 8:00 AM, Jun 09, 2024

About 45 miles north of Kearney lays the small town of Arcadia, almost right in the middle of Nebraska. With a population of just over 300, Arcadia is a town in Valley County, southwest of Ord. Its town history is similar to that of others in central Nebraska, it was founded because of the expanding railroad network, and slowly gained its population. While tragedy has hit the town before, most wouldn't bat an eye to the history of Arcadia.

However, tragedy has impacted the town before. On June 7, 1953, an estimated F-4 tornado moved over the farmland east of Arcadia. Although impacting a few homes, the Arcadia tornado has the distinction of being tied for the 4th deadliest tornado in Nebraska history, with 11 confirmed fatalities. Tragically, 10 of these 11 occurred in a single family, the Madsen family. In this installment of This Week in Weather History, the tragic story of the Madsen family on that fateful day is told. Also, the wider context of the story is given in the incredibly deadly 1953 tornado season.

THE MADSEN FAMILY

The origins of the Madsen family can be traced back to Denmark. Around 1880, Jens "Big Jens" Madsen emigrated to the United States, where he settled in Nebraska. In 1884, Jens married Kristine Octavia Spangberg, a Dane who emigrated to the United States. The two married in Fremont but moved to Arcadia sometime in the late 1880s. The couple would have 7 children, 2 boys and 5 girls.

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A simplified family tree of the Madsen family as it stood in 1953. All but two of the names in this tree would lose their life in the Arcadia tornado in 1953.

One of the children, Mads "Jens" Madsen, was born on October 25, 1892 in Arcadia. Little is known about his early life, but we know he lived in Arcadia all his life. His parents moved at some point, with his father passing away in 1923 in Maywood (southwest Nebraska) and his mother in 1947 in Colorado. In 1914, he married Minnie Earl-Madsen. Minnie was born on March 18, 1896, in Wolbach. She moved to Arcadia at the age of 7.

Over their 45-year marriage, the couple had 4 children. The eldest was Mary Edith Madsen-Witty, born on November 9, 1915, and spent most of her life in Arcadia except for a few years where she lived in Indiana and California. In 1938, she married Jack Witty and had 2 children with him. The eldest was Thelma Witty, born on May 19, 1942; and Patricia "Patty" Witty, born on September 8, 1945. The couple also had an adopted son from Scottsbluff named Gerald "Gary" Witty, born on July 30, 1943. The family lived in Arcadia, down the road from their parents.

The second-eldest child of Mads and Minnie was Jens Virgil Madsen. Born on February 12, 1917, Jens lived in Arcadia most of his life before moving to Central City in 1945 to start his farm. He was unmarried.

The third child of Mads and Minnie was Dorothy Madsen, born on September 11, 1918. The fourth and last child of Mads and Minnie was Dolly Irene Madsen-Johnson. Born on November 9, 1921, she married John Herman Johnson in 1941 before moving to California as he was enlisted in World War II. While in California, the couple had 2 children: Kenneth Eugene Johnson, born on December 25, 1941; and Barbara Ann Johnson, born on March 7, 1943. The couple moved to Central City in 1945 when the war was over.

By 1953, the family ages were as follows: Mads Madsen (60), Minnie Earl Madsen (57), Mary Edith Madsen-Witty (37), Thelma Witty (11), Gerald Witty (9), Patricia Witty (7), Jens Virgil Madsen (36), Dolly Irene Madsen-Johnson (31), Kenneth Johnson (11), and Barbara Johnson (10).

THE SEVERE WEATHER SET-UP

It is unknown if the Madsen family followed the news closely, but if they had they would've been kept aware of the devastating tornado season 1953 was so far. Up until that point, 1953 had the most tornadoes in any year at 421. It wasn't just the number of tornadoes, but the violence of them and where they hit that caught many off guard. In 1953, several violent tornadoes would impact large American cities. The intensity of the tornadoes was so much that some suggested a link between tornadoes and the recent testing of nuclear weapons caused this.

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The tornadoes from 1953

Part of what made 1953 so deadly was the general lack of technology and warning capabilities we have today. Modern tornado research began in March 1948 when the first tornado warning was issued by two men at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City (you can read about the story here). Once the public got wind of the tornado warning issuance, public pressure on the US Weather Bureau (the precursor to the National Weather Service) created the Severe and Local Storms Unit (SELS) in 1952 to issue tornado forecasts to warn the public. The first tornado forecast (the modern-day equivalent of a tornado watch) was issued on March 17, 1952. Over the next year, these tornado forecasts would be issued with varying success.

Although the winter of 1953 was quiet for tornadoes, things ramped up in March 1953. On March 13, 17 people were killed in Jud, TX when an F-4 tornado hit the town. More violent tornadoes occurred in late April to early May, including an F-4 that was filmed in Warner Robbins, GA that killed 18 (including allegedly the man who filmed the tornado). On May 9, an F-3 tornado hit Hebron, Nebraska killing 5 and injuring 82. Then, May 11 brought the first F-5 tornado in 1953, it tore through the heart of Waco, TX. In the Waco tornado, 114 people were killed, making it the deadliest tornado in Texas state history. Tornadoes continued into May and early June, but early June 1953 would be the set-up that would lead to much death and destruction in the US. Within three days, over 250 people would be killed, among them the Madsen family.

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Damage from the tornado that hit Waco, Texas on May 11, 1953. 114 people were killed, the deadliest tornado in Texas history.

In the early morning of June 7, a low-pressure system was developing in eastern Colorado and moved into Nebraska during the day. A warm front ahead of this system lifted over the state, pulling warm air from the Gulf of Mexico. With the unstable airmass ahead of the cold front, ample wind shear moved overhead to create conditions for tornadic thunderstorms. Nebraska was a hotbed of severe weather waiting to explode. June 7 would bring many tornadoes to Nebraska, Iowa, and surrounding states. The strongest tornado of the day would aim at Arcadia.

THE TORNADO

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Photograph of the Arcadia tornado shot by Howard Hinmen of Grand Island on his visit to town.

June 7 was a Sunday, meaning the Madsen family was off of work. The family had decided to have a family reunion that day. Mads Madsen, Minnie, and three of their four children alongside their spouses and children would be there, 11 in total. The whereabouts of John Herman Johnson, the husband of Dolly Madsen, are unknown. The only family member absent from this reunion was Dorothy Madsen, the third daughter of Mads and Minnie. Records show she may have been living in Nebraska City, and might not have been able to make it. We do not know what they did on June 7, but it was likely that the family had sat down for a meal around 2:30 that afternoon. At the same time, the tornado began in nearby Sherman County.

The Arcadia tornado began south of the Middle Loup River south of Arcadia. It first struck a cemetery, throwing headstones and snapping trees. It then crossed the river before striking the first of five farms, the Dorseys. Seeing the ominous clouds, the Dorseys fled to a neighbor's house as the tornado hit. Part of their house was destroyed, with the other half twisted from the foundation.

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Remains of the Dorsey home after the tornado.

The next home that was hit by the tornado was that of Lester Hubbard. 63 years old, Lester was born in Platte County on October 26, 1890. He moved to Arcadia when he was 7, and spent the rest of his life living in the area. The tornado hit the home while he was inside, and the home was annihilated. He was found under the debris 3 hours later, seriously injured. Tragically, Lester Hubbard succumbed to his injuries the next day at the hospital in Ord. He would be the 11th fatality of the tornado.

Guy Lutz heard the tornado come and got his family in their storm cellar. They couldn't hear their screams over the roar of the tornado as it tore through their home. When they emerged unhurt, they were met with a scene of utter devastation. The home, built of cement blocks, was destroyed down to the basement. Nothing remained of the home except debris, winds were estimated at over 200 miles from the farm, making the tornado an F-4. The car that the Lutz family owned was picked up and lofted 300 yards away, drilled into a hill in a heap. The tornado then crossed the street, where it would hit the home of the Madsens.

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Damage to the Guy Lutz home east of Arcadia from the tornado on June 7, 1953.
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The mangled heap of the Guy Lutz car from the tornado.

We will never know the final moments of the Madsen family. Newspaper accounts at the time reported that the family was likely unaware of the approaching tornado, but this is conjecture. The family had sat down for a meal. Jack Witty, the husband of Mary Madsen and father of Thelma, Gerald, and Patricia, had gone home to look after the farm. What we do know is the tornado hit the home straight on and destroyed it, strewing debris hundreds of yards away. Only the foundation remained of the home. Among the debris was ten bodies, all from the Madsen family. Three generations: two grandparents, three parents, and five grandchildren were all wiped out in a moment. Guy Lutz, whose home was just destroyed by the tornado, was the first to arrive on the scene and gave this description to the Ord Quiz:

I started yelling for anyone, but I heard nothing. I kept yelling, but could find nothing but arms and legs that were strung all over. No one will ever know how I felt
Guy Lutz, interview with the Ord Quiz
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The remains of the Madsen farm after the tornado. 10 bodies were recovered from the wreckage, 5 adults, 5 children, all from the same family.

After hitting the Madsen home, the tornado lifted somewhere over Valley County. No one was injured, but 11 people had lost their lives. In the hours after the tornado, Jack Witty had no idea of the tragedy until he was told about it by neighbors. His wife and three children were killed. We can only imagine the pain of Dorothy Madsen, the only surviving Madsen, at the news of the deaths of her parents, siblings, and nieces/nephews. Jack Witty decided not to have a church service for the family, but one mass ceremony attended by hundreds of people. The Madsen family were laid to rest in the cemetery at the Arcadia Village Cemetary, where they remain today. Funeral services were held for Lester Hubbard, the other tornado death, and he is buried in Lee Cemetary.

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The coffins of the eleven tornado victims near Arcadia, Nebraska from the tornado on June 7, 1953. The white coffin on the left is that of Lester Hubbard, while the 10 darker ones is the Madsen family.

Dorothy Madsen never married nor had any children, meaning the Madsen family descended from Mads Madsen died with Dorothy. She lived a long life, dying in 2010 at the age of 91 in Las Vegas. According to records, Jack Witty remarried Gwendolyn Fay-Earl later that year in 1953. The couple would have no children, and Jack Witty died in 2001 in Arizona. Although the whereabouts of John Herman Johnson, the husband of Dolly Madsen, are unknown, records show that he never remarried and died in 1988. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetary. Outside the immediate Madsen family, extended family members from the siblings of Mads and Minnie are still alive today.

AFTER ARCADIA, TWO DAYS OF DEVASTATION

The tragedy of the Madsen family in Arcadia, Nebraska made national headlines in the papers on June 8, 1953. Unfortunately, it would quickly be replaced by more devastating scenes of tornado horror. The same weather system that spawned the Arcadia tornado would go on to produce two more days of wicked tornadic weather in unusual locations.

The same atmospheric ingredients that were over Nebraska on June 7 had moved east into Michigan and Ohio on June 8. That afternoon, a tornado outbreak occurred in eastern Michigan and northern Ohio. The most devastating tornado would hit the north side of Flint and the town of Beecher. The tornado struck the town with little warning, a drive-in movie theater saw panic as cars desperately tried to flee the tornado, some driving into its path. This was an F-5 tornado with winds over 260 mph. The tornado took 116 lives, the 10th deadliest tornado in US history. Other tornadoes impacted towns, including one F-4 that hit Cleveland, Ohio.

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Tornado damage from Beecher, Michigan on June 8, 1953. This tornado killed 116 people.

The next day, June 9, the atmospheric ingredients were again in place for violent tornadoes. This time it was in New England, a region not used to violent tornadoes. In the afternoon on June 9, a violent F-4 tornado began near Petersham, Massachusetts. This tornado would rip through the northern side of Worcester, a populated town in central Massachusetts. By the time the tornado lifted, 94 people were killed, the deadliest tornado in New England history.

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Damage to Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts from an F-4 tornado that killed 94 people.

The tornado outbreak sequence of June 7-9, 1953 was one of the deadliest in US history. 251 people were killed, with another 2,619 injured. Cost estimates place the outbreak between 3 and 4 billion dollars in 2024 money. The deadly tornadoes in June 1953 spurred further action and research into tornadoes, with more accurate tornado forecasts coming from the event. It wouldn't be until 1957 that the next major milestone in tornado research came.

Amidst all the chaos of early June, the tragic story of the Madsen family should not be forgotten, as the memory continues to live in even today.