Hatfield’s Water Woo

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October 19, 2012 by kittynh

(This is a repost from a post I wrote for the Shethought web site)

The average claim for a supernatural or psychic power or ability usually follows the same typical pattern. A good example is when someone claims they can “dowse for water” (one of the more common and also easily tested psychic claims.) A test is set up, with the very confident claimant agreeing to all the conditions of the test. The confidence of the claimant begins to falter as the test proves more “difficult” than they had imagined. Rarely does the confidence falter in their ability, instead the confidence that this test is a “fair” test is what falters. At the end excuses abound about why they failed to dowse correctly. The excuses never seem to include “Maybe dowsing doesn’t work.”

But, what happens when a claimant does deliver on a claim? One would imagine that a successful result for a claim of an unscientific nature would result in great riches and admiration for the claimant. In San Diego in the early 20th century however, this was not the case.

Rainmakers are almost a thing of the past. But at one time rainmakers were far more common. Belief that human action can cause rain to fall is part of many cultures, though often tied in with a religious practice or ritual. Belief that gun fire could result in rainfall was suggested during the Napoleonic Wars. There was also belief that the gun and cannon fire during the Civil War would often cause rain. China still has rainmakers that use shells, but with a little more science attached.

Charles Hatfield was a rainmaker, with his younger brother Paul. He believed he had developed a scientific way to encourage nature to release rain. His method, which was kept highly secret, involved building a large tower and chemicals. In 1904 Hatfield felt this method was successful in bringing rain to a drought stricken Los Angeles. Hatfield traveled around the country, claiming success after success with his method. However, one of Hatfield s contemporaries said of him that he could “Talk more and say less than any man I know”. Those familiar with psychics, dowsers and tarot card readers know full well what that means.

Hatfield does “science”

In 1915 Hatfield sent a letter to the San Diego city council offering to help fill the Morena Reservoir. San Diego was a booming town, and the reservoir not filling as high as it should be was a problem between 1912-1914. The letter is as follows:

“I will fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing between now and next December 20th, 1916, for the sum of ten thousand dollars, in default of which I ask no compensation; or I will deliver at the Morena Reservoir thirty inches of rain free of charge, you to pay me $500 per inch from the thirtieth to the fiftieth inch–all above fifty inches to be free, on or before the 1st of June, 1916. Or I will forty inches (sic) during the next twelve months, free of charge, provided you pay me $1000 per inch for all between forty and fifty inches, all. above fifty inches free.”

While the city council vote was not unanimous, a feeling of “what’s the harm” prevailed. (For more “What’s the harm” irony visit the terrific website http://whatstheharm.net/). Soon Hatfield was setting up his mysterious tower at the Morena Reservoir. By January 14th rain started to fall. By January 16 torrential rain fell. In fact it wasn’t just raining at the reservoir, it was raining all over the San Diego area. Flooding lead to the San Diego river overflowing and a train bridge washed out. An irate resident who had been flooded out said “Let’s pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit!”

Still Hatfield kept on with his rainmaking, as he felt he had to provide all the rain he had promised to the Morena Reservoir. By Jan.20 more bridges had been washed away, a train had been stranded in flooding and the new race track in Tijuana had to shut down. In one area over 100 families had been left homeless. The worst was yet to come with the failure of the Lower Otay Dam on Jan.27. Over 13 billion gallons of water was released resulting in much destruction of property and an unknown number of deaths. (estimated at under 20). Failure of this dam resulted in $3,500,000 worth of lawsuits against the city.

Too much of a good thing….

Hatfield, isolated at the reservoir, expected to be treated as a hero for his part in what seemed a very successful rainmaking result. He soon learned differently as many people blamed him for the damages. Hatfield took to carrying a gun for protection. On Feb.5 he tried to collect his fee of $10,000 from the city. This was declined. He was even told if he was willing to pay for the damages caused by the flooding, they would pay him his $10,000. Hatfield, ever the slick talker, pointed out that the loss of bridges and buildings would result in the need to hire workers to rebuild the structures. In other words, the flood damage was going to be good for the economy. The city council didn’t buy it. Hatfield offered later to settle for $1800, but was again turned down. He filed a lawsuit with the city, which finally quietly died from lack of activity in 1938.

The question remains, did Hatfield cause the flooding? He himself claimed he did not, that he only caused whatever rain happened at the reservoir. Nature and God he said made the rest. Certainly he had no way to prove the rain in one area was from a different cause then all the other rain falling.
The city was afraid that if they did pay Hatfield, then they would be admitting that their hiring Hatfield caused the rain. This would leave the city open to countless lawsuits. Only by distancing themselves from Hatfield, could the city claim the flood and damages were an “act of God”, for which they had no liability.

Hatfield went on to more rainmaking jobs, across the West Coast and even in South America. His scrapbook tells of success after success, though a failed rainmaker probably does not scrapbook failures. With the odds that it’s going to rain sometime, rainmakers can have a success rate of almost 100% anywhere. Government involvement in rainmaking woo continues to this day though, with Gov. Rick Perry’s call for

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