My mother’s family doesn’t have all that many stories. But we all know that mom is afraid of thunderstorms, and when we were growing up, no one was allowed around a window during a storm. When I became old enough to realize that such fears often have deep roots, I asked mom about it.
Mom said that when she and her twin sister were young, her father’s uncle, Eugene Clapp, lived in the house. Every time a thunderstorm rolled in, he regaled the little girls with the story of how his sister had been killed by lightning while standing in a window. Every single time. It instilled a lifelong fear. When I became a genealogist, I decided to find out more.
While I quickly found the name Lizzie Clapp, I wanted to know her story.
The family of Lizzie Clapp
Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” Clapp was born December 6, 1857, in Dorchester, Massachusetts, the second child of Albert Charles and Louisa Ann (Rollins) Clapp.
Her father, Albert Charles Clapp, sometimes called A.C., was a descendant of early Dorchester settler Roger Clapp (see more about his family in generation seven on this Cow Hampshire blog post). Around 1844, at the age of 15, the slight, red-haired boy went to sea on a Pacific whaler. From Honolulu, he shipped out on the Tuscany, back to Boston and then on to New Orleans, living there for two years and eventually enlisting in Company D, Louisiana Mounted Volunteers, for service in the Mexican War.
He became ill with malaria and dysentery while the unit was making its way to Mexico City, and after six months’ service he was discharged at Vera Cruz, Mexico. He then worked on coastal vessels out of Key West, where he applied for a Bounty Land Warrant for 160 acres, in 1849, based on his service, and although it seems to have been granted, it’s unclear what happened with that – many veterans sold their warrants. A.C. returned to Dorchester in 1851 to work as a painter and paper hanger, moving to Gardiner, Maine, at some point and marrying Louisa in 1854.
Lizzie’s mother, Louisa Rollins, was the oldest daughter of Hiram and Susannah (Grant) Rollins of Alna, Maine. A.C. and Louisa were married in Gardiner, Maine on December 16, 1854 and their first child was born there in 1856. In 1858, Louisa’s father Hiram Rollins was killed in a circular saw accident while working at a steam-powered mill in Gardiner, leaving behind his wife and several younger children. A.C. and Louisa moved to Massachusetts shortly before or after that event, where they lived out their lives.
During the Civil War, A.C. worked as a civilian nurse at the Mansion House Hospital, Alexandria, Virginia and also for a Quartermaster in Nashville, Tennessee. Louisa lost her next closest brother, Amos Pillsbury Rollins, a substitute private in the New Hampshire 5th Infantry, who was severely wounded at Petersburg, Virginia late in the war, dying four days later. By 1869, the family had moved from Dorchester to nearby Readville in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, where A.C. pursued a career as a painter and paper-hanger.
By the time they moved to Readville, all eight children had been born, and two daughters had died as toddlers:
- Charles Frederick (b.1856)
- Mary Elizabeth “Lizzie” (b.1857)
- Henrietta L. (b.1859)
- Eugene Rollins (b.1860) (birth record says Rollins Eugene)
- George Hiram (b.1862)
- Fanny Eva, died very young (b.1863)
- Annie Adelia, died very young (b.1864)
- Conrad Nathaniel (b.1866)
Lizzie gets a job
After the war, there were new industries and opportunities in Boston. The 1870 census in Hyde Park shows that all the children were attending school, except for Conrad who was only four. Since she was listed as a 13 year old student in the 1870 census, and started working about 2 years later, I would guess that Lizzie graduated from grammar school (grade 8) or possibly attended high school briefly.
Starting at about age 15, around 1872, Lizzie landed a job at the Western Union telegraph office in Readville. Readville had a busy Boston & Providence Railroad station and the telegraph office was part of that. According to newspaper reports, her cousin Lotta Garberson (? – not traceable) may also have been employed there, and by 1876, Lizzie’s younger sister Henrietta (“Etta”) Clapp also worked at the telegraph office. The supervisor was Mr. E. P. Davis.
I find it surprising and impressive that Lizzie was employed in such a responsible job as early as 1872. My other female relatives that worked in the 1870’s and 1880’s were usually packaging goods, tending customers, or working in factories. But Lizzie’s job required her to memorize a code that few people knew, be literate with a wide vocabulary, and demonstrate very accurate spelling and grammar. I don’t think it was unusual for a girl to do this job, but it was nonetheless commendable.
The day of her death
July, 1876 was a hot month in Boston. On the sultry morning of July 11, according to later reports, Lizzie may have spoken of presentiments of an early death. Just after noon time, a cooler breeze arrived and the staff at the telegraph office received word that heavy thunderstorms were approaching. Following normal protocol, Mr. Davis ordered the staff to stop all telegraph activity as black clouds approached. To be extra cautious, he disconnected the wires from the telegraph machine, and left them laying on the counter. There was no ground wire.
Lizzie remained at her post through the growing storm, gazing out the nearby window, as torrential rain and dramatic thunder and lightning rolled in around 2 o’clock.
Neighbors a short distance away said later that you could see the bolt of lightning form a sort of fireball which ran down the telegraph wire heading towards the station. After entering the building, almost instantly, the current jumped from the open wires to a gold necklace that Lizzie was wearing, a few melted pieces of which were later found scattered on the floor. A flash and a deafening boom – like a cannon – sent all the staff to the floor.
Reports vary on whether Lizzie’s collapse to the floor was preceded by a scream, but when the others gingerly lifted themselves up, they noticed that she was still and silent. As they lifted her head, the only mark found on her lifeless body was a black spot on her neck, and later a similar spot was found lower on her chest. The nearby windowsill showed a gash of splintered wood. Lizzie had died instantly.
At the neighboring Caryville railroad station, a little girl died from a lightning strike and numerous other strikes and fires were reported in the area. Clearly, it was an unusually bad storm.
It’s impossible to say how the rest of her family heard about the death; one hopes Lizzie’s sister Etta was not sent home to carry the news. My grandfather’s Uncle Gene would have been 16 at the time, and clearly the horrific death always stayed with him, as I’m sure it did with Etta and the others.
By the next day many papers ran the story. Lizzie was reportedly “an amiable lady and a competent operator” and “a beautiful and very interesting young lady of 18.”
Her funeral was held at the Congregational Church in Hyde Park the following Sunday afternoon, July 16. It was widely attended by family, friends, and delegations of telegraph operators from the cities and towns along the line, and by members of local Good Templar lodges (a temperance organization, of which Lizzie was a member). The cortege began at her parents’ home in Readville, headed by eight men from the local telegraph industry. Delegations of the Oakdale, Montana, and Damon lodges of the Good Templar, in full regalia, followed, then the hearse, and a long line of carriages containing relatives, former schoolmates, and friends.
The flower arrangements sent by these groups were valued at $600, said to be the most beautiful floral display ever witnessed in Hyde Park; a beautiful cross of roses, an anchor of roses, two floral pillows inscribed with her initials and “Rest”, a floral lyre, and many wreaths and bouquets. They “evinced the universal love and respect in which she was held by all who knew her. … As [the minister] referred in eloquent terms to the good qualities and amiable character of the deceased, the audience were strongly affected … ” (Telegrapher, July 22, 1876, p. 180)
Lizzie was buried at the ancient Dorchester North Burial Ground, the resting place for many Dorchester Clapps going back to the 1600’s. Possibly, A.C. Clapp’s father George Clapp was buried there in the 1860’s. I don’t know yet whether she is near him.
Effect on the telegraph industry
Lizzie’s death was discussed in articles and letters printed in The Telegrapher and the Journal of the Telegraph over the next several months. Theories abounded about the circumstances, though the absence of a ground wire seemed to have been the strongest theory, and writers urged their colleagues to adopt that measure in every telegraph office. One letter to the editor even suggested that immediate efforts should have been made to revive her – a sad afterthought, for sure. It was mentioned that her proximity to windows and a draft may have been the problem, and that halting operations during storms was primarily meant to protect the equipment, and was not thought of as a means of protecting the telegraphers.
The warnings about the windows and the drafts sound a little crazy now. But they go a long way to explain the family story about the danger of being near a window – perhaps the family was left with that belief.
Towards the end of 1876, a letter in The Telegrapher suggested a collection be taken for a burial monument for Lizzie. I’m not sure if that was successful or not.
Lizzie’s sister Etta married Horace Bussey in 1887. Possibly, she had no children. Although she predeceased her husband in 1896, a probate record for her inexplicably showed that she left her property to her mother. At the very least, Etta’s life ended much too early. She was buried with four of her siblings: the two babies who died young, Lizzie, and Conrad, who had died of diphtheria at the age of 12, in 1878.
I found a listing of the grave marker for the five siblings. I have not seen a picture, and so don’t know if this was the monument proposed by the telegraphers, or a more simple arrangement that would have been affordable to the family.
Lizzie’s parents lived to old age at 5 Chesterfield Street, in Readville. A.C. grew too lame to pursue painting, and ran a tiny shop on his property selling cigars, candy, milk and baked goods. The family had a hen house on their property, which burned in 1880. A.C. received a small pension for his Mexican War service beginning in 1887, and survived on limited means, but one senses from his obituary that he was popular in Readville and lived an interesting life, involved in many pursuits over the years, including service in the early Hyde Park Fire Department. A.C. and Louisa celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1904 and when they died in 1907 and 1908, only three of their eight children – Charles, Eugene, and George – survived them.
Mom and Uncle Gene
Mom told me that her father, Miles Baldwin, was sent up to Cochituate, Mass. in the late 1930’s by Aunt Jennie to see about some trouble Uncle Gene, a childless widower, was having with a niece who was claiming ownership of his property. The upshot was that the elderly Uncle Gene was installed in the Baldwin household as a permanent guest. For my grandma, the best and most hardworking housewife ever, this was not welcome news, and Uncle Gene proved to be crotchety, a little rude, and something of a ladies’ man with the neighborhood widows and the cleaning woman, a specter that my grandparents found a bit horrifying. The arrangement didn’t last forever and eventually Uncle Gene moved on.
When I started making genealogical discoveries, one of the first things mom wanted to know was how she was related to Uncle Gene. She was relieved to hear that he was only married to her father’s aunt; he was not a blood relative. Personally, I think I feel otherwise; the Clapps are a fascinating bunch.
Thunder rolls up, and lightning still strikes. One hundred and forty years later, I could consciously decide to end the fear that can no longer help poor Lizzie, but I would fail. In families, our happy stories and sad losses mingle together so closely that we have no choice but to hold on to them all.
In addition to many vital and probate records of Massachusetts, the following sources were helpful for this article.
- The Clapps
- “A.C. Clapp, Veteran of Two Wars, Dead.” Boston Herald, 14 Nov 1907 : 3. GenealogyBank.com. Web : http://genealogybank.com : 2016
- Albert C. Clapp (Private, Capt. Connolly’s Louisiana Mounted Volunteers, Mexican War), bounty land warrant file 63-753 (Act of 1847, 160 acres); Military Land Warrants and Related Papers; Record Group 49; Records of the Bureau of Land Management; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
- Albert C. Clapp (Private, Co. D, Louisiana Mounted Volunteers, Mexican War), pension no. Survivor 5539, (Act of 29 Jan 1887); Index to Mexican War Pension Applications, 1887-1926, NARA microfilm T317; National Archives, Washington, D.C.
- Annual Report of the Cemetery Department of the City of Boston for the Fiscal Year 1904-1905 and a Historical Sketch of the First Burying Ground in Dorchester (Dorchester North Burying Ground). Boston: Municipal Printing Office: 1905 (in particular p. 95). Internet Archive. Web : https://archive.org/details/annualreportofce190405bost : 2016
- Brown, Janice A. “North Conway New Hampshire Actor and Producer: Gordon A. Clapp (1948-still living).” Cow Hampshire: New Hampshire’s History Blog, 13 March 2013. http://www.cowhampshireblog.com/2013/03/13/north-conway-new-hampshire-actor-and-producer-gordon-a-clapp-1948-still-living/ : 2016.
- Clapp, Ebenezer. Record of the Clapp Family in America. Boston: David Clapp & Son, Publishers, 1876. Internet Archive. Web: https://archive.org/details/clappmemorialrec00clap : 2016.
- Clapp, Henry Lincoln. Fifty Ancestors of Henry Lincoln Clapp Who Came to New England from 1620 to 1650. Part 1. Boston: Press of David Clapp & Son, 1902. Internet Archive. Web: https://archive.org/details/fiftyancestorsof01inclap : 2016
- “Fire Record.” Boston Journal, 25 Mar 1880: 2. Image copy. GenealogyBank. http://www.genealogybank.com : 2016.
- Lizzie’s death and burial
- “About the Courts.” Boston Daily Advertiser, 19 Mar. 1896: 10. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. : 2016
- “Are Telegraph Offices Dangerous in Thunderstorms?” The Telegrapher, 15 Jul 1876: 184. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- “Crimes and Criminals.” Boston Daily Advertiser, [July 18, 1876]: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. : 2016
- “The Death By Lightning of Miss Lizzie Clapp” The Telegrapher, 29 Jul 1876: 185. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- “The Death By Lightning at the Readville Office” The Telegrapher, 19 Aug 1876: 201. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- “The Funeral of Miss Clapp.” Journal of the Telegraph, 22 Jul 1876: 180. Image copy. Hathitrust. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433069069502 : 2016.
- “How Telegraph Offices Should Be Protected from Lightning.” The Telegrapher, 29 Jul 1876: 184. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- Jepsen, Thomas C. My Sisters Telegraphic: Women in the Telegraph Office, 1846-1950. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000. (in particular, p. 35)
- “A Lady Telegraph Operator Killed by Lightning.” Boston Investigator, 19 July 1876: 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. : 2016
- “The Lightning – Miss Clapp.” Journal of the Telegraph, 24 Aug 1876: 245. Image copy. Hathitrust. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/nyp.33433069069502 : 2016.
- “Proposition for a Monument fto Miss Lizzie Clapp” The Telegrapher, 4 Nov 1876: 267. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- “The Storm.” Boston Daily Advertiser, 12 July 1876: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. : 2016
- “A Telegraph Operator Killed by Lightning.” Milwaukee Daily Sentinel [Milwaukee, Wisconsin], 18 July 1876: 2. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. : 2016
- “Telegraphic and Electrical Brevities.” The Telegrapher, 15 Jul 1876: 173. Image copy. Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/telegrapher12nati : 2016.
- “The Weather” National Aegis [Worcester, Massachusetts], 15 Jul 1876: 2. Image copy. GenealogyBank. https://genealogybank.com: 2016.
The post you are reading is located at: https://onerhodeislandfamily.com/2016/01/21/death-of-lizzie-clapp/