Today, the chance of being struck by lightning in one’s lifetime are approximately one in 15,300, with an average of 27 people killed by lightning per year in the United States. Over a century ago, in 1858, 59 people were killed by lightning in the US; in 1859, 77. In 1897, 123 people were killed by lightning in the month of July alone. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (and today), many of these deaths took place in Louisiana, which holds claim as the second most lightning-prone state in the union. (Florida is the first.)
In this post, we examine the relationship between humans, cemeteries, and lightning. From scientific discovery to struggles for safety, from tragedy to cemetery artwork, lightning has inspired fascination and fear for as long as humans have been stricken by it.
Benjamin Franklin and his Kite
Scientifically speaking, lightning is a massive burst of electricity produced by the exchange of positive- and negatively-charged particles between a storm and the ground below. Or, in other terms, it is “a really big spark that is measured on the scale of miles and is about as wide as a human finger.” Historic newspapers often refer to lightning as electric “fluid.”
Legend states that in the eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin recognized the electrical nature of lightning. His 1752 experiment with a kite and metal keys resulted in the invention of the lightning rod, which conducts electrical charge to a neutral ground.
Although lightning rods work, they do not always prevent lightning strikes. Even with the benefit of scientific understanding, popular fascination about lightning still gave rise to superstition: are open spaces better than taking shelter under a tree? Would rubber soles on a person’s shoes prevent a lightning strike? Are lightning strike victims who survive more likely to be struck again?
An example: It is rare but not unheard of for a person to be hit by lightning more than once. A common example of this is the true story of Roy Cleveland Sullivan (1912-1983) a Virginia National Park Service ranger who was struck by lightning seven times in his life. The phenomenon is as often true as it is untrue – unbelievable true stories turn to legend and get repeated, altered, and turned into tropes. Later in this article, we will find that Gretna, Louisiana, has its own multiple-strike legend.
Statistician David J. Hand in Scientific American tells us that multiple strike incidents are not the result of something special in a person’s physiology. They are simply the result of exponential odds eventually coming up or, “there are so many things in heaven and earth that coincidences become certainties.”
Historic Lightning Strikes
While being hit by lightning does not make one more likely to be hit by lightning a second time, such superstitions arose from the need to explain this seemingly arbitrary threat. There are, of course, plenty of factors which increase the chance of lightning strikes, and all of them were more likely in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they are now: open spaces with singular tall trees or structures are the most likely places for lightning to connect. Due to a much more rural, agricultural landscape, stories of strikes were more common in the past.
Rural Lightning Deaths
Rural lightning strikes were often associated with field work, particularly by enslaved and working-class people. Throughout the nineteenth century, Louisiana newspapers reported stories like the following:
1844: Three enslaved men were struck by lightning at the plantation of Dr. Patrick in West Baton Rouge, one of whom was killed instantly. They were cutting wood outdoors.
1849: In May, a man in Prairie Manor was killed by lightning while working on his roof. Three days later, another man was killed by lightning while traveling in the same town on horseback; the newspaper noted that his riding companions were unharmed.
1851: James Hopkins was killed and James Braxelton was injured by lightning after they took shelter under a tree while working on the Howell Plantation in Bayou Sara.
1853: Two enslaved men were killed by lightning during a thunderstorm near Clinton.
1856: An enslaved man belonging to John A. Dardenne was killed by lightning while walking across a field with a crowbar on his shoulder.
1858: An enslaved woman was killed by lightning as she rode a mule across an open field in Elam plantation near Little River. The mule also died.
1875: J.T. Turaud, an overseer at the property of R.E. Rivers in Plaquemine, was killed by lightning while he sat on horseback in a field. His body was transported back to New Orleans by steamboat and likely buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
1878: An African American man was killed by lightning in St. Landry Parish; two other people were also struck in the same instant, including the daughter of Adolphe Donato.
1880: Francois Prevost was killed by lightning at the Chenal while he slept under a pecan tree.
1881: Charles Sonnier of Prairie Greig (near Abbeville) died when he attempted to ride his horse between houses as a storm cloud passed over. Although it was not raining, both horse and man were struck and killed by lightning.
1885: Five rice harvesters were killed by lightning in Norbert, “sixteen miles from New Orleans.”
1894: Aristide Domingue, of Lake Simonet, was struck by lightning while herding his cattle out of his pasture. He died instantly, leaving a wife and children.
1897: Jeff Wilburn, Sr., an African American man, was killed by lightning while working in a field near Bayou du Large, near Houma.
1900: One African American sharecropper was killed at White Plantation, Lafourche Parish, when lightning hit the porch of a cabin he and others were standing on. Three other men were knocked unconscious but survived.
1900: Cattle rancher and rice plantation owner John W. Taylor was killed by lightning during a storm at a rice plantation on Bayou Barataria. One of the African American workers in the field, named Smith, was struck as well and later hospitalized. Taylor was buried in Hook and Ladder Cemetery in Gretna.
1905: Albert Borque was killed by lightning in Scott, Louisiana, while travelling from Lafayette.
1909: Fred Peterson, an African American man, was killed by lightning while mowing the grass at Myrtle Grove plantation in Plaquemines Parish. His body was taken to the neighboring Saint Sophie plantation for burial.
1911: Fifteen year-old Wesley Fussell was killed by lightning in Washington Parish. He was buried in his family graveyard.
1913: Teenagers Alcee Joseph and Walter Joseph (no relation) were struck by lightning when they took refuge beneath a tree on the St. Emma plantation property, where they had been picking moss. After the strike, Walter Joseph ran for help from other workers on the plantation but found Alcee near death upon their return. Alcee died after being brought home.
1917: Beauregard Le Blanc, 58 years old, was killed by lightning while working as an overseer at Arlington Plantation near Luling. His body was brought to Lafourche Parish and buried at St. Charles Borromeo Church cemetery outside of Thibodaux.
1919: Joseph Batts was killed by lightning while working at the skidder of the Opdenweyer-Alcus Lumber Company in Ascension Parish. He was buried at the New River Baptist Church Cemetery near Sorrento.
Deaths from lightning in a rural setting seem by far to be the most common mode of fatality in the nineteenth century. Much of this relates to the predominance of agricultural work. Reports of livestock killed by lightning were also common. For example, in 1898, an estimated 1,842 animals valued at $48,000 died from lightning strikes. It is presumed that these livestock deaths may have been inevitable as livestock spend most of their time in open fields. (Although in the late nineteenth century, some companies advertised fences that could conduct and disperse electrical charge.)
Lightning Deaths in the Home
However, less common but no less tragic were lightning deaths that took place within the home itself.
1846: In Mobile, Alabama, 17 year-old Caroline Goodman was killed when lightning struck the house and traveled through the chimney, passing over two others in the home, and struck her in bed. The bed caught on fire, but the other two people in the house survived. Caroline Goodman was buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.
1849: Mrs. Dukes of Wilcox, Alabama was killed by lightning when she passed near the chimney during a storm. At the same instant, lightning struck the chimney, traveled through the fireplace, and killed Mrs. Dukes. Her husband and mother survived the strike.
1900: Mary Louise Boudreaux, 8 years old, was killed by lightning in Terrebonne Parish when her house was struck in a storm. She was sitting in the kitchen peeling potatoes.
1910: Emma Holloway Gray and Henry H. Crooks were both killed by lightning in Mrs. Gray’s home in Jonesville, Louisiana. The family cat also died.
1922: Brothers Joseph, 16 years old, and Gaetano Ardillo, 7 years old, were both killed by lightning at their family farmhouse in Amite. Gaetano was on the back porch of the house, and Joe on the front porch. “The lightning flashed through the house, killing both.” They were buried in their family tomb in Amite Cemetery.
1934: Mrs. William Cardinale was killed three months after her wedding. She was sitting in the kitchen of her home in Marrero, Louisiana, when lightning traveled through the chimney and struck. She was buried in Our Lady of Prompt Succor Cemetery in Westwego.
1944: Mrs. Bertha Scelson was killed by lightning when her house was struck and the bolt traveled down her stairway bannister. She was buried in St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 3 in New Orleans.
Urban and industrial environments brought their own lightning hazards. In Louisiana today, an entire branch of the oil and gas industry is dedicated to lightning protection. Industries like shipping, construction, and heavy equipment all involve factors that attract lightning: tall structures, metal surfaces, and open spaces. Historically, lightning has caused some great tragedies in Louisiana industrial spaces:
1856: A blacksmith named Henry Tisserand was killed by lightning in his workshop near Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. The report states that he was struck to the ground, then “sprang up and called for a drink of water. It was offered to him, but he was unable to drink it, and the next instant fell dead on the floor.”
1859: Irish-born Jerry Brian was working at the livestock landing near Jackson Barracks when a storm drove him to a nearby building. The building was struck and Brian was killed.
1920: In arguably the most tragic lightning incident in New Orleans history, eight men were killed during the construction of the Industrial Canal. The men were working on the canal’s construction (which was completed the next year) in a section between Japonica Street and Claiborne Avenue. The men had taken shelter from a storm on the second level of a pile-driver when a lightning bolt struck one of the driver’s cables. The bolt traveled across the steel cable which ran under the men’s feet, killing seven instantly. The foreman, Edgar Philips, 48 years old, later died at Charity Hospital.
In addition to Philips, who was buried in St. Patrick Cemetery No. 1, the victims were:
- Frank Gervais, 16 yeard old, 4714 Burgundy Street (Gervais had just started work that morning). His burial site is unknown.
- Edward Noonan, 36 years old, 2363 Marais Street, buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
- Alexander Ozenovich, 32 years old, 839 Bartholomew, buried in St. Roch Cemetery No. 1.
- H. Hoover, 35 years old, 823 Independence Street, burial site unknown.
- Oliver J. Neeb, 26 years old, 415 Burgundy, buried in Hook and Ladder Cemetery, Gretna.
- R. Mercier, 32 years old, Louisa and Chartres Street, buried in St. Vincent de Paul Cemetery No. 1.
- T.E. Hurley, Jr., 18 years old, 607 Mandeville Street. Buried in St. Roch Cemetery No. 1.
Newspapers reported that most of the men were members of the Piledrivers Union, and some were members of the Iron Workers Hall and American Federation of Labor (AFL). Noonan was a member of the United American Mechanics of Louisiana. These organizations contributed hundreds in aid to the men’s families, and hundreds of members attended their funerals. Funeral expenses were paid by the Dock Board.
Without a doubt, lightning has put its share of people in cemeteries. Over the years in Louisiana, however, it has also had its own impact on the cemeteries themselves. No better example of this phenomenon is the bizarre story of John W. Taylor’s tomb in Gretna’s Hook and Ladder Cemetery.
As noted above, Taylor died in July 1900 after being struck by lightning at his Bayou Barataria rice plantation. His funeral was noted as well-attended by the townspeople of Gretna, and he was laid to rest in a family tomb. From here, legend has it that Taylor’s lightning problems gained a whole new dimension.
In 1956, the Times-Picayune printed a story that seemed too bizarre to believe: That Taylor’s tomb had been continually struck by lightning since his burial in 1900. Said the story, “… his tomb was struck by lightning again and again so that the custodians of the cemetery finally collected the splintered bones and buried them in an unmarked grave.”
It seems the newspaper made some efforts to confirm this story, speaking to “Louis ‘Ben’ Gehring of 536 Huey P. Long Ave, Gretna, [who was] now in his 80s and the oldest living member of the Hook and Ladder Society, which maintains the cemetery, [he recalled] that lightning struck the tomb on two different occasions until the custodians were forced to bury the bones elsewhere.”
In the Garden District of New Orleans, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 has its own tales of lightning. In 1856, carriage driver John Burke was struck by lightning outside the gates of the cemetery. His horse bolted down Washington Avenue and fell near Carondelet Street, where Burke’s body was recovered. It is unclear where Burke was interred. Three years later, the body of Andrew Quirk was buried in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. His tablet is the only one in that cemetery to specify that he was “killed by lightning.”
Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, the wall vaults of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 became home to tall vegetation which drew lightning. In 1990, disaster struck when a lightning bolt tore into the Washington Avenue wall vaults, destroying an estimated 56 vaults and exposing remains to the street. The repair took years to complete. The wall vaults of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 are not the only historic cemetery structure to suffer such a fate. In Cypress Grove Cemetery, the Perseverance Lodge No. 13 society tomb was hit by lightning twice over the course of thirty years. It was most recently restored in 2017.
A Bolt from the Blue
While lightning is scary in its power and seeming capriciousness, it has been well understood for a long time. The hazards of lightning are the same now as they were in the 1850s: being outdoors during a thunderstorm dramatically increases risk of being hit by lightning. Lightning deaths are more common during the summer months when thunderstorms are more frequent. Consideration of our own safety and the safety around us can help us avoid the great tragedies that now tell their silent stories in cemeteries.
Fortunately, there are resources to stay educated and keep our families safe. The National Weather Service makes it simple: When thunder roars, go indoors. And wait thirty minutes until the thunder has passed until going back outdoors. Lightning can travel miles behind a storm after it has passed. For more information, check out the National Weather Service information pages below:
 “Don’t Fear Lightning,” Lafayette Gazette, October 27, 1900.
 “Death by Lightning,” Baton Rouge Gazette, August 3, 1844, 2.
 “Accidents from Lightening,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, May 31, 1849, 2.
 “Killed by Lightning,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, July 22, 1851, 2.
 Baton Rouge Daily Comet, June 24, 1853, 2.
 “Killed by Lightning,” Southern Sentinel (Plaquemine, Iberville Parish), May 3, 1856, 2.
 “Death by Lightning,” Harrisonburg Independent, April 14, 1858, 2.
 “Letter from Plaquemine: Crop Prospects – An Overseer Killed by Lightning,” New Orleans Bulletin, May 21, 1875, 2; “Brought to the City,” New Orleans Bulletin, May 20, 1875, 8.
 “St. Landry Courier,” Donaldsonville Chief, June 15, 1878, 4.
 Louisiana Capitolan, June 26, 1880, 4.
 “Killed by Lightning,” St. Charles Echo, August 6, 1881, 1.
 St. Landry Democrat, August 29, 1885, 2.
 Lafayette Gazzette, July 14, 1894, 3.
 Houma Courier, April 17, 1897, 5.
 “Killed by Lightning,” Bayou Sara True Democrat, June 25, 1898, 8.
 “Killed by Lightning,” Weekly Thibodaux Sentinel, June 23, 1900, 1.
 “A Fatal Stroke: Lightning Kills John W. Taylor on his Barataria Plantation,” Times Picayune, July 11, 1900, 3.
 “Killed by Lightning,” Lafayette Advertiser, March 22, 1905, 4.
 “Killed by Lightning,” Lower Coast Gazette (Point a la Hache), June 5, 1909, 2.
 “Woman Killed by Lightning,” Caldwell Watchman (Columbia, Louisiana), September 27, 1912, 1.
 “Negro Killed by Lightning,” Donaldsonville Chief, May 10, 1913, 5.
 “Victim of Lightning Bolt,” Times-Picayune, July 15, 1917, 75.
 “Effects of Lightning,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, August 1, 1851, 3; “A Dead Horse,” New Orleans Bulletin, July 9, 1874, 3.
 “Don’t Fear Lightning,” Lafayette Gazette, October 27, 1900, 3.
 “Meloncholy Death,” Baton Rouge Gazette, February 28, 1846, 1.
 “Death by Lightning,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, August 13, 1849, 2.
 The Meridional (Abbeville, Louisiana), June 30, 1900, 2.
 “Lightning Kills Two Persons,” Lower Coast Gazette, March 5, 1910, 1.
 “Children Killed by Lightning,” Weekly Iberian, July 1, 1922, 3.
 “Lightning Kills Two Women,” Vernon Parish Democrat, March 23, 1922, 6.
 “Lightning Victim’s Rites on Thursday,” Times Picayune, August 22, 1934, 2.
 “Lightning Kills Former Resident,” Times Picayune, April 20, 1944, 3.
 “Death by Lightning,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, June 21, 1856, 2.
 “Eight Killed by Lightning in New Orleans,” Franklinton Era-Leader, July 15, 1920; “Bolt Kills 7 Canal Workers, 3 Hurt,” Times-Picayune, July 9, 1920, The death toll would rise to 8 after the death of foreman Edward Philips at Charity Hospital; “Families of Flash Dead to be Aided: Unions and Dock Board Will Assist Kin of Eight Lightning Victims,” Times Picayune, July 10, 1920, 6;
 “Funeral Notice,” Times Picayune, July 11, 1920, 4; “Victims of Bolt Are Laid to Rest,” Times Picayune, July 11, 1920, 13.
 “Lightning Followed Him After Death,” Times Picayune, March 25, 1956, 145.
 Times Picayune, August 9, 1901, 6.
 “Coroner’s Inquests,” New Orleans Daily Crescent, July 7, 1856, 3.
 “The City,” Times Picayune, June 9, 1859, 1.
 “Lightning Rips Open 19th Century tombs in N.O. Cemetery,” Times Picayune, August 7, 1990, 19.