New England Colonists Thunderstruck by the Lightning Storms of 1768

New Englanders were unsettled by terrific lightning storms 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 about the looming revolution.

1768 lightning Benjamin_West,_Benjamin_Franklin_Drawing_Electricity_from_the_Sky_-_Google_Art_ProjectIt was the age of Enlightenment, when reason and analysis began to take primacy over superstition and traditional authority.

So even as Sam Adams was proselytizing for rebellion against the King, inquiring minds were analyzing with great interest the severe lightning that struck that summer. On the eve of the Revolutionary War, it was a subject for scientific analysis. Continued scientific analysis, that is; Ben Franklin had conducted his famous kite experiment 14 years before.

The 1768 Lightning Storms

The tremendous lightning storms in the summer of 1768 came as the Townshend Acts, passed in 1767, were taking effect and colonists in British North America resisted complying with them.

In February 1768, Sam Adams circulated a letter among the colonies opposing the Acts, calling them taxation without representation. He urged the colonies to unite in opposition to the British.

Agitators in Boston were harassing 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, ‘J. 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, and 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, and continued ringing briskly for about an hour; and the lightening not being conducted quick enough by the tongue, it 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 Townshend Acts were repealed. 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, 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.

British warships arrive in Boston Harbor.

British warships arrive in Boston Harbor.

Sulfur and British Soldiers

At Town Meeting in September, Bostonians were urged to arm themselves, and 4,000 British soldiers arrived to keep order and set up permanent residence. A few weeks before the British began their military occupation, lightning tore a large oak tree to pieces in Wrentham, Mass., on Sept. 7.

But the next evening brought the weirdest lightning strike of all.

It struck Daniel Mann’s tavern, where ladies and gentlemen were sitting around a tea table.  A flash of lightning came into the room and was 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 was broken, 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 where his coat was scorched. “All the inmates were filled with terror,” reported Essex historian Sidney Perley in Historic Storms of New England.

In Rehoboth, Mass., a 10-year-old boy was killed by lightning. A barn in Mendon, Mass., burned to the ground. 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 2017. 


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