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   Chapter 1 THE VICTIMS OF LIGHTNING

Thunder and Lightning By Camille Flammarion Characters: 21045

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It would be an interesting thing to make a careful study once a year, towards the end of the summer, of the habits and customs of thunder and lightning. Perhaps in this way we should succeed one day in determining the still mysterious nature of these elusive forces. I, for my part, have been engaged upon the task for many years past. It has produced a big accumulation of records, and in this volume I can find room but for a résumé of them, as varied as possible. In my first chapter I shall present a few characteristic examples, just to give my readers some hint of this variety.

Not to go too far back, let us begin with a harmless-I might almost say playful-fireball performance, of which M. Schnaufer, Professor at Marseilles, has given me the particulars.

In October, 1898, the fireball in question made its appearance in a room and advanced towards a young girl who was seated at the table, her feet hanging down without touching the floor. The luminous globe moved along the floor in the girl's direction, began to rise quite near her and then round and round her, spiral fashion, darted off towards a hole in the chimney-a hole made for the stove-pipe, and closed up with glued paper-made its way up the chimney, and, on emerging into the open air, gave out upon the roof an appalling crash which shook the entire house. It was a case of coming in like a lamb and going out like a lion!

A similar occurrence is recorded as having been observed in Paris, on July 5, 1852, in a tailor's room, including the same curious detail of the departure through the hole in the chimney, closed up with paper.

It was in the Rue Saint Jacques, near the Val de Grace. The fireball burst into the room from the chimney, knocking over the paper guard in front of the fireplace. In appearance it suggested a young cat, gathered up into a ball, as it were, and moving along without using its paws. It approached the tailor's legs as though to play with them. The tailor moved them away to avoid the contact, of which he naturally was in terror. After some seconds, the globe of fire rose vertically to the height of the man's face as he sat, and he, to save himself, leaned quickly back and fell over. The fireball continued to rise, and made its way towards a hole which had been made at the top of the chimney for the insertion of a stove-pipe in the winter, but which, as the tailor put it afterwards, "the fireball couldn't see," because it was closed up with paper. The ball stripped off the paper neatly, entered the chimney quite quietly, and having risen to the summit, produced a tremendous explosion, which sent the chimney-top flying, and scattered it in bits all over the neighbouring courtyard and surrounding roofs.

There we have a unique occurrence, recorded for us by Babinet and Arago, and of which I have given here the exact particulars. In both these cases we have to note the attraction of the hole in the chimney and the explosion of the thunderbolt on getting to the top. But it is not easy to detect the law underlying these phenomena.

In one of the latest volumes of the Association Fran?aise a somewhat similar case is dealt with.

"A violent storm," says the writer, M. Wander, "had descended upon the commune of Beugnon (Deux-Sèvres). I happened to be passing through a farm, in which were two children of about twelve and thirteen. These children were taking refuge from the rain under the door of a stable, in which were twenty-five oxen. In front of them extended a courtyard, sloping downwards towards a large pond, twenty or thirty yards away, beside which grew a poplar-tree. Suddenly there appeared a globe of fire, of the size of an apple, near the top of the poplar. We saw it descend, branch by branch, and then down the trunk. It moved along the courtyard very slowly, seeming almost to pick its way between the pools of water, and came up to the door where stood the children. One of them was bold enough to touch it with his foot. Immediately a terrible crash shook the entire farm to its foundations, the two children were thrown to the ground uninjured, but eleven of the animals in the stable were killed!"

Who is to explain these anomalies? The child who touched the fireball escapes with a fright, and a few feet behind him eleven animals out of twenty-five perish on the spot!

During the storm which broke out at the town of Gray, on July 7, 1886, my friend M. Vannesson, President of the Tribunal, saw a fireball of from thirty to forty centimetres in diameter, which exploded on the corner of a roof, cutting clean off the end portion of the central beam to the length of about half a yard (like a bundle of matches, but without setting it on fire), scattering the splinters over the upper story and loosening the plaster upon the walls below. It then rebounded on the roofing of a little outside staircase, made a hole in it, smashing and sending flying the slates, came down upon the road, and rolling right in the midst of some passers-by-who, like the child in the farm, escaped with a fright-disappeared.

My learned fellow-member of the Astronomical Society of France, Dr. Bougon, has discovered an account of one of the most remarkable fireballs ever recorded in La Gloire des Confesseurs, a work written by Gregory of Tours, the twentieth bishop of that town.

On the dedication day of an oratory which he had constructed in one of the outer buildings of the episcopal palace, all the participants in the procession from the cathedral, while approaching the oratory with the sacred relics and singing the litanies, saw a globe of fire, so intensely brilliant that their eyes were dazzled, and they could scarcely keep them open. Seized with terror, priests, deacons, sub-deacons, choristers, together with the distinguished citizens of the town, who were carrying the relics upon their shoulders, all with one accord threw themselves on the ground, face downward. Then Gregory, remembering that on the occasion of the death of St. Martin, some of whose bones were among the relics being carried from the cathedral, a globe of fire was said to have been observed to leave the saint's head and ascend heavenwards, believed himself to be in the presence of a miracle, vouchsafed as evidence at once of St. Martin's sanctity and the genuineness of his relics. This globe of fire did no damage and burnt nothing. Discurrebat autem per totam cellulam, tanquam fulgur, globus igneus.

There is to be seen at the Louvre a picture by Eustache Lesueur, entitled "La Messe de Saint Martin," which seemed to me at first to illustrate this narrative, but the spectators are shown in silent wonder instead of being prostrated as in the story. Moreover, Gregory of Tours tells us in his life of St. Martin, that one day during Mass a globe of fire was seen to appear above the head of the bishop, and then to rise heavenwards, to the great edification of the devout. It was this "miracle," evidently, that Lesueur intended to represent.

Here is another case of a remarkably harmless fireball which is often cited.

The Abbé Spallanzani it is who tells the story. On August 29, 1791, a young peasant woman was in a field during a storm, when suddenly there appeared at her feet a globe of fire of about the size of a billiard ball. Slipping along the ground, this little fireball reached her feet, caressed them, as it were, made its way up under her clothes, and issued again from the middle of her bodice, and, still keeping its globular form, darted off into the air and exploded noisily. When it got under her petticoats, they blew out like an umbrella, and she fell back. Two witnesses of the scene ran to her assistance, but she was unhurt. A medical examination revealed only a slight erosion of the skin, extending from the right knee to the middle of her breast; her chemise had been torn in two along the same line, and there was a hole through her bodice where the thunderbolt had got out.

In the "Memoirs of Du Bellay" the following very curious narrative is to be found. In all probability it is a fireball that is in question:-

"On March 3, 1557, Diane of France, illegitimate daughter of Henri II., then the Dauphin, married Fran?ois de Montmorency. On the night of their wedding, an oscillating flame came into their bedroom through the window, went from corner to corner, and finally to the nuptial bed, where it burnt Diane's hair and night attire. It did them no other harm, but their terror can be imagined."

Perhaps it may be as well to take with a pinch of salt the statement that the lady's attire was burnt in this way without harm to her person, yet there are other authentic stories of a similar kind almost as curious.

In 1897, at Linguy (Eure-et-Loire), a man and his wife were sleeping quietly, when suddenly a terrible crash made them jump out of bed. They thought their last hour had come. The chimney, broken to pieces, had fallen in and its wreckage filled the room, the gable-end was put out and the roof threatened to come down. The effects of the thunderbolt in the room itself were less alarming than its effects outside, but were very curious. For instance, bricks from one wall had been dashed horizontally against the wall opposite, with such extraordinary force that they were to be seen imbedded in it up above a dresser upon which pots and pans, etc., were ranged, and within a few inches of the ceiling, while the windows of the room had been smashed into bits, and a looking-glass, detached from the wall, stood on end whole and entire upon the floor, delicately balanced. A chair near the bed, upon which articles of clothing had been placed, had been spirited away to a spot near the door. A small lamp and a box of matches were to be found undamaged upon the floor. An old gun, suspended from a beam, was violently shaken and had lost its ramrod.

The thunderbolt actually frolicked over the bed, leaving its occupants more dead than alive from terror but quite unhurt. It passed within a few inches of their heads and passed through a fissure in a partition into an adjoining dairy, where it carried a whole row of milk-cans, full of milk, from one side of the room to another, breaking the lids but not upsetting a single can. It broke four plates out of a pile of a dozen, leaving the remaining eight intact. It carried away the tap from a small barrel of wine, which emptied itself in consequence.

It ended by passing out through the window without further breakage, leaving the hus

band and wife unscathed but panic-stricken.

One of the strangest tricks to which lightning is addicted is that of undressing its victims. It displays much more skill and cleverness in such diversions than is to be found in animals or even in many human beings.

Here is one of the most curious instances of this on record, as narrated by Morand:-

"A woman in man's costume. A storm suddenly comes on. A flash of lightning strikes her, carries off and destroys her clothes and boots. She is left stark naked, and she has to be wrapped up in a cloth and taken thus to the neighbouring village."

In 1898, at Courcelles-les-Sens, Mlles. Philomène Escalbert, aged 19, Adèle Delauffre, aged 22, and Madame Léonie Legère, aged 44, were standing round a reaping-machine, when a flash of lightning struck Madame Legère and killed her on the spot. The two young girls were stripped to the skin, even their boots being torn from their feet. Otherwise they were left safe and sound-and astonished.

On October 1, 1868, seven persons took refuge during a storm under a huge ash-tree near the village of Bonello, in the Commune of Perret (C?tes-du-Nord), when suddenly the tree was struck by lightning, and one of them-a woman-was killed. The six others were knocked to the ground without being seriously damaged. The clothes of the woman who had been killed were torn into shreds, many of which were found clinging to the branches of the tree.

On May 11, 1869, a farmer at Ardillats was tilling the ground with his two oxen, not far from his dwelling-place, about four in the afternoon. The air was close and heavy, and the sky covered with black clouds. Suddenly there was a great thunderclap, and a flash of lightning struck both man and beasts dead on the spot. The man was found stripped to the skin, and his boots had been carried thirty yards away.

In July, 1896, at Epervans (Sa?ne-et-Loire), a young man named Petiot, who was mowing in a meadow, was struck dead by lightning while lighting a cigarette, and left in a state of complete nakedness.

On August 11, 1855, a man was struck by lightning near Vallerois (Haute-Sa?ne), and stripped naked. All that could be found afterwards of his clothes was a shirt-sleeve, a few other shreds, and some pieces of his hobnailed boots. Ten minutes after he was struck he regained consciousness, opened his eyes, complained of the cold, and inquired how he happened to be naked.

There is no telling what lightning will not do.

Sometimes it will snatch things out of your hand and carry them right away.

There is a case of a mug being thus spirited away from a man, who had just been drinking out of it, and deposited undamaged in a courtyard near-the man himself suffering no injury. A youth of eighteen, holding up a missal from which he is singing, has it torn out of his hands and destroyed. A whip is whisked out of a rider's hand. Two ladies, quietly knitting, have their knitting-needles stolen. A girl was sitting at her sewing-machine, a pair of scissors in her hand; a flash of lightning, and her scissors are gone and she is sitting on the sewing-machine. A farmer's labourer is carrying a pitchfork on his shoulder; the lightning seizes it, carries it off fifty yards or so, and twists its two prongs into corkscrews.

On July 22, 1878, at Gien (Nievre), a woman while sprinkling her house with holy water during a storm, saw her holy-water bottle smashed actually in her fingers by the lightning, which at the same time smashed up the tiled pavement of the room.

In a church at Dancé (Loire) during vespers, one day in June, 1866, a flash of lightning killed the priest and all the congregation, knocked over the monstrance on the altar, and buried the Host in a heap of débris.

On June 28, 1885, the cupola of the Javisy Observatory, which was not then provided with a lightning conductor, was struck by lightning. An enormous piece of oak from un angle de construction was torn to shreds, and one splinter was lodged in the hinge of a window behind the pivot, in the part between the pivot and the frame, hardly a twenty-fifth of an inch apart, and this without breaking the glass.

In other cases lightning has been known to split men in two, almost as with a huge axe. On January 20, 1868, this happened to a miller's assistant in a windmill at Groix. The lightning struck him, and split him from his head downwards in two.

In the course of July, 1844, four inhabitants of Heiltz-le-Maurupt, near Vitry-le-Fran?oise, took refuge under trees during a storm, three of them under a poplar, and the fourth under a willow, against which doubtless he leaned. In a few minutes this one was struck by lightning. A bright flame was observed to be issuing from his clothes, but he remained standing, and seemed unconscious of what had happened. "You're on fire! You're on fire!" exclaimed his friends. Getting no reply, they went up to where he was, and found to their horror that he was a corpse.

A clergyman named Butler was a witness of the following incident, which took place at Everdon. Ten harvest-men took refuge under a lodge on the approach of a storm. There was a thunderclap, and in a moment four of them were killed by lightning. One of them was found dead, still holding between finger and thumb a pinch of snuff he had been in the act of taking. A second had one hand upon the head of a small dog, also killed, and still sitting upon his knees, and in the other hand a piece of bread; a third was sitting, his eyes open, facing in the direction from which the storm came.

At Castellane, in August, 1898, during a violent storm, a flock of sheep was struck by lightning while crossing the mountain of Peyresy. Seventy-five of them were killed. The shepherd escaped. The sheep probably were all wet from the rain, and clinging together in one great mass. In the same month a pond at Vauxd?mes (C?te-d'Or) was demolished, and all the fish in it killed.

Quite recently, a young man at Franxault (C?te-d'Or) was killed by lightning on his way home from work. All the nails were found to have been torn out of his shoes, and the links of his silver watch-chain were all moulded together. To fuse silver in this way a heat of 957 degrees is needed!

On July 5, 1883, at Buffon (C?te-d'Or), a woman had one of her earrings melted in the same way, but she was not killed. On the same day at Void (Meuse) two workmen, who had taken shelter under a willow, were thrown a distance of four yards without being killed.

On August 10, of the same year, at Chanvres (Yonne), a vine-dresser was struck by lightning and killed, but his heart continued to beat for thirty hours.

Dr. Gaultier de Claubry was struck by lightning, with the extraordinary result that his beard was taken off him, roots and all, so that it never grew again.

At Fresneaux (Oise), a young girl of twenty, Mlle. Laure Leloup, had her head shorn by lightning. A wide furrow was to be traced on the crown of her head, caused by the electric fluid. Her hair was removed right down to the skin as though by a razor.

On September 4, 1898, a flash of lightning lit up all the electric lamps in the Prefecture of Lyon.

Really it is extraordinary the queer things lightning will do! Death in one case, an innocent practical joke in another! I have hundreds of quaint records before me. Impossible to deduce any kind of law from them all. You are tempted to believe that the electric current has a brain.

A young woman was picking cherries off a rather tall cherry-tree. A young man stood underneath. The young woman was struck by lightning, and fell dead. This was in July, 1885.

In September, 1898, at Remaines, near Ramerupt (Aube), a certain M. Finot, an innkeeper, was standing on his doorstep looking out at a storm, when a flash of lightning followed by a thunderclap sent him flying back into the hall. He remained unconscious for a time, and his sight was affected for ten hours. The extraordinary thing, however, in his case was that he had been a victim of rheumatism until then, and walked with difficulty and only with a stick, and that ever since this occurrence he has been able to do without the stick, and to pursue his avocations quite comfortably. He feels that he has no reason to regret his experience, though he is not anxious to go through anything of the kind again. This kind of electrical phenomenon might be catalogued under the title "Medicinal Lightning."

Now for a case of "Judicial Lightning."

On July 20, 1872, a negro named Norris was hanged in the State of Kentucky for having killed a mulatto, a fellow-workman of his. At the moment of his setting foot upon the scaffold, there was a terrible clap of thunder, and the condemned man was struck dead by lightning. The sheriff was so much moved by the occurrence that he resigned his office.

Let us wind up this little collection of strange cases with another occurrence reported from the United States.

An immense grange had been built by a man named Abner Millikan, an ardent republican, who adorned the front walls of his farm with portraits of MacKinley and Hobart. During a violent storm that broke out, the building was struck by lightning several times, and it looked as though it were enveloped in great sheets of flame. Millikan, who had been at some distance from the spot, rushed thither much alarmed, and found to his relief that no damage had been done. The portraits alone had been destroyed, and-here is the strange detail-the lightning had traced the politicians' features upon the wall.

Certainly lightning plays queer pranks. And I have said nothing yet of the photographs lightning sometimes takes.

Pranks they seem to us, but we may be sure there is some method in their mischievousness. It is the same with women. Women in their caprices are but obeying some law of nature. They are not so capricious as they seem.

These strange facts teach us, anyway, not for the first time, that our knowledge of the universe is still very incomplete, and that its study is worth following up in all its chapters.

We may be certain that electricity exercises a much more important influence in nature than is generally supposed, and that it plays a r?le in our own lives which is still practically unrecognized. In the oppression we feel before the coming of a storm, and the sense of relief we experience when it has passed, we have an instance of the way in which physical and moral influences are apt to blend or overlap.

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