Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Strange Accounts of Death, Destruction, and Injury by Lightning

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.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Mysteries and History of Christ Church in Philadelphia

Christ Church in Philadelphia
This article appeared in the free monthly HSP Newsletter, History HitsClick here to subscribe.


Tales of hidden passageways, underground tunnels, and skeletons always make for an intriguing story. According to historical accounts and newspaper records held here at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, there are plenty of good stories about Christ Church, the oldest Episcopal church in Philadelphia.
Founded in 1695, Christ Church on Second Street, north of Market, has a long and honorable past. Founding Fathers, such as George Washington and John Adams, worshipped there, and Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Hewes, and other signers of the Declaration of Independence are buried within its graveyard, located at Fifth and Arch Streets.

The church has also been the site of mystery and intrigue. One such story comes from Townsend Ward, a secretary of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, who died in 1885. Ward published an account in 1880, which was later reprinted in the Public Ledger in January of 1907. He related how on a cold November evening, the voice of a woman had been heard at Christ Church. The sexton and two young boys searched the church, but no one was located.  A month or so later, the iron door of a sepulcher was opened on the north side of the church, which revealed upon its steps "the body of a young lady in her shroud, who had been buried as dead" but met her grim fate as a "premature burial."

Chime of the Eight Bells
Christ Church is famous for its "Chime of Eight Bells" (pictured at right). The largest bell weighed 2,040 pounds. The bell was cast in England and brought to Philadelphia in 1754 on the ship Myrtilla by Capt. Richard Buden, who lies interred within the church's cemetery. It is with the bells that our mystery begins in earnest.

According to John F. Watson, the early 19th-century Philadelphia antiquarian, after the Declaration of Independence was read to the public on July 4, 1776, the bells of Christ Church rang out. The chimes often rang out to announce public events. The ringing on July 4 was not to the liking of the church rector, the Reverend Jacob Duche, who was loyal to the Crown of England. But it was pleasing to the vestry, who were unanimous in their support of the Rebellion.  It was feared the chimes would be confiscated by the British, so they were taken down in 1777 and purportedly taken to either Bethlehem or Allentown. They were returned after the British evacuated Philadelphia in the summer of 1778.

Newspaper article dated March 26, 1909
During late March in 1909, many Philadelphia newspapers, such as the Bulletin, The Press, and others, ran articles about the discovery of a "Revolutionary Tunnel" leading to Christ Church. The entrance to the tunnel was accidentally found by Edward Duncan and other workmen underneath the hardware store of James M. Vance & Co. at 211-13 Market Street. Described as being some 200 feet in length, 3 feet wide, and 7 feet high, the main passageway terminated at a blind wall where the "remains of an old stairway were also found" along with "the crumbling bones"  of some eight skeletons,  determined later to be located directly underneath the tower of Christ's Church.

As can be imagined, a number of theories were offered to explain both the tunnels and skeletons. It is well known that the grounds of Christ Church have changed over the years. At one time a pond existed at the spot, while at various times, walls and even the remains of a horse stall were found, some 14 feet below the surface.

Most individuals who examined the tunnels said they were Revolutionary-era in construction. Some speculated the tunnels were used by Tories attempting to escape Continental recruitment, while most advocated that it "solved the long perplexing problem as to how the chimes in Christ Church were removed...during the first night of the occupation of Philadelphia" by the British. Said to have been "secretly removed from the tower while the British soldiers closely guarded the Church," they were then placed on a wagon and taken to Allentown, later returned and "sunk in the Delaware River until the war was over."

And the mystery continues. Though pictures appeared in the newspaper showing the entrance to the tunnels, one of the reported discoverers, Mr. James M. Vance, denied the discovery. One newspaper erringly quoted Dr. J. W. Duncan, librarian of the "Pennsylvania Historical Society," though at the time, John W. Jordan actually held that office. Nonetheless, it is an interesting story, and one that has never been satisfactorily explained.