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Charles Mallory Hatfield was your archetypal early-20th-century American. The sewing-machine-salesman-turned-self-educated-scientist possessed an indomitable Yankee confidence that straddled the line between wild-eyed optimism and lunacy. Americans had already claimed a continent and sent men aloft in flying machines; hubris was coming to be seen less as a character defect than a national birthright. But even by the country’s outsized standards, Hatfield—who was born, as Garry Jenkins notes in his excellent The Wizard of Sun City: The Strange True Story of Charles Hatfield, the Rainmaker Who Drowned a City’s Dreams, under a water sign—set himself a whopper of a task: taming Mother Nature herself.

Hatfield’s a marvelous figure, whom Jenkins’ book will perhaps rescue from his ignominious status as merely the answer to a trivia question. (Who served as the inspiration for N. Richard Nash’s play The Rainmaker, the movie version of which starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster?) In his time, the self-termed “moisture accelerator” was a celebrity, a hero to the farmers and ranchers of the drought-prone West, fêted for his uncanny ability to induce, as one reporter colorfully put it, “J Pluvius to turn on the celestial sprinkling cart.”

Hatfield was one of the last in a line of “scientific” rainmakers: a collection of men, some earnest and some charlatans, who from the 1890s until the mid-1930s attempted to coax, bully, and even bomb the skies into producing rain. One early—and government-funded—rainmaker was Robert St. George Dyrenforth, whose bombardments of the heavens with explosive shells at Piney Branch, Md., led an exasperated Smithsonian Institution clerk to fret about the sanity of his livestock, and whose poor results led one wit to dub him “Dryhenceforth.” Then there was the “Wizard of the Rock Island Line,” Clarence B. Jewell, who in the 1890s burned chemicals so rank that his process came to be called “smell-making method.” James Pollard Espy suggested that the U.S. government construct a vast system of pyres along a 600- to 700-mile stretch of the Midwest. G.H. Bell proposed erecting a 1,500-foot-high stone-and-iron tower to pump hot air into the atmosphere. Neither plan came to fruition. (More’s the pity—they’d have made for some really twisted tourist attractions.)

Jenkins offers no figures on how many rainmakers there were in the United States, but he does note that in 1891, one Kansas town, Goodland, boasted no fewer than three rainmaking companies. If Hatfield’s experience is typical, rainmaking was considered a scam by some, a scientific and legitimate occupation by others, and a subject of bemused curiosity by most. A rainmaker with a track record of success could look forward to being employed by cities, counties, and business concerns for a fee that often rose into the thousands of dollars. And employers frequently asked a successful rainmaker to return year after year.

Hatfield was born in Kansas in July 1875 to middle-class Quaker parents, who moved frequently to meet the needs of the father’s career as a real-estate speculator. The Hatfields ended up in California—first in San Diego, where Charles spent his teenage years, and then in Los Angeles. There the young man showed a flair as a salesman and found employment with an agency that sold Singer sewing machines.

But Hatfield seems to have wanted more, and even while he was earning a handsome $125 a month as a salesman, he was spending his evenings dog-earing every book he could find on a subject that, as Jenkins notes, “obsessed his corner of America above all others: the quest for water.” He studied the efforts of his predecessors in the rainmaking business with the dedication of a Talmudic scholar, finally developing his own process: a variation of Jewell’s smell-making method.

Hatfield’s exact formula remains a mystery. The notoriously secretive rainmaker once allowed that his method involved 27 different chemicals, but requests for further elucidation invariably led to what one reporter called a “draught in the conversation.” If his scientific ideas were primitive—he believed that the “conditions that produce rain are drawn by my system just as a magnet draws steel”—the notion of sending chemicals into the atmosphere to induce precipitation is solid as far as it goes: By the late 1940s, scientists would be using chemicals similar to those employed by Hatfield to serve as artificial condensation nuclei, with some—although far from dependable—success.

In 1904, the 29-year-old Hatfield set about making rain for a living. With his brother Paul in tow as boy Friday—the rainmaker traveled with chemicals, provisions, tents, wire for fencing, numerous iron pots in which the chemicals were burned, barometers and other weather-reading equipment, and the materials necessary to erect a tower anywhere from 12 to 30 feet in height—Hatfield made the circuit of rain-starved communities from Southern California to northern Canada, leaving a string of satisfied customers in his wake. It rained at La Crescenta. It rained at Esperanza. It rained buckets at Crow’s Landing, a record 13.5 inches. There were failures: the “drought destroyer” departed from Dawson City in the Klondike without a paycheck. But he built an impressive name for himself.

When Hatfield returned to San Diego in late 1915, he had more in mind than visiting family. In fact, he’d just received his most lucrative job offer to date: $10,000 to fill the city’s Morena reservoir—on the eastern slope of the Laguna Mountains, 60 miles east of the city—within a year. The vagueness of the contract—no papers were ever signed, and three different sets of conditions under which Hatfield might be paid were bruited about but never explicitly decided upon—would ultimately spell heartbreak for Hatfield. But the pact between a city hard-up for water and the man one reporter warned could turn out to be “the Frankenstein of the air” had far more disastrous consequences for the city itself.

San Diego was a city on the make. Despite its relatively small population—the “Sun City” boasted fewer than 40,000 people before 1915—it was in 1916 beginning its second year as host of the Panama-California Exposition, a World’s Fairnsized event that drew potential new citizens and investors from across the globe. Its biggest drawback was a scarcity of water, most of which came from the Cuyamaca Mountains via a 36.5-mile flume system and dams in the Otay Valley and at Morena. It was a patchwork system at best—the Otay Dam, in particular, was a marvel of shoddy workmanship—particularly because the city’s mainstay reservoir at Morena had, to quote Jenkins, “never been remotely near full.”

Such was the situation that led Hatfield to set up camp at Morena on New Year’s Eve 1915. The five city councilors believed they were in a no-lose situation: If rain didn’t fall, they owed Hatfield nothing. If it did, $10,000 was peanuts compared with the water’s monetary value.

Hatfield himself seemed to have no doubt that he’d fulfill his part of the bargain. “I’m going to give them the works,” he told Paul.

If he didn’t, nature sure did. Shortly after the “cloud compeller” commenced operations at Morena—the vile odor led one visitor to quip, “These gases smell so bad it rains in self-defense”—San Diego’s weather grew increasingly unhinged.

By Jan. 17, Mission Valley was a lake. A cocksure Hatfield saw fit to phone a city worker to say, “I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now.” He added, “Just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”

Sure enough, the rains worsened. The next day a flood wiped San Ysidro, home to a commune called the “Little Landers,” off the face of the Earth. On Jan. 22 the owner of a newly opened racetrack across the border in Tijuana went so far as to hire a “sunmaker” to counteract Hatfield’s efforts.

On Jan. 27, San Diego’s weather took a turn for the surreal. The rain poured down; winds reached a record-setting 62 mph. But far more terrible things were happening in the Otay Valley, where a dam built according to the specifications of a local developer gave way, sending 10 billion gallons of water roaring through the valley. The flood killed some 20 people and carried everything in its path out toward the Pacific Ocean. One Otay resident was found dead on the beach the next day, still tucked beneath the covers of his bed.

By the standards of Hurricane Katrina, the battering San Diego took in January 1916 was small potatoes. Nobody seems to know for sure how many people died—Jenkins rather cavalierly leaves the reader to surmise that the toll fell somewhere in the mid-20s—but it was a tragedy nonetheless. And whereas with Katrina the question of human culpability arises in reference to adequate preparations and efforts to deal with the aftermath, in this case the public dialogue hinged, bizarrely, on whether the whole natural disaster hadn’t been man-made.

Hatfield, secluded at Morena, was oblivious to the mayhem occurring below him. Indeed, the ebullient Hatfield brothers’ first inkling that all was not right with the world came when their nearest neighbor arrived bearing a message received via telephone from an anonymous caller: “Tell that rainmaking idiot,” said the caller, “that we’re on our way up to lynch him.”

Nobody killed Hatfield, but the city of San Diego did the next worst thing—they stiffed him. City attorney Terence Cosgrove took advantage of the lack of a definitive contract to advise the city council that the rainmaker’s agreement with the city was unenforceable. And paying Hatfield, he shrewdly warned, would in effect be an admission that the rains were other than an act of God, leaving the city open to claims for damages.

It was a justifiable worry, but no less justifiable was Hatfield’s belief that he was the recipient of a legal screwing. That said, he hardly comes across as a sympathetic character. Enthralled by his waterworks, Hatfield came down from Morena looking for applause, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the rains he was taking credit for had come at a high cost in human life. He much preferred to talk about the inestimable value of the water he’d bestowed upon the city. At a press conference held upon his return to San Diego—during which (according to one witness) Hatfield’s “demeanor was that of the proverbial conquering hero,”—the rainmaker was asked about the deaths by a reporter. He answered, “That is terrible, and no one is more sorry than I am, but I do not feel that I am in any way responsible for that.”

Denied by the council, he pursued justice in the courts, but he found no satisfaction there, either. His lawsuit was finally dismissed as a “dead issue” in mid-1938, by which time the construction of massive dam systems had transformed the West and spelled the end of the moisture-acceleration business. Hatfield, who lived until 1958, returned to those honored family trades, selling sewing machines and real estate. But he never stopped believing that the “rain of 1916 was an act of Hatfield, not an act of God.”

Jenkins wisely saves until the end of his book the consideration of that claim. Scoffers have long ridiculed Hatfield’s taking credit for the storm—a freak collision of three or four weather fronts, actually—that produced extreme weather from Oregon to Arizona. Yet there lingers a troubling doubt. As Jenkins puts it, “There is no question the storms were widespread across the West Coast. But nowhere were the effects so catastrophic…as they were in San Diego and its surrounding countryside. Why was that?” Could one determined “cloud-milker” burning a concatenation of chemicals in “a sea of cast-iron pans” have had something to do with it?

The answer, surprisingly, is possibly. As noted, modern scientists have used a variant of Hatfield’s method—since renamed hygroscopic seeding—to mixed results. In short, Hatfield was not just blowing smoke. Jenkins also turns to mathematician Ernest Zebrowski Jr.’s “butterfly effect” to open the door to the possibility that Hatfield’s chemicals may have produced more than just a righteous stink. “Add a little glitch…to a complex process,” wrote Zebrowski, “and sometimes you get an outcome no rational person ever would have expected.”

Certainly no rational person would have expected that one man would come close to drowning San Diego. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t

happen. CP