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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Happily Ever After at Happy Retreat

At George Washington’s Ferry Farm, most of our thinking, research, and writing is focused on the best known and most significant of all Americans, George Washington.  But George was not the only Washington to live at Ferry Farm nor was he even the only Washington boy to grow up on this land along the Rappahannock River.  Indeed, three other sons of Augustine and Mary Washington called Ferry Farm their boyhood home.  They were Samuel, John Augustine, and Charles.

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell

West Virginia state coat of arms illustrated in 1876 by Henry Mitchell. Public domain.

As two native West Virginians transplanted to Virginia, we feel a special affinity for Charles Washington.  Charles Town, a present-day city in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, bears his name.  Charles’s life is admittedly less documented than older brother George’s but it is no less interesting, even with several frustrating gaps in his story.  Being that it is the season for June weddings as well as the very day West Virginia declared its statehood 155 years ago, we thought it fitting to briefly examine one of the more interesting (and better documented) incidents in the life of young Charles Washington.

In 1757, 19-year-old Charles Washington and 18-year-old Mildred Thornton wanted to marry.  Charles, however, was underage from a financial standpoint.  He could not receive the inheritance promised to him by his late father Augustine until he turned 21-years old.

Frances Thornton, Mildred’s widowed mother, apparently expressed concerns to Mary Washington that if Charles died before he turned 21 then his property as well as any property that Mildred brought into the marriage as part of her dowry would all go to George Washington and leave Mildred with nothing.

In a letter that has not been found, Mary wrote to George about Mrs. Thornton’s worries.  On September 30, 1757, George replied “that if there is no other objection than the one you mention, it may soon be removed.”  He seemed hurt that Mrs Thornton apparently believed him “capable of taking these ungenrous [sic] advantages.” He scathingly criticized her as knowing “little of the principles which govern my conduct.”  In the next sentence, however, he granted that Mildred’s mother was probably “actuated by prudent Motives.”  In the end, George told Mary that if Mrs. Thornton, “will get any Instrument of writing drawn I will sign it provided it does not effect me in other respects than her Daughters Fortune, if my Brother dies under Age.”  In other words, even though offended, he promised to observe Mildred’s rights as a widow.

It’s not clear why but it seems that George’s resentful and reluctant promise did not actually settle the matter.  Perhaps he was unhappy with the ‘instrument of writing’ presented to him and refused to sign?  Perhaps Mildred Thornton was not satisfied with his begrudging promise?  Regardless, a couple of weeks later, Charles’ uncle Fielding Lewis and Mildred’s uncle John Thornton appeared in court to be named guardians of their nephew and niece respectively.  Each man posted a bond of £2,000 as a measure of security for the couple (Paula Felder, Fielding Lewis and the Washington Family: A Chronicle of 18th Century Fredericksburg, The American History Company, 1998: 132-33).

Mildred and Charles finally married, and in 1760, they moved into a house in Fredericksburg on what is now Caroline Street. They had four children, George Augustine, Frances Ann, Samuel and Mildred.

Ultimately, in 1780, Charles moved his family to western Virginia, where he built a home called Happy Retreat.  The town that bears his name was founded on his land in 1786 and it was there he died of unknown causes in September 1799 at the age of 61.  While not as well-known as George, Charles left behind an important legacy in the form of Charles Town and Happy Retreat.

HappyRetreat_CharlesTownWV

“Happy Retreat,” the home of Charles Washington, as seen in present-day Charles Town, West Virginia. Public domain.

Happy Retreat was privately owned by a descendant of the Washington family for a number of years. However, it was recently sold to the City of Charles Town and a board of citizens was created to oversee the preservation and restoration of the property and to plan and present programs and events at the site. Among the sitting board members is Washington family descendant Walter Washington. Some of the rooms within Happy Retreat have been restored and an archaeological dig is currently underway to discover more information about the family and land. In the near future, Happy Retreat will be a gathering place used for education and special events in the community of Charles Town and surrounding areas.

Allison Burns
Museum Educator

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

George’s Hometown: Masonic Lodge

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

In 1753, 21-year-old George Washington became a Master Mason having joined the Masonic Lodge in Fredericksburg the year prior.  In his encyclopedia on all things George, Frank Grizzard concluded that “For Washington, joining the Masons was a rite of passage, a formal entry into respectable and genteel if not elite society.”  The boy who arrived at Ferry Farm at the age of 6 was now an upper class Virginia gentleman.

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The Masonic Lodge of Fredericksburg at the intersection of Princess Ann and Hanover Streets.

The Fredericksburg lodge formed in 1753, the year Washington joined.  Its current building (pictured) was built in 1816.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house!

Ferry Farm opens to visitors at noon on Saturday, October 7.

PLEASE NOTE: PARKING for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm—traveling from the VRE lot to Ferry Farm on a regular schedule from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. Bus transportation will pause during the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The last bus will depart Ferry Farm at 5:15 p.m. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm.

George’s Hometown: Julian’s Tavern

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Besides learning to survey and receiving his formal schooling, young George Washington also pursued an education in the social graces valued in gentry circles while a young man at Ferry Farm. These social graces included dancing, fencing, horseback riding, and gentlemen’s games like cards.  Card-playing was a popular pastime in the taverns that Washington frequented all across Virginia.

On one occasion – Christmas Eve 1769 – adult George passed the evening at Julian’s Tavern in Fredericksburg with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm.  This tavern was located at the corner of present-day Amelia and Caroline Streets.

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You can ready more about when Washington returned to his hometown for Christmas in 1769 by clicking here.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Video – Lecture: “The Rooms at Ferry Farm”

Furnishings posts logo finalOn Tuesday, September 19, 2017, Meghan Budinger, Aldrich Director of Curatorial Operations at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Rooms at Ferry Farm.” Meghan surveyed how we plan to furnish the reconstructed Washington house using traditional decorative arts scholarship but also adopted skills from genealogists, architectural historians, material cultural experts, scientists, and even investigative reporters. Meghan discussed how the Washington house and the effort to accurately furnish its rooms is a prime example of the synthesis of all of these vocations. The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.

George’s Hometown: St. George’s Church

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

George Washington’s education as a boy at Ferry Farm included copying The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation to learn the correct etiquette and moral code of Virginia’s gentry class. By strictly following its advice, young Washington molded his character into that of a wealthy Virginia gentleman.  Unable to attend school in England after his father’s death, George possibly studied with the Rev. James Marye, rector of St. George’s Parish across the river in Fredericksburg.

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St. George’s Church built their first church building in the 1730s. The current church building (pictured) dates from 1849.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

 

Video – Lecture: “The Mother of the Father of Our Country”

On Tuesday, September 12, 2017, Laura Galke, archaeologist, small finds analyst and site director at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “The Mother of the Father of Our Country.” Laura examined how historical documents and newly-unearthed artifacts indicate that Mary Washington, George’s mother, faced challenges, governed her home, and managed the family’s plantations with a skill and determination that recent biographers have not appreciated. Laura explored how the Washingtons’ investments in attire, furnishings, and landscape modification reflect their strategy for overcoming setbacks and exhibiting British colonial refinement.  The lecture was given at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street.  Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Learn more about the Washington House here and view other videos, photos, and blog posts about the project here.