Yesterday's Magazette

1 – Lightning Strikes Twice

Lightning Strikes Twice

Henry and Bridget (McLaughlin) O’Brien

By Madonna Dries Christensen

Struck by lightning. 

Those were frightening words to me, growing up in Iowa in the 1940s. Fierce thunder and lightning storms, or twisters that uprooted huge trees, sent us scrambling to the storm cellar. It was there that my mother sometimes mentioned that her grandfather had been killed by lightning. “And little Essie, too,” she added, speaking the words “little Essie” with a kind of reverence.

As a child, my mother’s grandfather was too far back in time for me to imagine him as a real person, but “little Essie” intrigued me. From what I understood, she was taking lunch to her father in the field when they were both killed by lightning. I envisioned this little girl, perhaps my age, skipping happily through the field, then being struck down. I wondered who died first, daughter or father.

It wasn’t until years later, when I began doing genealogy, that I learned the full story. Using my great-grandfather’s name, his death date, and the information that he had been killed by lightning near Britt, Iowa, I wrote to the Britt-News Tribune. Britt is a small town, and I reasoned that such an event would have been worthy of an account in the paper. Indeed it was. I received a copy of the fact-filled obituary, written in the flowery prose common in those days. When I finished reading about my great-grandfather’s life and death, my eyes were damp. I felt as if I had met him and then lost him all within minutes.

August 5, 1909: Struck by lightning and instantly killed at the farm of his son, Linford, 7 miles northwest of Britt, August 5th at 5:45 p.m., Henry O’Brien, at the age of 70 years, 1 month, 11 days. Mr. O’Brien and his son had been in the harvest field all day, but were compelled to leave hurriedly at 5:30 p.m. on account of an approaching storm. The old gentleman was driving when, suddenly, without a moment’s warning, he was hurled from this earth to eternity by a tremendous bolt of lightning which struck him in the back of the head, throwing him from the wagon among three prostrate horses which were also stunned. 

The lengthy story continued, relating that the son, shocked by lightning, too, jumped from the wagon to aid his father, “but he was even then beyond recall.”

Oddly, there was no mention of the child Essie. It wasn’t until I received another obituary for Henry O’Brien that the pieces fit. This brief account stated: “Twelve years ago, a daughter was killed by lightning near Garner.”

So, she hadn’t died at the same time as her father. My mother had not been clear about that. A bit more research netted me little Essie’s obituary. [It turned out her death had been 17 years earlier, not 12]

Garner, Hancock County Iowa, 28 July 1892: Hester Kate O’Brien, daughter of Henry O’Brien who lives on the old Cusick place, was killed by lightning yesterday afternoon about four o’clock. She was a bright little girl, about twelve-years-old, and was a general favorite with all who knew her.

Perhaps it’s true that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but it struck twice in the same family, a rare coincidence, it seems to me.

Vol. 38 No. 2 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – Summer- 2011

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