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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Monday, June 04, 2012

James Otis, Jr., Struck by Lightning

The first biography of James Otis, Jr., published in 1823 by William Tudor, Jr., described the Patriot lawyer’s death in Andover this way:

…on Friday afternoon the 23d day of May 1783, a heavy cloud suddenly arose, and the greater part of the family were collected in one of the rooms to wait till the shower should have past. Otis, with his cane in one hand, stood against the post of the door which opened from this apartment into the front entry.* He was in the act of telling the assembled group a story, when an explosion took place which seemed to shake the solid earth, and he fell without a struggle, or a word, instantaneously dead, into the arms of Mr. [Jacob] Osgood, who seeing him falling, sprang forward to receive him. This flash of lightning was the first that came from the cloud, and was not followed by any others that were remarkable. . . .

* His own room was on the left hand side of the front door, when looking at the plate [shown above]; and at his death, he was standing in the door way of the room to the right. The lightning struck the chimney, followed a rafter of the roof which rested upon one of the upright timbers, to which the door post was contiguous. The casing of this door was split, and several of the nails torn out all which marks still remain as they were at the time.
Tudor obviously received these details from the family of Jacob Osgood (1752-1838)—though not descendants, since that man didn’t leave any. A few pages earlier Tudor recorded an anecdote about Otis from Jacob’s younger brother, Revolutionary surgeon Kendall Osgood (1757-1801), who left children in New Hampshire. An older brother, the Rev. Dr. David Osgood (1747-1822), was a prominent minister in Medford and also had children. The house still belonged to the Osgood family when Tudor wrote, and he evidently visited the property.

But by the end of the 1800s, another story had sprung up.

TOMORROW: The hired man speaks?


joanq said...

So, do you believe the story that Otis had said that when he died he wished that it would be with a bolt of lightening?

J. L. Bell said...

I suspect that Otis did say that, but he might also have said a lot of other things, and that was one of the remarks on death that his family and friends remembered afterward.

Otis appears to have suffered from bipolar disorder. Saying he wished to be struck by lightning or (as the Osgood family remembered) pointing out where he wanted to be buried could have been a memorable, seemingly meaningful way that condition manifested itself.