Death by lightning

union-congregational-church-1910I recently re-read “Deaths by Lightning in Early New England,” an article written by former NEHGS staff member Julie Helen Otto for New England Ancestors, the predecessor publication to American Ancestors. My interest was spurred by my great-grandmother’s “Genealogical Journal.” In it was a tragic story of death by lightning of one of her ancestors.

My great-grandmother, Maude Bell Plowman, was an inveterate diarist and journal-keeper. Her diaries cover everyday life, while her journal captures material she copied from family bibles, county histories, or that she learned from corresponding with relatives. Unfortunately, almost none of her copious materials include citations or indication of provenance.

The section of her journal I was currently studying involved the Curtiss family of Union, Tolland County, Connecticut, and described the life of Samuel Ives Curtiss, Congregational minister of the church in Union.

"[A] terrible electric storm..."

From Maude’s journal: “They moved in February but on Good Friday, March 25, 1842, a terrible electric storm struck the house and killed Rebecca sitting in a large rocking chair, her unborn babe and her little daughter Anne 8 years who was sitting in a little chair beside her. Where the Union Library is now was the site of this building. Said Grandpa Samuel. ‘I thought the house was falling on me when I began to hear my little son (George) bemoan in a loud voice the death of his mother. Yet all was dark before me til after repeated efforts sight came to me and oh! what a sight. I forbear to describe.’”

What a shock to awake from near death and find your wife and daughter dead!

Thanks to a Google Search, I was able to identify the material between the quotation marks as the words of Samuel Ives Curtiss published by Charles Hammond and Henry Lawson in a History of Union, Connecticut.[1] This took me to Internet Archive for a full-text version of the book. The Internet Archive and the Hathi Trust often make digital versions of works published prior to 1920 available online.

"I opened not my mouth..."

The text immediately following the above transcription from page 163, which Maude omits, reflects a very New England view of a wrathful God:

“Because the Lord did it, ‘I opened not my mouth,’ but bowed to his will, and his grace was sufficient for me. She was the wife of my youth, the choice of my heart, in whom I reposed entire confidence, and who was a faithful co-worker in the vineyard.”

But where did the rest of the information in Maude’s journal come from? The History of Union, Connecticut refers to March 25th as the “annual fast day” (again, Google to the rescue – Good Friday), but does not mention an unborn child. Maude includes other details of the Tolland tenancy that do not appear in the book, such as having to walk two miles uphill and one mile on the level from the church to their first residence. According to Maude, Rebecca was very happy when the Marcy building, in town and near the church, became available. I checked Chronicling America at the Library of Congress and discovered that Tolland County operated a weekly newspaper from about 1860 through 1888. Perhaps this is the source of Maude’s information?

Document, document, document

The lesson for all of us today is document, document, document. Write down where we heard, found, copied, or otherwise unearthed the information we include in our family histories. Our descendants will thank us.


[1] New Haven, Connecticut: Price, Lee, Adkins, 1893.

Ann Lawthers

About Ann Lawthers

Ann G. Lawthers assists our library patrons in enhancing their research skills and in bringing alive their family histories. She is a graduate of Wellesley College, the Harvard School of Public Health and has completed the Boston University Certificate in Genealogical Research program. She has conducted genealogical projects as an independent researcher. Ann is familiar with resources for Massachusetts, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New Jersey; and has research experience with Quebec and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces, Ireland and Germany.View all posts by Ann Lawthers