At Least You Weren’t Struck By Lightning

You think you are having a bad day? At least you weren’t struck by lightning had an eyeball blown out, a toe severed and your skin burned off.

“All was done that medical skill could do and money procure to alleviate the suffering woman, but she yet remains in a precarious condition, with a bare hope for her recovery.” — The Tennessean, Nashville, TN, Sat, Apr 15, 1893

Let me start by stating, this is not my story. It is the story of my 1st cousin 3x removed telling the story of her mother, my 3rd great-aunt, Sarah Emeline “Emily” Terry Burgess (1862–1931), daughter of Elijah Washington Terry. The excerpt below is from a typed letter that was sent to my 2nd great uncle, Floyd Claiborn Terry and passed down the line to his brother, Ben Lee Roberts, my great grandfather, then to his son Virgil, to my mother, to my sister and shared with me. Or something like that. It is hard to know exactly how it came to be in my mother’s belongings, but here it is.

My mother, Emily Terry Burgess, was struck by lightning. Probably you have heard, so I am copying some of her own handwriting about the lightning stroke.
“The sixth day of April in the year of 1893, at eight 0 ‘clock in the morning, a dark cloud arose. The children had gone to school, a quarter of a mile from home. I was alone except for my two year old baby, my fifth child, Lola Scott.
I left her in the dining room, standing by a chair eating bread and milk. I ran upstairs to close the doors and windows. I closed the doors and windows in all the rooms. I was standing at the window in the hall over the back porch. The top sash had dropped down a little. I was trying to prop it up, when a stroke of
lightning ran down my left side, burst my eye ball, cut off my great toe on my left foot and deafened my left ear. It took the flooring from under my feet, knocked around against the wall at the head of the stairs. My right side was burning. My left side was deadened. No feeling in it for an hour or more.
I heard my baby crying, I reached out my right hand and saying, ‘Lord have mercy, let me get to my baby’, I pulled up by the bannister and saw my baby half way up the stairs. I guess I fainted and fell down the stairs head foremost, knocked my baby down, I must have turned summer sets several times.
The next I knew my head was on the porch, I was lying on my back. I realized where I was. The cap off of my head [she had on an old wool cap] and the shoes from my feet were found under the floor.
We had grain in the upstairs. I was standing by some rye. Almost a quart of rye was shot into my flesh. The doctor said there was a pint picked out of my flesh.
In those days there were no telephones, we had to ride on horseback for Dr. Lansden who lived about four miles away. Dr. Snodgrass who lived at Sparta which was nine miles, Lansden didn’t know what to do. Snodgrass was puzzled.
Your grandpa Simp Burgess came with a quart of brandy and was giving me the brandy, they said a pint. It did not have any taste to me. It was just like warm stagnated water, I was poisoned so from the lightning, it took no affect as they could tell.
I begged for linseed oil, the Dr. was afraid to use it. I begged so hard, Dr. Snodgrass said there was no chance anyways, give her her requests. They purchased an oil cloth and put me on it on a mattress. They used seven gallons of oil and dressed me every three hours for three days, pulling the skin off with every cloth and burning it. That was killing me every time I was dressed, I grew weaker. I told them I could not stand it. They decided to dress me every other day. When the cloths would get dry, they would pour the oil on, then I began to get better. I laid on my back for sixty expecting my death at any moment.
The flesh dropped off me over half my body, as thick as a man’s hands, the veins with it, the muscles and leaders were exposed. I was burned to the strain across the bowels and breast, my hair, eye lashes and eye brows were singed, my right eye burnt and bruised until I couldn’t tell day from night. They kept cloths wet four double on my eyes.
I was thirty one years old when this occurred. My suffering was inexpressible and strange to say, I have raised eight children since then, two sets of twins, thirteen in number.
“Mr. Burgess’s wife was struck, burning one eye out and tearing off a toe. Her body was terribly burned and she cannot recover.” — The Tennessean April 7, 1893
I am yet alive, very much alive, I can jump a six rail fence by putting one foot over and then the other.
The house was set on fire. The people were so excited, they didn’t know it, I smelled fire and told them not to let the house burn down over me. They got to looking, found fire in the corner of the dining room and a heavy cotton comfort upstairs almost burned except about a yard square, they threw it out the window, the rain put it out.
The house was wrecked so badly, we could not live in it, my furniture was ruined, every bedstead bursted, only one standing and it was damaged. My dishes, crocks and churns were all broken.
Dr. Snodgrass said the bolt just missed my head, went through floors into the foundation rock and burst it.
Lou Morris Alice and Norah Wilhite went to the spring to get water, others went to meet them, they fell to their knees and kept falling so weak they could not stand. Stout hearted people fainted at the sight of me for weeks after it happened.
Those girls were some of the neighbors that went to the spring.”
How I happened to have this copy, my oldest boy was at school one day when he was, I guess, about in the fourth grade, and a cloud arose with a bit of thunder and lightening. His teacher knew about mother and asked Joe to tell the pupils something about it. He, of course knew mother had been lightning struck and her eye was gone and she was deaf in her left ear and had heard us tell about it, so he wanted me to call mother and get her to write something about it, so she wrote him. The letter is dated Feb 14, 1921.

It’s All True

Now you might now believe this to be true, I doubted it. But it checks out. There are articles about Mrs. Alonzo Burgess, aka Sarah Emeline Terry Burgess, in the April 7, 1893 Tennessean and April 15, 1893 Tennessean, both describing her tragic accident, both expecting her death.

The Tennessean, Nashville, TN April 7, 1893

Why am I sharing this story with you? Three reasons.

First, when I start feeling like I’m having a bad day because the coffee maker broke, menopause is kicking in, I can’t reply fast enough to email, my job is boring, traffic sucks, the DVR didn’t record, my allergies are acting up, I gained a few pounds, I didn’t win the lottery or any other myriad of ridiculous reasons — I pick a letter from my ancestors and am quickly reminded, my day is absolutely perfect and I’m wasting my time, and others’, by complaining. After all, it’s not like my “flesh is dropping off as thick as a man’s hands.”

Second, a totally selfish reason. I’m hoping, that someone mentioned in this story, or any of the others that I post, might have more photos, letters or stories to share. History books are written about the famous & wealthy, few about the every day folks like my 3rd great aunt and her will to survive.

Third, maybe, just maybe, someone out there is looking for the people mentioned in this letter or the author. Sure, not all the letters I share may seem terribly interesting or remarkable, other than perhaps that they have survived between 30 to 125 years. But I believe they are special, to someone, so I’ll keep on sharing. If nothing else, it is better that these words are preserved then hidden in a garage or tossed into the garbage.

The odds of getting struck by lightning is estimated to be 1 in 960,000. The odds of someone having letters from my ancestors in their possession, I can only guess is more like the odds of winning the lottery, 1 in about 14 million.

But you can get struck by lighting, and people do win the lottery, so there is hope. Knowing the names and dates of ancestors, even tracing DNA is great and everything, but their letters, their life experiences, their words, they really teach us what we are made of.

You can read the rest of the letter written by cousin Mertie Burgess Miller on my blog Sharing The Past. It also mentions Aaron Burr, Captain Jim Davis and his revenue men, General G.G. Dibrell, Andrew Jackson, The Second Waterloo, a yellow horse and more.

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