Lightning Strikes: The Danger It Caused in the 1700s

Benjamin Franklin, one of American’s Founding Fathers, was the first to discover that lightning and lightning strikes consisted of electric matter. This discovery helped people to understand “that lighting in passing from the clouds to the earth, or from the earth to the clouds, runs through the walls of a house, the trunk of tree, or other elevated objects.”[1] Since Franklin’s time people have learned more about lightning. For instance, lightning strikes occur more in the summer than in winter, and from noon to midnight than from midnight to noon. Knowing these facts helps people to stay safer today. But in the 1700s, just as today, lightning strikes could occur anywhere, anytime, and just about anyone could be struck down by lightning.

Lightning Strikes

Benjamin Franklin’s lightning experiment in 1752. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Although there were many lightning strikes one dreadful strike reported in the late 1700s happened at four o’clock in the afternoon near the coastal town of Bridlington, England. Two well-known preachers were out for walk when it began to rain. To stay dry, they sought shelter under a hedge. The storm worsened and so they sought shelter at a corn mill. There they found a bricklayer and his son also seeking protection. The bricklayer and his son climbed to the second floor and the preachers remained on the first floor.  Almost immediately after the bricklayer and his son reached the second floor, lightning struck. It hit both the preachers, and one preacher was worse off than the other one as his hair was singed and he was insensible for a time. Eventually, however, the preachers checked on the bricklayer and his son. Both father and son lay “quite dead.” The bricklayer’s face and neck were blackened, and his son’s body was bloody and burnt because his clothes had caught fire.

That same day, some sixty miles south of Bridlington, another lightning strike killed another man. His name was Oliver, and in this case, he was accompanying an excise officer. After it began to rain, the two men took shelter under a tree. Moments later the lightning hit. “Oliver was instantaneously killed, his coat sleeve and shirt … torn from his arm, his shoes quite demolished, and a pair of steel buckles which he had on melted.”[2] The bolt severely shocked the excise officer, and, in fact, the bolt broke his “watch glass.” Even after the excise officer came to his senses, he could not walk, and his hand and sides were affected for some time.

Example of Thunderstorm with Lightning, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Example of thunderstorm with lightning. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Lightning strikes also happened in the U.S. on 22 June 1766 in Prince Edward county in Virginia. Among those affected was a tailor named James Smith. A letter detailing the incident was written to the Williamsburg Virginia Gazette who published the story and who reported not only on the significant damage done to the house but also what happened to those residing in the house at the time lightning struck.

“On Saturday the 14th of June a very gloomy cloud suddenly arose and violent lightning and thunder immediately ensued. … Mary Smith, wife of … James Smith, stood ironing some clothes at a table near the end which was struck, with her back toward the chimney, and a box iron in her hand. She was knocked down, and for half an hour after showed no sign of life; and it was more than two hours before she could speak. Her right eye was extremely affected, so that for many days she could not see with it. The lightning proceeded down her face, without leaving any other mark; thence down between her breasts, turned half round her left breast, and thence straight down her side, and went off on the upper and outward part of her thigh. Its track was strongly marked on her body, by a great number of blisters, some of which were very bad, so that ulcers will remain for some time yet to come. She was entirely out of her sense for some considerable time, and by intervals was so until Wednesday last; since which she has been pretty well, but complains of pain about her shoulders and breast; however, there is now no doubt of her perfect recovery. In the night after this accident happened she vomitted much stuff, which had the appearance of melted sulfur, intermixed with gunpowder, and emitted a strong sulphureous smell. The box iron which she was using showed no mark of lightning, but a pair of sleeve buttons were no where to be found. James Smith himself, sitting on the work board, was struck across his thighs, but no mark appeared. He felt he says as if ham-strung, and for some time was unable to get up without assistance … A young man who was lolling on a feather bed, near the wall where the lightning struck, with his legs resting on the work board, got a pretty large mark above one of his knees, like a bruise. A boy about 12 or 13 years of age, standing near the table … sifting meal, was knocked down, and appeared lifeless for at least a quarter of any hour. The lightning singed the hair on the right side of his forehead, went down his face, burned the hair entirely off his right eyebrow, and left very little of his right eye-lashes remaining. Thence it went down his cheek, and along his chin. On his brow was a blister, and also on his cheek; and the rest of the track along his face was so burned that the scarf skin has since come off. From his chin it proceeded to his breast, and went winding in a spiral manner along his groin, and the outward part of his left thigh, until it totally disappeared exactly in his ham. His breast and thigh were much burned; and the track, which was no where more than an inch broad, appeared a chain of blisters, some of which were very large, and the ulcers from thence will not be cured for some considerable time yet to come. He wore at that time a pair of breeches of green plains, the left thigh of which was torn into pieces by the lightning; and two metal buttons, which were on the waistband, were torn off, and only a small part of one of them could afterwards be found; the other entirely disappeared.”[3]

Prince Edward county. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A year after Eliza de Feuillide settled in France, a violent storm happened about 9am in Eastbourne in Sussex in September of 1780. It did all sorts of damage to James Adair of Soho Square and his staff. Adair had leased a house for himself and his family and he was watching the storm through a window with his hands clasped together.

“A most violent flash of lightning forced his hands asunder, and threw him several yards upon the floor on his back, with both his legs upright in the air, which remained long so fixed. He was very sensible of his situation … but could not open his eyes or speak; nor had he the least power of motion of any of his limbs … On help coming in, and examining his cloaths, which were blue cloth, his right sleeve, both of coat and waistcoat, and also shirt, were all torn on the inside of the arm entirely open, as if by a dog, from the shoulder to the wrist; the right side of the breeches was torn in the same manner, and part of each of [his] … brass buttons melted.”[4]

Ultimately, Adair’s right arm, right side, and right thigh, were scorched and his flesh badly ripped. His shoes were also torn in several places and “one of his toes split almost to the bone.”[5] A sleeve button was also broken from its link and nowhere to be found. In one of his right-side pockets, Adair carried a key and pen-knife and they had “several marks of fusion upon them.”[6] In addition, the glass in the window from where he had been watching the storm was completely shattered and a door opposite that of the shattered window was also completely destroyed.

In the floor beneath Adair was his butler, coachman, and footman. The butler had a telescope in his hand when the lightning struck. It was in pieces and his wig and hat were thrown some distance from him. He maintained that he felt a “violent pressure” on his skull and back, but otherwise was fine. The coachman was about a yard away from the butler was not so lucky. He was going to open a glass door when he struck dead and his body totally blackened. The footman was dressing his own hair near a window and was likewise thrown dead to the ground. He was scorched, bruised, and blackened from the strike with a large wound on his side near his heart and his buckskin breeches were ripped and the steel of the metal knee buckle driven through them.

Lightning strikes did not just affect humans. According to Newcastle Courant, in 1795 near Dover “the most tremendous thunder that ever was known in that country [occurred].”[7] Lightning accompanied the thunder, which crackled and boomed with each strike. A waggoneer and his horses were headed to Folkstone pulling a heavy load, and to avoid the rain, he “stopped the horses, unhooked the harness of the leader, and sat down to shelter himself from the storm under a bush.”[8] As he sat there, he held the horse’s rein. Suddenly, a mighty thunder-clap sounded, lightning struck, and the reins attracted the lightning. The lightning then passed from one end of the reins to the other. It killed the four horses and the man instantly, and, in fact, the strike proved strong enough that the waggoneer’s watch and chain melted in his pocket.

lightning strikes - Texas

Lightning strike in Texas affecting mules. Author’s collection.

The Ipswich Journal printed numerous types of damage done from lighting strikes in 1736:

“On Monday in the Afternoon at Biddenden a Haystack took Fire; but by timely Assistance it was quench’d, only a Sheep was kill’d thereby. At Smarden, at a Butcher’s the corner of a Chimney broke off, afterwards the Lightning fell into the House and splinter’d the Mantle Piece, as well as the Beams of the House, and fill’d it full of Smoke, so as to think it was on Fire; a Coffee-Mill that was on the Mantle Piece was broke all to Pieces; a Coffee Pot that stood on the Trevit by the Fired side had its Handle burnt, and the Trever was broke in two Places; a Maid that was Ironing was struck deaf, but since is better; …. at Pluckley, the Shingles were beat off the Steeple to the bottom … ’tis thought if it had not been for the great Rain the Steeple must have been burnt down.”[9]

lightning strikes

Example of the type of damage a house roof might suffer if hit by lightning. Author’s collection.

In 1790, the same year that Marie Antoinette was painted in pastel by Alexandre Kucharski at the Tuileries Palace was the same year in Windsor, England that an extract from a letter about a severe storm accompanied by unprecedented lightning was printed in The Public Advertiser. It stated:

“This morning, between the hours of four and five, this place was visited by a more tremendous tempest of thunder; lightning, hail, and rain, than ever was experienced by the oldest inhabitant, at this season. … the hemisphere bore a fiery appearance, without any distinction of heavy clouds to forebode a storm — presently the atmosphere became extremely agitated, and several flashes of lightning appeared … In about a quarter of an hour from the commencement, the storm was severely felt over the town; and a more terrible crash of thunder, accompanied with numerous vivid darts of lightening, were never felt, even in the most sultry seasons. … The storm was of that alarming nature, that several of the Royal Family arose, and most of the inhabitants of the town quitted their beds, under the idea of self-preservation. Happily no person receive any injury. — The only damage sustained was the ripping of the siding of houses, falling of trees, &c., circumstance very trivial considering the extraordinary strength of the flashes of lightning.”[10]

Marie Antoinette at the Tuileries Palace in 1790 by Alexandre Kucharski. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

As noted, the intensity of lightning strikes often had nothing to do with the amount of damage. For instance, it was reported that on 26 June 1786 that besides killing a Mr. Bruster of Newmarket, lightning did so much damage in London that the “streets were in many places rendered impassable, particularly at Charing Cross, where a sewer blew up part of the pavement.”[11] In 1790, travelers on the road from Salisbury corroborated each other’s testimony as to a terrify lightning storm they encountered. They claimed that it “was rather like a stream of fluid from a glass-house furnace; and the horses were so generally terrified, that with difficulty they got on.”[12] In 1773, a much tamer lightning storm did lots of damage. It consumed two large ricks (stacks) of hay in Essex and around that same time, another strike toppled several chimneys in Blackman-street in Southwark. If that was not bad enough, lightning caused a house to “split asunder,” and caused a passing milkman to lose his eyesight for a time. Moreover, lightning strikes also damaged a vessel from Hull that was anchored in the river when it “drove a quantity of Oakham through the deck, which occasioned so violent a stench in the hold, that the people were almost suffocated.”[13]

lightning strikes - 1800s

Lithograph from the 1800s of a barefoot shepherdess and a little girl taking refuge during a storm. Courtesy of Wellcome Images.

Although you might assume lightning strikes were something to be feared in the 1700s, there is at least one story where someone was supposedly cured by a strike. It happened to a 45-year-old reverend named Mr. Winder. He had always been a robust man with a cheerful disposition and serene manner. Then one day “he suddenly fell from his chair to the floor, by a stroke of palsy.”[14] He suffered with the palsy for over a year until on the evening of 24 August 1762, just after Winder got into bed, the sky became cloudy and a light breeze began to blow. Violent thunder soon followed with an occasional flash of lightning. Suddenly, a loud boom woke him. Winder reported that “he was surprized by the perception of a quick, strong shock, affecting him universally, as if he were thunderstruck.”[15] Apparently, after the shock, from that moment forward, he returned to “perfect health” and doctors pronounced him cured. 

lightning strikes

Global Map of Lightning Frequency — Strikes/km2/yr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] “Lighting,” in Derby Mercury, 4 May 1792, p. 3.
  • [2] “Dreadful Effects of Lightning,” in Northampton Mercury, 08 July 1797, p. 4.
  • [3] “To Mr. Purdie, Printer of the Virginia Gazette,” in The Virginia Gazette, 18 July 1766, p. 1.
  • [4] The Scots Magazine, 1 November 1782, p. 567.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] “Causalities by Lightning,” in Newcastle Courant, Saturday 22 August 1795, p. 2.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] “London July 27,” in Ipswich Journal, 24 July 1736, p. 2.
  • [10] “Extract of a Letter from Window, Dec. 23.” The Public Advertiser, 25 December 1790, p. 3.
  • [11] Toone, W., The Chronological Historian, vol. 2, 1826, p. 363.
  • [12] “Extract of a Letter from Portsmouth, Dec. 23,” in The Public Advertiser, 25 December 1790, p. 3.
  • [13] “London,” in Kentish Gazette, 18 August 1773, p. 4.
  • [14] The Annual Register, 1803, p. 80.
  • [15] Ibid., p. 81.

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