Since the dawn of humanity, thunder and lightning have both terrified and awed. Protection was sought from deities like Zeus and Thor; and in later ages God and St. Barbara. By the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment had brought about a new sense of curiosity; reason began to replace superstition. There were experiments with Leyden jars, and new theories on electricity.
When Benjamin Franklin "tamed lightning" in 1752 in his famous kite experiment with his son, he became an Enlightenment celebrity and his lightning rod became a best seller. During the 19th Century, the lightning rod became a decorative motif. Lightning rods were embellished with ornamental glass balls (now prized by collectors). The ornamental appeal of these glass balls were also used in weather vanes. The main purpose of these balls, however, was to provide evidence of a lightning strike by shattering or falling off. If after a storm a ball is discovered missing or broken, the property owner should then check the building, rod and grounding wire for damage.
Despite a better understanding of lightning’s power, there was still no method to lessen its damage if a lightning rod failed to work. Sometimes the results were deadly.
On Sunday, 27 June 1875, a thunder storm passed over Limerick Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. It was at its height when it reached the home of John and Rosanna Shaner.
When the storm commenced, John was in the barn. Rosanna ("Rose"), their two daughters, John's 84 year old father, George, and a young nephew were in the kitchen. Rosanna was in the middle of the room and the youngest daughter, Elizabeth ("Lizzie"), sat near the fireplace.
A bolt of lightning struck the house and seemed to divide in the second story, one portion passing down near the fireplace and killing the little girl, and the other down through the floor above Rosanna, striking her. There was a hole in the ceiling, about two inches in circumference. The walls of the building on one side were cracked and broken, and the posts on the kitchen porch were forced from their places.
Rosanna wore a pair of gold spectacles, which were missing. A clock in the room on a shelf above where the girl sat, was knocked down and fell on her. The only marks on Rosanna were a black streak down her breast and discoloration of the skin on each side of her nose where the glasses had rested. Lizzie was in no way disfigured. The others in the room were slightly stunned, but not hurt.
John had seen the flash and ran to the house. The lightning had set a bed on fire and was spreading. He immediately extinguished the flames and, after coming down the stairs, found his wife and daughter prostrate on the floor, dead from the lightning strike.
Rosanna was 48 years old and Elizabeth was 13.