For centuries, the mysterious force of lightning has usually been accompanied by feelings of dread or despair, especially if one is caught outside or indoors during a violent thunderstorm. For centuries and throughout the world, numerous accounts exist recording such ‘bolts of fire’ and acts of death or destruction, associated with such events. One can hardly read a 19th-century newspaper without encountering articles, practically on a daily basis, of deaths by lightning.
Yet such examples of fateful mortality are not restricted to the far distant past alone, as witnessed in August of 2002, when three individuals were killed by “a big ball of fire,” which came down a tree,“during a funeral” at Clear Creek Cemetery near Willard, Missouri. This incident is similar to one recorded in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, for July 14th, 1887, concerning a lightning strike in Tennessee, where “three ministers and six other persons, attending a funeral, took shelter under a tree and all were killed.”
Two “respectable ladies,” according to the Berks and Schuylkill Journal of Reading, PA, and the Kentucky Gazette, of Lexington, Kentucky, were mortally wounded by a lightning strike at Lexington, surprisingly within the “Presbyterian Meeting House,” on July 20th, 1817. Mrs. Eleanor M’Cullough and Mrs. Jane Lucket or Luckie (evidently not too lucky!), “during divine worship” were killed, causing as one would imagine, a “scene of distress and confusion among the congregation,” which could “scarcely be imagined.”
The Philadelphia Public Ledger, for August 14th, 1838, carried an article entitled, “Destructive Storm,” taken from the Baltimore Sun, which related that at Fell’s Point, a three story brick warehouse was destroyed, burying five individuals who had taken refuge in the building from the tempest. Out of the five individuals injured by the collapse of the structure, two had died, “a German man and woman, who had landed but a few moments previously,” off the ship Sophie, which had arrived from Bremen, Germany!
In July of 1933, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, one Oscar Brown, of Wynnewood, “a grave digger,” was working at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and while literally digging a grave, he was hit by a ‘bolt” of lightning which “struck him and he plunged forward into the partially-completed crypt..,” his body being found later, “rain-drenched” and “lying face downward on the new-turned earth by the graveside.”
Superstition as well has played a major role in regard to lightning for many years. One former slave, Francis Fedric of Fauquier County, Virginia, recalled how his master, on a hot day when “clouds of an inky blackness began to rise from the distant uplands,” would call for his slaves to come near his side. At the sound of a “thunder-clap,” he would say to them: “Come nearer. Stand close to me,” while he would cower and tremble during the entire thunderstorm. Fedric related how, “I was told that this was his invariable custom whenever it thundered or lightened, imagining that the Almighty would not strike the slaves, consequently, being surrounded by them, the Colonel thought he would certainly escape…My mother told me that the Colonel thought the Negroes could drive the lightning away.”
There are many accounts of ‘lightning strikes’ or ‘bolts’ occurring when the sky was clear or relatively free of storm clouds. As early as 1756, the New York Gazette and Weekly Post-Boy, retold an account taken from the New Haven (CT) Gazette, for June 10, of:
a Mr. Thomas Rockwell and a Negro Man of his being a work in the Field, a small cloud gathered over them from whence came a Flash of Lightning; which struck down Mr. Rockwell and kill’d the Negro, it seemed first to have struck the Negroe’s shoulder, and running down his Arms shivered the Handle of the Hoe with which he was at work, the Sun was then shining bright at the same place.
The Philadelphia Public Ledger once again, for August 28, 1913, in an article entitled, “Killed by a Thunderbolt,” told of Mr. James Lee, of Atlantic City, New Jersey, who “was killed by a bolt of lightning from an almost cloudless sky…” Russell Fenton, who was working with him on repairs to a boat in a creek not far from Lee’s machine shop at Absecon, said how, “it seemed to him that a ball of fire dropped on Lee’s head, ran down his neck and chest and then jumped off into the water.”
The Lebanon (PA) Courier for May 9th, 1867, published an account taken from the Uniontown (PA) Standard, which stated that “during the prevalence of a thunder storm, which passed over the lower part of Fayette County a few days since, two cousins by the name of Noah and Henry Armstrong, “were struck by lightning and instantly killed, though one was near Cookstown, and the other near Perropolis, several miles distant at the time.”
Others claimed ‘lightning’ wasn’t something to be feared, but could actually be a ‘boon’ rather than a curse when it struck. In my own hometown newspaper, the Maysville (KY) Bulletin, for July 11, 1901, it states how one, Hester Stanton, a Black woman of the city, “who has been a sufferer from rheumatism for years, claims she was cured by a slight shock from lightning, during a storm a few weeks since. She was stunned by the stroke and after recovering was surprised to find that the rheumatic pains had left her; and she has not been troubled by the disease since then.”
The above accounts are only a few, of hundreds of bizarre incidents related within the newspapers and various publications, both past and present, concerning ‘lightning strikes’ and ‘bolts of fire,’ many of which are available here at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.