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Profiles

A Sudden and Awful Manner

In early New England, anyone who stood near an open door or window faced mortal danger. A conversation with a woman who hunts for gravestones with epitaphs describing death by lightning strike.

Sven Kroner, Am Rheinparkcenter, 2009. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Fons Welters.

I met Judi Trainor this past July on the Isles of Shoals, a handful of islands straddling the New Hampshire-Maine sea border, some 10 miles from the Portsmouth harbor.

We were both attending conferences on Star Island: she, the Isles of Shoals Historical Research Association Conference; I, the week-long Natural History Conference. About a hundred of us conferees had taken over the island’s white-washed cottages and hotel where 19th-century Bostonians used to vacation. At that time, the hotel had its own homing pigeons, which would fly from the mainland, ahead of the boat carrying that night’s guests, to notify the hotel’s chef how many would be arriving for dinner.

At dawn, those of us in the Natural History Conference walked around the island identifying birds. We attended mycology and dendrology lectures through the afternoon, and in the evening we swam in the ocean, or rowed to nearby Smuttynose Island, home to a pair of infamous, possibly unsolved murders from 1873. Every night we met at the island’s stone chapel for a candlelight service.

One night, before chapel, I wandered into a lecture Judi was giving called “A Sudden and Awful Manner,” in which, she announced, she would describe her many years searching for 17th- and 18th-century gravestones with epitaphs mentioning lighting strikes. I sat down, and opened my notebook.

A lightning storm swept over the island midway through her lecture. The screen door whacked against the building. Out the window, whitecaps spread over the sea. Judi said at one point, “In early New England, anyone, regardless of age or gender, who stood at an open window or door, sat near the fireplace, or slept in an upstairs chamber was at risk.” She spoke in a slow singsong voice, enunciatively and without pause, each word like a stitch. She has high cheek bones, pale blue eyes, and a mischievous smile—pretty in a way that will never leave her. By the time she’d finished her lecture, lighting was webbing up the sky and drawing cracks between the ocean and clouds. From her calm, incantatory speech, I felt as if she had somehow delivered the storm rather than it being a freak coincidence. Rain poured on the tiny island through the night.

The next morning I asked Judi we could talk more about her project. We sat in rocking chairs on the hotel’s wraparound porch, looking out to a small graveyard on the western side of the island.

 

When did you start going to cemeteries?

I got interested in gravestones 15 years ago, when a friend of mine lent me a book on the gravestones and cemeteries of Cape Cod. I went through the book and visited every cemetery I could find on Cape Cod. I became addicted to it. I have been interested in gravestones that show cause of death, accidental deaths.

What do you mean, accidental?

Battle. Disease. Smallpox. Women who died in childbirth—the gravestone will say that the person was buried with the infant. There are a lot of drownings. People at that time didn’t know how to swim. Lost in rivers. Shipwrecks. Ships lost at sea. Kicked by a horse. Run over by a cart wheel. I found a gravestone of someone who died from a stroke of the sun.

There was a stone of a father buried next to his son who had drowned. A boy who had died at a sawmill, when a stack of boards fell on him. The imagery on that stone was striking—two boards crossed in front of the young man’s face. We think of someone living maybe even a long life, and the only thing that’s remembered about them is how they died. That one moment. It’s ironic.

Well into the 18th century, people were more mindful of death. The inscription, the imagery on gravestones, served as a warning to people who were still alive.

Why not focus on something like drowning? What is it about lightning?

Drowning is more common. There are many gravestones that have death by drowning. Lightning was a good avenue to pursue. There are a critical number of them, but they are not very common. And the accounts of the deaths were documented. I was able to find the newspaper accounts of almost all of the stones.

Do you remember the first lightning gravestone you found?

I stumbled upon a double-gravestone in Framingham that said a man had died in a “sudden and awful manner,” with an inscription of a verse from a poem written by a local woman. That was so unusual because the gravestones were two unrelated individuals. Most gravestones for two people were husband and wife, or a wife and children. Not two neighbors.

The men were looking at a horse when a thunder storm came through. Five men and the horse were struck by lightning, and two of the men died.

What about the horse?

I don’t know. What’s poignant is that the younger man’s son was there, and he saw his father be struck in the head by lightning.

You mentioned last night a father and son killed together.

That was a gravestone in Athol. A father and son were lying in bed together. Lightning came through the window, struck them, and killed them both. The father was 64, the son, four. Clearly an energetic man.

What are some other lightning deaths?

Samuel Reed died in Maine in 1784. He was sitting by an open window, head tilted back. By the window were two scythes hanging on the outside of the house. There were 14 other people in the room. He died instantly. The crown of his hat was torn to pieces, and his hair was burnt. A survivor said that the room appeared to be in a blaze, that he saw two balls of fire pass through the other people in the room. Everyone was stunned. One person’s hair caught on fire.

Then there was one in Connecticut in 1766. James and Jonathan Bagg, teenagers, brothers, were working in a field in Suffield. They saw an approaching storm and ran to a nearby house. They were sitting by the fireplace, eating and drinking, when struck. They died with their hats under their arms.

An 11-year-old boy named Sheridan Philbrick was killed in Rye when lightning struck his school house. All the children were thrown to the ground, stunned, and the teacher thought that six or seven were dead. 

A father and son were lying in bed together. Lightning came through the window, struck them, and killed them both. The father was 64, the son, four. Clearly an energetic man.

We don’t put cause-of-death details on epitaphs anymore.

Well into the 18th century, people were more mindful of death. The inscription, the imagery on gravestones, served as a warning to people who were still alive—the skull, the skeleton with wings. Frightening. They are saying, “Pay attention! This is what’s going to happen to you!” And then it changes. There are more angel-type faces—a softer way of thinking about death. And then we switch to urns and willows. Focusing more on the mourner, the mourning process, instead of warning the people who are left behind.

When did it change?

It pretty much stopped around the time of the Civil War, when death was all pervasive. The tone of cemeteries and gravestones changed then. And now, death is so antiseptic. You die in the hospital in most cases. People aren’t with the person during the dying process. In the 18th century people died at home, were buried by their relatives. Depending on what time period you’re looking at, people thought they were going to face a day of judgment, that there was nothing they could do to alter it. That they were going to hell.

People don’t want to talk about death now. It’s almost an embarrassing subject. But people will talk about sex all the time. In my work place, sex is openly discussed, all the time, ever since Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But death. If someone has a death in their family, my coworkers, they’re embarrassed, they don’t know what to say. We had a woman at work who died in January. She had a form of cancer. She was battling it for about a year and a half. She was young, only about 41. People were so skittish around her. And she was willing to talk about it openly.

Where do you work?

In real life, I’m an accountant.

I want to say that’s somehow related to collecting epitaphs.

I did find a spreadsheet on a gravestone once. Kind of unfortunate: a lot of children were lost. But there it was, set up with rows and columns. Names were rows. Columns were ages when they died. A family. A lot of children. One family. When you think about how much it would cost to buy those gravestones, it was a lot cheaper to put everyone on one gravestone.

So do you ever run into anybody in cemeteries?

I was out in the cemetery in New Braintree, Mass., on the ground, trying to take a picture. I’m one of these people who will not take photographs from somebody else. I have to see the gravestone myself, no matter how difficult it is to find the stone. I had seen that gravestone before, when I’d gone to a wedding at the church. While everyone else was photographing the bride and groom, I went out into the cemetery. I had seen a gravestone for a lightning victim, so I knew I had to go back.

Anyway, I was on the ground when the reverend of the church came out and said, “May I help you?” Thinking there must have been this crazy person out in her cemetery who was walking around with a full-length mirror.

What’s the mirror for?

That’s a well-known method among gravestone groupies. It’s hard to read the gravestones if light isn’t at the right angle. Gravestones where the carving is done with much more depth, you can read them much more easily if the light is in the right direction. My husband used to hold the mirror for me, but was refusing to go to the cemeteries any longer. He had had it with cemeteries. Limited tolerance. So he equipped my mirror with legs. A tripod. 

With other people, they say, “You’re interested in what?” It took me a while to “come out” at work. But at the gravestone conference everyone is into this.

So you take the pictures, then what?

I make rubbings. Using foil, 38-gauge aluminum or 40-gauge copper. I masking-tape the foil to the stone, then I press it in with a series of wooden dowels. You have to do it carefully, or else you’ll puncture the foil. It’s painstaking.

You’re probably familiar with tradition rubbings with paper and some sort of wax. When you do that, you’re not capturing the depth of the carving. You’re also taking something into the cemetery that actually could damage a stone. I’ve seen instance of people rubbing wax on paper, the paper tearing, and they get paint or wax on a gravestone. When I use foil, I’m doing the finishing at home. Painting or treating the foil with chemicals. That’s the winter project. My house is decorated with the foil rubbings. I’ve learned so much more about how the stones have been carved by doing this.

This isn’t for research.

I just enjoy doing it. I love sitting in a cemetery with a gravestone that I like. I’m a quiet person. I love the peacefulness of a cemetery. I love being outdoors. I love to walk. I love to take photographs.

I can see how it could be nice day trip.

You can do it in almost any city or town. I was in a conference in Kansas City a number of years ago. I had some free time, and I found out I was in walking distance of a cemetery. In that area there are a lot of beautiful markers made to look like tree stumps. Visiting cemeteries is a great thing to do. It doesn’t cost anything. People tend not to visit cemeteries.

Maybe they’re afraid. You’ve never been afraid in a cemetery?

No, not of the dead. Of the living. Some of older cemeteries aren’t in the greatest areas. They are in a city. In isolated areas. Anyone could be out there. It could be a little frightening. I came upon a homeless person in Plymouth sleeping behind a gravestone. I didn’t expect that.

So do you have any family to go with you, if your husband doesn’t?

Nobody else is interested. It is nice getting together with my gravestone friends. Because with other people, they say, “You’re interested in what?” That kind of reaction. It took me a while to “come out” at work. But at the gravestone conference everyone is into this.

How about your parents? Are they still around? Or, do they have gravestones?

Sore subject. My father buried my mother in a veterans’ cemetery in Augusta, Maine—that’s where he’s going to be buried. So stark. The original veterans’ cemetery that has some character is full, so now she’s in the newer cemetery. No carvings. They are government-issue markers that are flush to the ground. It’s just so cold.

So how are you going to be buried?

I want to be cremated.

No gravestone?

You can still have a grave marker if you like.

Will you have the cause of death on the marker?

No. You know what I’d really like. I’d really like my ashes to get thrown in the old cemetery where I like the gravestones. My favorite gravestone is there.

What gravestone is that?

It was where a six-month-old girl died in the 1690s, and on the top of her stone there are two birds plucking what look like cherries out of bowl. Or a maybe it’s a glass.

I even have the candidates lined up who I think would be willing to do it. I know my husband would never do it. I actually told my husband, who’s very good about making things out of wood, that I wanted him to build me a box for my ashes. He said, “OK, I’m with you, I’ll do that. And then what?” “Well,” I said, “I want you to keep me. On a shelf.” He said, “Agh.” I guess that I just have to outlive him.