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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When George Washington Almost Joined the British Royal Navy

Not long ago, we explored Three Military Adventures that Inspired George Washington and the influence that Lawrence Washington and his wartime service played in stoking George’s interest in military matters.

Lawrence fought with the British in the War of Jenkins’ Ear in the early 1740s and spent time aboard the flagship of Admiral Edward Vernon, who commanded British forces during the Battle of Cartegena de Indias.  Lawrence returned to Virginia with stories sure to spark his 10-year-old brother George’s imagination and desire for adventure.  Lawrence’s military service and George’s interest in military things had a fascinating, if perplexing, practical outcome when, late in 1746, Lawrence proposed for 14-year-old George to join the Royal Navy.

Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c 1738)

Portrait of Lawrence Washington attributed to Gustavus Hesselius (c. 1738). Credit: Wikipedia / Mount Vernon.

This is a relatively little known and rather mysterious incident in the life of young George Washington.  Few documents survive that address the matter directly.  There are no documents written by George, Lawrence, or Mary Washington that reveal their actions or motivations in the matter.  The three letters that do address the incident were all written by secondary figures involved.

It all began in the fall of 1746 when Lawrence sent two letters — one each for George and Mary respectively – to Fredericksburg via Colonel William Fairfax.  George was to deliver Mary’s himself and keep the one to him a secret from her.  We do not know what either of these letters said.

What we do know is only what William Fairfax told Lawrence in a report dated September 9, 1746 and sent to Lawrence at Mount Vernon.  Fairfax wrote:

“The weather being so sultry, and being necessarily obliged to go about this town to collect several things wanted, I have not yet seen Mrs. Washington.  George has been with us, and says He will be steady and thankfully follow your Advice as his best Friend.  I gave him his Mother’s letter to deliver with Caution not to shew his.  I have spoke to Dr. Spencer who I find is often at the Widow’s and has some influence, to persuade her to think better of your advice in putting Him to Sea with good Recommendation.”[1]

The Dr. Spencer mentioned may have been William Spencer, who often was involved as a witness for land transfers to Lawrence.  The secretiveness of George hiding his letter from Mary and of Lawrence apparently enlisting his business partners to argue in favor of the proposal for George to go to sea emphasize the conspiratorial nature of Lawrence’s efforts.

It appears that, for a time, Lawrence’s manipulations may have worked.  On September 18, 1746, Robert Jackson, a Washington family friend, wrote to Lawrence that “I am afraid Mrs. Washington will not keep up to her first resolution.”  This seems to indicate that she wasn’t against the idea immediately but she did change her mind.  Jackson reported that Mary “seems to intimate a dislike to George’s going to Sea and says several Persons have told her it’s a very bad Scheme.”  He condescendingly dismisses her concerns as “trifling objections such as fond and unthinking mothers naturally suggest” and expresses frustration that “one word against [George’s] going has more weight than ten for it.”

Jackson noted that William Fairfax was inclined to visit Mary and, moreover, Jackson noted that he himself would “take an opportunity to talk with her and will let you knew her result.”[2]  While Jackson may have let Lawrence know the result, no document has been found to let us know the result of these specific discussions two centuries later.

Action Between Nottingham and Mars, 1746 by Samuel Scott

“Action Between Nottingham and Mars” (1746) by Samuel Scott depicts a British-French naval battle in October 1746 when the Washingtons were debating whether George should join the Royal Navy. Credit: Wikipedia/National Maritime Museum.

At some point, perhaps feeling outnumbered, Mary decided to solicit the advice of her brother Joseph Ball in England.  Dated May 19, 1747, his reply, which is a disdainful rejection of the entire proposal, is worth quoting at length.

“I understand that you are advised and have some thoughts of putting your son George to sea.  I think he had better be put apprentice to a tinker, for a common sailor before the mast has by no means the common liberty of the subject; for they will press him from ship to ship where he has fifty shillings a month, and make him take twenty-three, and cut and slash and use him like a negro, or rather like a dog.  And as to any considerable preferment in the navy, it is not to be expected, as there are so many gaping for it here who have interest, and he has none.  And if he should get to be master of a Virginia ship (which is very difficult to do), a planter who has three or four hundred acres of land, and three or four slaves, if he be industrious, many live more comfortably, and have his family in better bread than such a master of a ship can . . .  He must not be too hasty to be rich but go on gently and with patience as things will naturally go.  This method without aiming at being a fine gentleman before his time, will carry a man more comfortably and surely thought the world than going to sea, unless it be a great chance indeed.”[3]

Mary must have ultimately and definitely rejected Lawrence’s plan, a courageous act for a woman in male dominated colonial Virginia.  George, of course, did not pursue a career at sea but turned to surveying instead.

Like many incidents in young George Washington’s life, the historical record is elusive and often raises more questions than it answers.  What prompted Lawrence to make the suggestion in the first place?  What were George’s views on the proposal and the debate?  What were Mary’s specific objections?  None of these questions may ever be answered.  Of course, the greatest question raised by the incident is the also unknowable counterfactual one.  Would history have unfolded differently if the man who was supposed to have been the commander of the Continental Army ended up spending his life on the King’s ships?

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, September 9, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 238, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[2] Robert Jackson to Lawrence Washington, September 18, 1746, quoted in Moncure Daniel Conway’s Barons of the Potomack and the Rapphannock, New York, Grolier Club, 1892: 239-40, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=zDESAAAAYAAJ&dq=barons%20of%20the%20potomac%20and%20rappahannock&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false [accessed August 26, 2017].

[3] Joseph Ball to Mary Washington, May 19, 1747 quoted in Marion Harland’s The Story of Mary Washington, New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co, 1893: 79-80 available at https://archive.org/details/storyofmarywashi00harl [accessed August 26, 2017].

In Memory of Mother Washington

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.