The Legend of Mary Washington and the Deadly Lightning Strike

Lightning striking the Washington Monument, July 1, 2005.

Lightning striking the Washington Monument on July 1, 2005. Credit: Kevin Ambrose

Originally, this post was going to explore colonial America’s fear and fascination with lightning and the practical tools created to help prevent destructive lightning damage.  During my research, however, I encountered a tale about Mary Ball Washington and a close encounter with lightning that supposedly traumatized her for the rest of her life.  If true, this story would be a fabulous illustration of the destructiveness of lightning as well as of the anxiety colonial Americans felt about these random bolts from the sky.

According to the story, one summer evening, Mary was having supper with friends when a bolt of lightning struck the house, traveled down the chimney, and instantly killed the woman sitting next to Mary.  This alleged event was said to be so traumatizing for Mary that it affected every facet of her life from then on.  She trembled at the approach of thunderstorms, she never traveled far from home, she discouraged her children from taking risks, and her nervousness had a negative effect on her relationships with her family.  If true, this story is indeed disturbing and would definitely have been a seminal moment in the life of Mary.

I began researching the story to try and establish its legitimacy and accuracy.  This began a deep descent down the rabbit hole of historical myth versus truth.  All of which had absolutely nothing to do with lightning.  So I set Benjamin Franklin and his lightning rod to one side in a quest to prove or disprove this tale about Mary.

My goal was to find primary source documentation that would support this story.  I wanted direct or firsthand evidence about the event from documents like newspaper articles, journal or diary entries, letters or other accounts of the incident from the time.  If I was unable to find primary sources that recorded the incident, then my secondary objective was to trace the story to its point of origin.

The most recent reiteration of the story comes from a biography first published in 1997.  The author writes, “When [Mary] was pregnant with George Washington, she experienced a shock that may have shaped her relationship with the large child taking shape in her womb.  One summer Sunday afternoon, while the family was having dinner with guests from church, a thunderstorm rolled in.  A bolt of lightning struck the house and traveled down the chimney and hit a young girl . . . .  The electric current was so strong it fused the knife and fork she was using to cut her meat.  She died instantly.  The lightning hit with such force that it severely jolted the pregnant Mary Washington, who was sitting only a few feet away.”  The author theorizes that “Mary Ball Washington never recovered fully from the shock she had seen and felt.  She rarely traveled any farther than church on Sunday and her timorousness touched off a number of dashes with her family, especially her son, who she discouraged from taking any risks . . . she could not understand; in fact she resented [George’s] desire to stray from her side and leave the safety of the farm to go off to war.”[1]

I was quite excited to find such a detailed account of the event so I flipped to the book’s bibliography to find the author’s source but there was none listed.

Disappointed, I continued my work to trace the story to its origin.  Eventually, I found six different accounts of Mary’s traumatic lightning story with the earliest appearing in 1850.  Margaret Conkling was the first to recount the tale in Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington stating that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”[2]

This account has none of the details of the 1997 account and makes no mention of Mary being pregnant with George at the time and instead states the lightning strike occurred in “her youth”.  Subsequent accounts from 1852 to 1892 recount the tale but none of them provide a primary source.[3]

And that is where my search ended.  There are no primary sources or references about Mary and the lightning incident before 1850, nearly 120 year after the incident supposedly took place.

This must lead us to ask if the story is even true and, if it isn’t, why would writers continue to use it as a pivotal and personality molding event in Mary’s history?

We do not know much about Mary Ball Washington’s youth.  We know that by the time she was twelve both her parents had died and she became the legal ward of her uncle.  In 1731, she was introduced to recently widowed Augustine Washington and the two married and moved to Pope’s Creek, Virginia.[4]  Mary left relatively few written records and many letters from various family members at the time barely reference her, let alone give us detailed stories from her life.

Mary’s enigmatic past has led to many different interpretations of her personality over the years.  In the different lightning stories I found, it seems that each writer was trying to use the story to explain their own ideas of who Mary was as a person. The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears.  While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation.  Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.  The temptation to include a story as dramatic and potentially consequential as a fatal lightning strike and, for Mary, a near death experience is indeed hard to resist.

This is not to say these authors knowingly falsified the story. They simply are relying more on legend than on fact.  Mary’s reputation and, for that matter, Washington family history has always been steeped in much legend.   So was Mary present when one of her friends was struck and killed by lightning while eating supper?  It’s not impossible but it is highly improbable the event ever took place.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] Randall, Willard Sterne. George Washington: A Life. Galahad Books, 2006.

[2] Conkling, Margaret Cockburn. Memoirs of the mother and wife of Washington. Derby, Miller and company, 1850.

[3] Hervy, Nathaniel. The memory of Washington. Boston, J. Munroe, 1852; Custis, George Washington. Recollections and Private Memoir of Washington. J.W. Bradley, 1859; Lossing, John Benson. Mary and Martha, the mother and the wife of George Washington, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1886; Walter, James. Memorials of Washington and of Mary, his mother, and Martha, his wife. New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1887; Harland, Marion. The Story of Mary Washington. New York, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1892.

[4] “Mary Ball Washington.” George Washington Digital Encyclopedia. George Washington’s Mount Vernon, 2019, www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/mary-ball-washington/ [accessed March 22, 2019].

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