Terrific lightning storms unsettled New England colonists during the summer of 1768, when rising tensions with Great Britain led to conflict and violence. But unlike the Puritans of a century before, the colonists didn’t view the lightning as a message from God.
The Age of Enlightenment had arrived, and reason and analysis won over superstition and traditional authority. Or at least began to.
So even as Sam Adams was proselytizing for rebellion against the King, inquiring minds tried to analyze the severe lightning that struck that summer. They were continuing the scientific analysis that Ben Franklin had started. He’d conducted his famous kite experiment 14 years before then.
The 1768 Lightning Storms
In February 1768, Sam Adams circulated a letter among the colonies opposing the Acts, calling them taxation without representation.
Agitators in Boston harassed customs inspectors, and in May a British warship with 50 guns sailed into Boston Harbor. In July, Gov. Francis Bernard dissolved the General Court.
On July 2, lightning struck Hollis Hall at Harvard College. In a letter to the editors of the Boston Chronicle, John Winthrop wrote that what happened supported the view that lightning was electricity. He described how the violent thunderstorm beat down a chimney top, shattered woodwork and windows and tore several feet of brickwork. Several students felt a blow, which they compared to an electric shock. One students was thrown from his chair, perceiving neither the flash nor the thunder.
And then Winthrop described the lightning rod, which Franklin had invented in 1749:
In my house, that has such an apparatus fitted with bells to give notice of the passage of the lightening along the rods, the bells began to ring as soon as the first thunder was heard at a distance.
The bells continued ringing briskly for about an hour, he wrote. The lightning “frequently flashed from one bell to the other, and with cracks loud enough to be heard in the farther part of the house.”
In August, Boston merchants agreed to boycott British goods until the repeal of the Townshend Acts. Tremendous thunderstorms struck from Salem, Mass., to Norwalk, Conn., on the afternoon of August 1. In Roxbury, Mass., lightning shattered a window. In Boston, it knocked a clock case into fragments on a Winter Street home. It also threw clothes around a room in a Water Street home and melted a pewter plate on a mantel in Temple Street. It stunned two children, who recovered.
That storm extended to Connecticut, where lightning knocked over a tree in Hartford, killing two cows, and set a barn in Norwalk on fire.
The fierce lightning flashes inspired a citizen in Salem, Mass., to send a poem to the Essex Gazette:
What grumbling Noise comes thro’ the yielding Air!
Is it the Cannon’s Roar! The Din of War?
No! — ‘Tis the Voice of God; he Thunder rolls,
And flashes Lightnings to the distant Polls.
Sulfur and British Soldiers
In September, 4,000 British soldiers arrived to keep order and set up permanent residence in Boston. A few weeks before the British began their military occupation, lightning tore a large oak tree to pieces in Wrentham, Mass.
But the next evening, September 8, brought the weirdest lightning strike of all.
It struck Daniel Mann’s tavern, where ladies and gentlemen sat around a tea table. A flash of lightning came into the room, followed by an explosion, apparently as loud as the discharge of a cannon. Large sparks were seen, and the air in the room smelled like sulfur, which gave one person an intense headache. A windowpane broke, a clock injured, the ceiling and floors damaged. One man felt a violent shock on top of his head, another felt pain in his shoulder and found his coat scorched.
“All the inmates were filled with terror,” reported Essex historian Sidney Perley in Historic Storms of New England.
In Rehoboth, Mass., lightning killed a 10-year-old boy. A barn in Mendon, Mass., burned to the ground when struck. In Uxbridge, lightning tore up the heart and floor of a house and stunned several family members.
“This shower was not as local as thunder showers generally are,” Perley wrote, “but it extended over a large territory, and the lightning was sharper and more frequent and disastrous than it was remembered to have been before in many parts of the region.”
This story was updated in 2022.