The "Rainmaker" Who Got Blamed For Flooding San Diego And Killing 50 People

'Rainmaker' Charles Mallory Hatfield, pictured in a hat in a field. Image credit: Public domain via The rainmakers : American 'pluviculture' to World War II

In 1915, San Diego was going through a dry spell, and the reservoir was running low. With farmers at risk of running out of water, the city council decided to go for a Hail Mary pass and hired a sewing machine salesman who claimed he had the power to cause rain to fall down from the sky.

"The City council signed a contract yesterday with Hatfield, the Moisture Accelerator," the San Diego Union reported on December 14, 1915. "He has promised to fill Morena reservoir to overflowing by December 20, 1916 for $10,000. All the councilmen are in favor of the contract except Fay, who says it's rank foolishness."

Charles Mallory Hatfield had a mixed reputation as a rainmaker, an early attempt at cloud seeding (which itself is still a topic of debate of how effective it truly is). He conducted his first experiments in his own kitchen, mixing up chemicals in a way that would likely get you flagged by the FBI today. He claimed that his concoction of 23 chemicals made steam from the kettle gravitate towards them. Seeing the supposed potential, he moved on to attempting to attract rain clouds, later stating that "I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds, and they do the rest.”

The chemicals would be placed at the top of tall towers and released. A great smell would apparently be given off, something close to that of a "limberger cheese factory", and rain would follow. Sometimes.

Weather forecasters in LA were dismissive of him, so in 1904 Hatfield made a bet that he could guarantee at least 46 centimeters (18 inches) of rain between mid-December and the end of April. Should he succeed, he would be paid $1,000, should he fail he would not receive a dime. 

The papers loved the idea of a man who could make it rain, and made joking requests for Hatfield to not make it rain on specific holidays and parades. When the rain exceeded his promised 18 inches, there was no reasoning with the masses that this happened roughly 50 percent of the time, making his victory no less likely than a coin flip.

His fame grew, with stories about him printed as far away as London. Weathermen did not like him and called his claims nonsense – but in terms of power, annoying the weathermen was on par with making a nemesis of Scrappy-Doo. They sent letters out to newspapers that printed Hatfield's claims, some of whom printed them, but the damage was already done. In his hometown, they even sold umbrellas with his name on them.

Hatfield began making bolder and bolder claims, saying that he'd like to have a contract to water the Sahara desert, and got a good amount of work. Some contracts were especially lucrative, paying him expenses for his time and bonuses for when rain arrived. A skeptical person could say that even without magical chemicals which you won't divulge to others, it would be possible for someone on this contract to merely wait for rain whilst living off the expenses, then claim victory when it arrived.

As well as the various times when people were happy with his services, there were times when his powers were disputed, and he was given nothing but his expenses for his failure to deliver. In the winter of 1907, farmers got annoyed at him for refusing to stop the rain once it had begun. To an outside observer, his services could look as unpredictable as, well, the weather, but the work kept coming in.

Where things got really interesting, and he risked some serious trouble, was when he took the bet with the city of San Diego. The deal was his usual "no rain, no payment" guarantee, with his promise being that he could overflow the reservoir before April. Early in the new year, it began to rain. The headlines attributed this success to the "rainmaker". 

But the rain kept coming, and soon it wasn't the kind of rain you'd like to take credit for unless you were trying to gain a reputation as a vengeful god. There were landslides and burst banks as floodwaters washed away houses and killed an estimated 50 people, including over a dozen who died when a dam burst and houses were swept away.

The flood became known as "Hatfield's Flood", which is what is known as "a bit of a PR disaster". Nevertheless, Hatfield demanded to be paid, as he believed he had held up his end of the bargain. The city was more than happy to pay, if he was happy to take on responsibility for the damage the floods had caused. The problem for Hatfield was this: in order to receive payment, he would need to prove that the weather was not just an "act of God", but by doing so it would prove that he had been responsible for trashing San Diego and leaving 50 people dead. His attempt to sue for his money was unsuccessful, as with him unable to prove that he had caused it (he would never reveal his chemical solution) it was eventually put down as an act of God. 

Hatfield, though more successful than other rainmakers, was far from alone. His success was likely not down to his chemical mix, but likely due to his careful selection of jobs he took on, and the massive publicity he received for his successes vs the obscurity of his fails. He would study the weather records to try and predict whether rain would come soon, and take a job if it was likely, taking sensible gambles that the rain would come.

Calling himself Moisture Accelerator, as well as sounding like a self-nicknamed character from American Pie, was stretching the truth somewhat.

 


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