Benjamin Franklin was the first to discover that lightning 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.” 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.
One dreadful lightning strike in the late 1700s occurred 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 looking for 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, his clothes having caught fire.
That same day, some sixty miles south of Bridlington, another lightning strike killed a man named Oliver. In this case, Oliver 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.” 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.
One violent storm happened about 9am in Eastbourne in Sussex in September of 1780 and did all sorts of damage to James Adair of Soho Square. Adair had leased a house for he 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.”
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.” 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.” 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.
Lightning strikes did not just affect humans. According to one English newspaper, “the most tremendous thunder that ever was known in that country” occurred in 1795 near Dover. Lightning accompanied the thunder, which crackled and boomed with each strike. A wagoner and his horses were headed to Folkstone pulling a heavy load, and to avoid the rain, the waggoner “stopped the horses, unhooked the harness of the leader, and sat down to shelter himself from the storm under a bush.” 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 wagoner’s watch and chain melted in his pocket.
One newspaper printed numerous types of damage done from lighting in 1736. The paper reported:
“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.”
Damaged caused by lightning could vary. For instance, one paper reported that on 26 June 1786, 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.” In 1773, lightning consumed two large ricks (stacks) of hay in Essex. Around that same time, another strike toppled several chimneys in Blackman-street in Southwark. If that wasn’t bad enough, lightning caused a house to “split asunder,” and caused a passing milkman to lose his eyesight for a time. Lightning strikes also damaged a vessel from Hull that was anchored in the river. It “drove a quantity of Oakham through the deck, which occasioned so violent a stench in the hold, that the people were almost suffocated.”
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. Winder 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.” He suffered with the palsy for over a year. 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 surprised by the perception of a quick, strong shock, affecting him universally, as if he were thunderstruck.” Apparently, after the shock, from that moment forward, he returned to “perfect health” and doctors pronounced him cured.
- “Dreadful Effects of Lightning,” in Northampton Mercury, 08 July 1797
- “Causalities by Lightning,” in Newcastle Courant, Saturday 22 August 1795
- “Lighting,” in Derby Mercury, 4 May 1792
- “London,” in Kentish Gazette, 18 August 1773
- “London July 27,” in Ipswich Journal, 24 July 1736
- The Scots Magazine, 1 September 1770
- The Scots Magazine, 1 November 1782
- Toone, William, The Chronological Historian, Volume 2, 1826