J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Another Look at James Otis’s Death

On 28 Jan 1896, this item appeared in the New York Times, which credited the Boston Transcript:

James Otis was killed by a stroke of lightning in Andover, Mass., at the old Isaac Osgood farm, May, 1783. Mr. Otis wanted a mug of cider. The hired man went into the cellar to draw the cider, leaving the cellar door open. Mr. Otis was standing in the doorway at the side of the house looking at the clouds, remarking that a heavy shower was coming up. Scarcely had the words been spoken when the bolt came down, struck Mr. Otis and killed him instantly, then passed into a large beam to the cellar, where it went off into the ground. The hole in the beam was large enough to thrust one’s arm down, as the writer has done when visiting at the Osgood farm.
Other publications picked up the item at the same time. None named the writer of the original Transcript article, and indeed the writer’s name might never have been printed. Yet this anecdote was clearly written from the point of view of the “hired man” inside the cellar, looking out the open door.

This version of Otis’s death contradicts how William Tudor, Jr., described that event in his 1823 biography of the Patriot (quoted yesterday), which appears to derive from talks with Osgood family memories. According to them, Otis was in a doorway inside the house, telling a story. According to the hired man, he was in an outside doorway, had asked for cider, and was talking about the weather. Yet the tellers of both anecdotes pointed to lasting marks of the lightning strike on beams of the house—but what appear to be different beams.

Did the hired man or his family and friends reshape events to make him a more central figure in Otis’s death, or to create some lesson about the dangers of asking for too much cider? Did the Osgoods turn a common death into something more refined, with no mention of his drinking?

TOMORROW: Telling stories about Otis in Andover from the 1890s.


G. Lovely said...

Just considering the Architecture and physics involved, the Osgood account describes a very specific and totally believable path for the charge to travel: chimney, to rafter, to post, to doorway, through Otis, to ground, but it's extremely unlikely anyone in that moment could have had enough composure to catch him as he fell.

Chris said...

I grew up in Andover. Thanks for giving me a new tidbit of info about my hometown.