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 03, 2014

Benjamin Russell Saved from Lightning

Benjamin Russell (1761-1845) was the publisher of the Columbian Centinel, Boston’s most powerful Federalist newspaper, and an employer or mentor of many printers in the early republic. He had great influence in state politics and even held political office himself.

In shifting from the printing press, where a man literally got his hands dirty, to offices traditionally reserved for gentlemen, Russell followed in the path of Benjamin Franklin. In fact, Russell might have owed not only his career but his life to Franklin.

The Printer Boy, or How Benjamin Franklin Made His Mark, authored by William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898) in 1864, includes this anecdote about Russell as a lad:

A very little knowledge of electricity once saved the life of Benjamin Russell in his youth. He was an eminent citizen of Boston, born in the year 1761, and in his younger years he had learned from the writings of Franklin, who had become a philosopher, that it was dangerous to take shelter, during a thunder-shower, under a tree, or in a building not protected with lightning-rods.

One day, in company with several associates, he was overtaken by a tempest, and some of the number proposed that they should take shelter under a large tree near by, while others advised to enter a neighbouring barn. But young Russell opposed both plans, and counselled going under a large projecting rock as the safest place.

The result showed that a little knowledge of electricity was of great service to him; for both the barn and the tree were struck by lightning.
Obviously, Thayer or someone he spoke to had heard this tale from Russell. Alas, the surviving story doesn’t say how old Benjamin and his friends were when they had this experience.

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