Tonight the weather radar map is enveloped in flames of orange and yellow; it has been an evening of very satisfying lightning displays, except possibly for this gentleman who was blown out of his boots when hit by a bolt.
The people of the past probably feared lightning more than they enjoyed it—it was a hazard to those working outdoors and it could burn down a well-filled barn in minutes. There were a number of superstitions about lightning: it was bad luck to burn wood from a lightning-struck tree, oak trees were more likely to be struck than beech, a toothpick from a tree struck by lightning would cure toothache. And certain things would “draw” lightning: Milk in a pail, moist hay, bayonets, a warm horse, an umbrella or fishing rod.
Put a plug of sassafras in one pocket; and a sprig of hazel in the other to protect yourself from the deadly fluid so we can examine some of the items said to “draw” lightning and a random assortment of its freaks.
Clothing was one of the most common items believed to “draw” lightning. Depending on the time period, women’s costume contained a good bit of metal—corset “bones” were actually steel; hoop skirts and some bustles were also formed of steel. Lady’s accessories might also be metallic: hat frames, hair pins and combs, cut steel buttons and bead ornaments, buckles and jewelry.
DEADLY CORSET STEELS
Three Young Ohio Women Killed by Lightning After Leaving Church.
Bellaire, Ohio, June 15. While Minnie McGuire, daughter of the Rev. Thomas McGuire; Alpa Taylor, daughter of William Taylor, and Emma White, daughter of Simon White, each aged about 19 years, were returning home from the Methodist church at Jacobsburg, walking together in the road about 100 yards from the church, they were struck by lightning and killed.
It is believed that the steels in the corsets worn by the girls were the chief cause of their death. Miss Sarah Boring, who was with them, but wore no corsets, was only stunned. Emporia [KS] Gazette 16 June 1897: p. 3
CORSET With Tin-Can “Stays” Melted
When Lightning Struck Little Girl and Revealed Her Secret.
Petersburg, In., May 5. Lightning struck the hand-made and secretly-worn corset of nine-year-old Mary Taylor to-day and almost ended her life. The little girl, a daughter of a farmer living near this city, wanted to wear a corset.
So she gathered some tin cans, slipped into the hayloft of the barn, and, with a hatchet, cut and shaped her “stays.” With a piece of muslin she then made what was at least an imitation of a corset.
To-day she crawled under the porch of the house during a storm. Lightning struck the porch and Mary’s screams of pain brought her mother. Dragged from under the porch and undressed, Mary’s corset was revealed. One of the “stays” had been melted by the lightning. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 6 May 1910: p. 1
Lightning Attracted By a Pin
[New York Tribune.]
Coroner’s Physician Donlin made his report yesterday of the autopsy in the case of Mrs. Juliet Albert, who was killed by lightning at her home at High Island, near City Island, last Wednesday. He found that the lightning had been attracted by a pin which Mrs. Albert wore in the neck of her dress. The lightning struck the point of the pin, melted it, and drove it through her dress, embedding it in her flesh. The skin around the pin was scorched. There were no other marks on the body.
Mrs. Albert was sitting on a piazza when the lightning struck her. It went from her body to a wire on the wall, and demolished various articles in a room to which the wire led. The pin which the lightning first struck contained a large percentage of copper. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 22 September 1895: p. 23
COMB DRAWS LIGHTNING
Barcelona. A dispatch from Lannemezan in the Haute Pyrenees, reports that lightning struck a metal comb in the hair of Maria Spalls, 16 years old, killing the girl and her father, mother and sister. Idaho Statesman [Boise ID] 15 September 1921: p. 5
But it was crinoline/hoop skirts that caused the most consternation during storms, as they were believed to be a positive magnet for lightning bolts.
It was dangerous to wear hoopskirts with steel springs in them in rainy weather as they were “sure to draw lightning,” and many was the time that the “belles” of Darke county would jerk off their skirts on the double quick and hide them somewhere if a rain storm was approaching. And often and often when visiting friends of an evening, if a streak of lightning appeared or a roll of thunder was heard, the visiting ladies were sure to leave their hoopskirts with their friends and go home without them. History of Darke County, Ohio, 1914
A Scene in Church—Steel Hoops
During the services at a church in Medina, in the adjoining county of Medina, last Sunday, a violent shower set in accompanied by deafening crashes of thunder and fearful flashes of lightning. A commotion was discovered in one of the pews, in which were several young ladies. The young lady who sat near the pew door was amazed to see her companions hastily move away from her. Involuntarily she moved after them, crowding them against the end of the pew, when the one who led the retreating line jumped, in a manner more rapid than graceful over into the adjoining pew, shrieking “steel hoops!” The cry was taken up and repeated by the ladies in this pew, who also commenced a hasty retreat. The scene was a funny one. Such a crash of crinoline never before occurred in that meetinghouse. Order was at last restored, when it was ascertained that the excitement arose from the fact that the first mentioned young lady wore steel hoops, which her companions supposed would attract the lightning and annihilate the whole meeting house. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 23 June 1860: p. 3
Death By Lightning.
Burlington, VT, June 13. About noon to-day, during a severe shower, two ladies, the wife and daughter of James L. Wilson, of Mendon, Vt., were struck by lightning and instantly killed while standing in the front door of their residence. The lightning passed down the chimney, though the piles of hoop-skirts, setting them on fire, and thence through the floor to the ladies. The children in the house, and three persons nearby were prostrated by the shock, but escaped serious injury. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 June 1867: p. 4
The lightning struck the house No. 520 Wharton street, entering by the third story window and knocking down a son of Mr. Sears, who was in the room. The window frames were injured by the lightning having had portions torn from them. Mrs. Sears wore a stud in his shirt bosom, and it is supposed that the lightning was drawn to his person in this way. After entering the room the fluid passed down to the lower part of the house into the kitchen, completely extinguishing the fire and scattering the ashes in all directions. After doing its work on the building alluded to, the lightning passed into No. 527, occupied by Mr. Charles T. Speck, and knocking a hole into the wall of the closet in the third story, set fire to a lot of hoop-skirts, entirely consuming them. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 26 July 1865: p. 8
During the thunderstorm on Monday evening, Mr. John Allen’s house at Tiverton was struck by lightning, and a son of Mr. Allen, and a man named Reed were prostrated, the latter remaining senseless fifteen minutes. During the tempest Mr. Allen requested the female portion of his household to discard their hoop-skirts, which they accordingly did, hanging them up; and after the house was struck, it was found that they had all melted and run down. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 10 July 1869: p. 2
Prosthetics were also said to be a lightning magnet.
BOLT FINDS SILVER RIBS
Man Metallically Patched by Surgeons Draws Lightning
Altoona, Pa., July 14. Three silver-plated ribs, placed in the body of Charles Feathers, aged fifty-five, a railroader, after he was hurt in a wreck some years ago, are supposed to have attracted a stroke of lightning which last night knocked him off a chair while he was sitting on his front porch, rendered him unconscious, paralyzed his vocal chords and gave him a mild case of lockjaw. His son was on the porch with him, but escaped uninjured. The Evening World [New York, NY] 14 July 1914: p. 12
(Is this even medically plausible? Were doctors performing rib transplants?)
Wood Leg Draws Lightning
Iron Braces on Artificial Limb Attract Electricity Which Badly Burns Railway Signal Man.
Kansas City, Mo. During a severe thunderstorm G. Richards, fifty-eight years old, 3019 Dunham avenue, a signal man for the Kansas City Belt Railway company, was struck by lightning in his tower at Twenty-fourth and Penn streets. He is in the General hospital being treated for serious burns.
Richards was at work at the time the lightning struck the towers. The bolt first struck the stove pipe that extends through the roof of the signal station and it followed the pipe to the interior where the lightning continued its downward course with Richards in its path.
“If Richards had not worn an artificial leg, I don’t believe the lightning would have struck him,” Dr. G. C. Remley a police ambulance surgeon, said. “His left leg is cut off below the knee and his artificial leg has iron braces which are held in place by a belt that encircles his body. It is my opinion that this metal attracted the electricity to the man.
The effect of the lightning is shown in burns over the lower portion of Richards’ abdomen and legs. The lightning followed the artificial left leg from a point a few inches below the knees. The limb was splintered and at the toe of the shoe a hole was torn in the leather, giving appearance of something having been thrust through from the inside. The pipe from the stove was wrecked, a window knocked out, and the contents of the room were scattered about.
The police was notified of Richards’ injury and the ambulance from police headquarters was sent out. The injured man had to be carried from the tower. The Colfax [LA] Chronicle 20 July 1912: p. 6
Lightning lent itself to tall-tales.
WILD DUCKS ROASTED BY LIGHTNING STROKE
And Be It Understood Every Bird Was Done to a Delicious Brown.
Chillicothe, Mo., Nov. 3 A freak stroke of lighting at the home of Jacob Bruner, a farmer, residing south of town, yesterday killed a flock of wild ducks that was flying past. Every duck was killed.
Mr. Bruner picked up 46 birds in his yard after the storm. Neighbors who ate them for dinner declared they were delicious. Philadelphia [PA] Inquirer 14 November 1909: p. 1
Although, to be fair, I’m not sure if the following two tales fall into the “tall” category:
STRUCK IN MID-AIR
SOMERSET, Ohio Aug 8—Sunday evening people at the resident of E Holcomb were watching an approaching thunderstorm. A turkey buzzard was seen flying at a considerable height ahead of the cloud when a flash of lightning struck the bird. It fell as if shot. The bird was dead when picked up but the body was only slightly injured. Sandusky [OH] Star Journal December31 1918
An extraordinary lightning freak is reported from Boulay, near Metz, during yesterday’s thunderstorm. A man named Doyen, who was hoeing potatoes, was killed by lightning, his clothes being torn to rags. His wife and the two men who were near had their clothing torn, but escaped uninjured, except for the fact that by some unaccountable freak the lightning painted their faces a bright red and their lips black.
In the little village of Orchies, 27 houses were stripped of their roofs. At Freis Marais, the lightning threw a motor-car across the road; the two passengers escaping uninjured. State [Columbia, SC] 14 June 1906: p. 4
A common theme in lightning death stories is the freezing of the body in its last position—men were found dead on their feet, or raising a glass to their lips—or, in this case, driving a hearse.
KILLED BY LIGHTNING
A Hearse Driver Meets Death at the Side of a Grave
A scene of unprecedented horror was enacted during the electric storm a few days since, when a funeral cortege had drawn up to the entrance of the Sharp-street Cemetery at Mt. Winans. It was the misfortune of the part to arrive at the cemetery entrance just as the worst storm of the season broke.
When the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery and had almost stopped at the side of the grave bearing the dead body of Mary Brown, a colored woman, a lightning bolt, which stunned all the members of the party, instantly killed William Alsup, who was driving the hearse, and started the horses drawing the hearse on a dead run. The deadly bolt at first stunned one of the hearse horses, bringing him to his knees. He was but shocked, however, and being, like his mate, a fiery steed, the regaining of his feet was but the signal for a runaway.
Meantime, the driver, already dead, sat bolt upright, the reins in his clenched hands, and there was presented to eh horrified on-lookers the ghastly sight of the maddened chargers, dashing over the narrow abodes of the silent dead, controlled only by the reins in the convulsed hands of a dead driver, and bearing within the somber vehicle a burden attesting the mortality of human flesh. The freshened horses, in their mad career, were thrown upon their haunches by a collision with one of the tree of the cemetery, and then the lifeless driver was hurled from his seat to the ground. The horses struggled to extricate themselves, but before they could continue their mad career they were restrained by horror-stricken members of the funeral party. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 1 March 1896: p. 9
Just as Roy Sullivan believed that he was a target for multiple lightning strikes, certain sites seemed hoodooed. There is also a folk belief–mentioned in the article which appears at the head of this post– about the man whose steel-toed boots were struck by lightning–that once a person/place has been struck, they are much more likely to be struck again.
Lightning Uncoffins a Victim of Lightning.
[From the Courier-Journal.]
Fort Ogden, Fla., August 4—Lightning has been very fatal in this section the past month, over eight people having been killed by it. Many strange incidents are related, the most extraordinary being a story from across the Kissimmee River told here today. Henry Myers was killed by lightning there last week while in a field, and buried the next day. The second day a heavy thunderstorm arose. His grave was struck, the lightning tearing open the grave, throwing the coffin out and breaking it open.
It was thus found two days afterward by some relatives, and the body reburied. The body was not disfigured by the last electric bolt, but the coffin had been torn to pieces, the body being left on top of the upturned earth, with the splintered coffin fragments around it. This is vouched for by several people from that section. Western Electrician, Volumes 20-21, 1897
Lightning Kept the House Vacant.
[From the Louisville Evening Post.]
Not far from Hodgenville stands an old house which has a wonderful power for the attraction of lightning. It is in an unused field, surrounded by shrubbery and undergrowth. It is only the frame of a once costly dwelling, and has been standing there for 40 years. Strange as it may seem, it has been struck by lightning every time an electric storm has visited that section.
The house was erected by a well-to-do farmer years ago, and was intended for a dwelling for his family, but had to be deserted on account of its habitual subjection to lightning. It has never since been occupied. During a thunderstorm one perpetual flash of lightning plays about the old house. On a dark night, and during a storm, a more beautiful scene could not be found. The whole sky and earth around the old house is brightly illumined by the lightning. The house has been torn away, strip by strip, with each bolt of lightning, until now only a small portion is left standing. So far as is known no fatalities have ever occurred in the house. Western Electrician, Volumes 20-21, 1897
Electricity was often harnessed to try to raise the dead; physicians were advised to use electric shocks on those provokingly ambiguous patients who seemed dead, but would not decay. Or sometimes Mother Nature herself took a hand:
Open By Lightning and a Premature Burial Was Avoided.
A bolt of lightning saved a child from premature burial yesterday at Hanston, 20 miles from this city. The five-year-old daughter of Samuel McPreaz, a rancher, apparently died on Saturday morning. Funeral services were arranged, the body prepared for burial and no one noticed a sign of life remaining in the little body.
Yesterday the funeral services were held and the procession started to the cemetery. A storm was gathering at the time. On the way to the cemetery a bolt of lightning struck the hearse, burst open the metallic coffin in which the body was incased, knocked down both horses and stunned the driver. When the frightened mourners reached the hearse the little girl was sitting up crying for her mother.
For a few moments the persons who witnessed the occurrence were too frightened to move, but finally the little girl was taken up and driven back to the house as fast as possible. Her parents believe the bolt was sent as a miracle and the people of the vicinity speak in whispers of it.
Physicians declare the little girl was in a cataleptic condition and the shock revived her, but many residents believe she was dead and came back to life.
Telegrams from Hanston to-night say she is recovered and feels no ill effects from being incased in the coffin for 24 hours.
The lightning destroyed one side of the hearse and melted a portion of the coffin.
Persons living in the vicinity of Hanston, who were in the funeral procession, tell many strange stories in connection with the occurrence. Some of them say that just prior to the flash of lightning a peculiar soft, mellow light appeared in the sky, which was so pronounced in its difference from sunlight as to attract attention and occasion comment, and that while the peculiar atmospheric conditions were being discussed the clap of thunder and the flash of lightning riveted their attention upon the strange scene which followed.
What is thought to be one of the strangest features of the occurrence and which strengthens the belief of those who contend that it was a manifestation of the divine power, is that nobody was killed or even seriously hurt by the lightning. The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 18 August 1901: p. 4
Alas for this heart-warmingly Promethean story, it began to be debunked almost immediately:
Tom Leftwich of Larned, is charged with sending the associated press a wild story about lightning striking the coffin in which a child was being taken for burial, tearing off the top of the coffin and bringing the child to life.Sedan [KS] Lance 22 August 1901: p. 6
Thomas E. Leftwich was the editor of the Larned Eagle-Optic. In 1902 he and a partner bought the Winfield Tribune so his thrilling story didn’t seem to hurt his rise in the newspaper world of Kansas. If anything, it demonstrated that he had what it took to get circulation: the tale appeared in more than a dozen papers far outside of Kansas.
But was the story really false? There are other accounts of coffins blasted open by lightning, and the resurrection of their occupants. Are they just rural legends? Any other stories of fire from heaven? Discharge the current harmlessly before sending to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
See also my post on “lightning daguerreotypes“–images said to be etched on glass by bolts from the blue.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.