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Where the Children Were Playing, Click to enlarge»

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Manchester, New Hampshire

Lightning Strike

June 1900

Terrible Tragedy on Wilson Hill


Whittier Williams and James Murphy---Playmate Injured.

It is a long time since this community has been so shocked by the report of an accident as yesterday afternoon shortly after 5 o’clock when it was learned that two boys had been instantly killed by lightning and one other seriously injured. The victims of the fluid were Whittier Williams, the 7 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Williams, James Murphy, 11 years old, son of James Murphy the carriage painter, and Clair West Pettis, the 6 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Munroe Pettis.

The death of the two former must have been instantaneous, but it is thought that the latter will recover. At this late hour last night, he was resting comfortably and the physicians had high hopes.

Little is known of the accident so swift and sure was the blow which plunged two homes into mourning and brought sorrow and fear into the hearts of a third family. The three boys were great chums. The Williams family was stopping at the old Gen. Charles Williams place on Belmont street, between Lowell and Concord streets with Mr. Williams mother, the widow of the general.

Mr. Pettis is the hired man at the Williams place and resides in the house with his family, so Whittier and Clair were close friends. The Murphy family lives at the southeast corner of Bridge and Hall streets, a few squares away from the Williams home.

Jimmie Murphy went up to visit his friends at the Williams house during the afternoon and the three boys went out to play in the yard. They helped the men get in hay and enjoyed themselves as only youngsters of that age can. When the shower came up along towards 5 o’clock, the three playmates were in an old one-horse cart a little to the south of the house in the spacious yard.

The cart was located under a grape arbor which formed a model play house. It was thoroughly sheltered from the rain drops by the arch like covering of thick leaves and the boys could easily imagine they were camping out and that the protecting shrubbery was a tent. They were happy and entirely thoughtless of any danger,

Close bedside this natural play house stands a peach tree of medium height, but rising some little distance above the arbor and surrounding bushes. It is thought that possibly this tree was the medium which attracted the death dealing bolt.

The rain storm came up suddenly and fiercely accompanied by some lightning and thunder. The play of the electricity did not seem to be of more than ordinary severity. Suddenly there resounded a crash of far more volume than any of the preceding claps and almost immediately a cry was heard from the vicinity of the boys’ shelter.

Mr. Petttis was on the front lawn where he had been watering the grass. Realizing that some harm had been done he hastened to the grape arbor, where a sad sight met his eyes. The three boys were in a heap in the bottom of the cart, apparently lifeless.

Probably the next person to reach the scene was Mrs. Arthur Williams, mother of Whittier. Mrs. Charles Williams was asleep at the time and she at first thought that the house had been struck. She immediately arose and was soon on hand. Neighbors from all around also hastened to the spot.

Seeing that his son was probably still alive, Mr. Pettis made haste to carry him across the street to the residence of Dr. George M. Davis. Kind hands assisted in removing the insensible and apparently lifeless forms of the Williams and Murphy boys to the Williams house The greatest of excitement prevailed.

Just about this time Arthur Williams drove up. He had been down on Bridge street, at the corner of Malvern looking over a block which is being erected there. When the shower commenced he started for home. As he drove into the yard, Mr. Williams was greeted by Mr. Pettis with the information that his son Whittier was probably dead.

“I guess not,” said Mr. Williams, his face blanching with the suddenness of the shock.

As soon as he learned of the probable terrible result of the accident Mr. Williams whirled his horse about and started for the office of Dr. Frederick Perkins. So sudden was the blow that it nearly bereft the father of his senses, and when Hanover street, below Chestnut was reached he was driving like a crazy man.

With his horse going at full speed Mr. Williams attempted to turn the corner of Hanover and Elm streets and narrowly escaped a serious accident. The pavement was wet and exceedingly treacherous after the shower, making a bad footing for a horse. The turn was made a rapid rate and the animal lost his feet, falling upon his right side with great force.
Fortunately however, Mr. Williams was not injured, nor was anything broken, The horse also escaped with nothing worse than a severe shaking up.

Dr. Perkins immediately responded to the call, hut his presence at the Williams house was practically useless. He made an examination of the Murphy boy and of Whittier Williams and found that in each instance life had departed. The doctor gave it as his opinion that death had been instantaneous.

In the meantime, Dr. Davis had arrived at his home where the Pettis boy was being cared for. A little later two more physicians arrived on the scene. They were Drs. Charles F. Flanders and John H. Degross. These three physicians worked over the Pettis boy until he began to show some signs of returning consciousness. He soon began to regain his senses as the effects of the shock wore away. His temperature became more nearly normal and he exhibited most encouraging symptoms.

By 7 o’clock it was hoped that young Pettis was out of danger. He rested quietly and his condition seemed most favorable to recovery. At times there was a reoccurrence of the symptoms of the shock, asserted in the change of temperature, but on the whole the physicians seemed encouraged.

At 9 o’clock last night Dr. Davis said that high hopes of the boy’s ultimate recovery were entertained. Such saves are doubtful ones, said he, for from twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the shock. However, he considered all condition favorable.

The news of the sad accident spread like the proverbial wildfire. All the afflicted families possess a wide acquaintance, and their host of friends hastened to offer assistance and condolence in their time of trouble. In addition to these sympathizing visitors were scores of callers drawn either by curiosity , but still full of sympathy for the mourners and with expressions of hope and encouragement for the Pettis family.

Sad, indeed, was the scene at the Williams residence. There lay the bodies of Whittier Williams and of little Jimmie Murphy, surrounded by sorrowing and almost distracted relatives. The members of the Williams household, the feeble grandmother, the agonized mother, the half-crazed father and the weeping sister incited the deepest pity from all who had occasion to be present.

Mrs. Murphy, the mother of Jimmie, had also been summoned and other relatives arrived later. The two families joined in sorrowing for the dead, drawn together by a common bond. The deepest concern was naturally felt by the residents of the Hill among whom the families were best known. Still, callers arrived from all parts of the city. But the shock was greatly felt by the residents in this vicinity, over which the accident seemed to cast a deep shadow of gloom.

Many of the visitors were attracted to the scene of the disaster- the dump cart in the grape arbor. Here were seen the hats of the boys, marked with the stain of electric fluid. The straw hat of Whittier Williams showed the worst effects of the ravager. A large hole at the back marked the spot where the bolt first struck the unfortunate boy. This hole was about an inch in diameter and looked as though a stick had been pushed through it. The brim was badly scorched as though by fire as was also the hat of one of the other boys. Evidently the lightning struck the Williams boy in the back of the head and continued down his back which was scorched like the hats. The burn extended down his back, following his spine. The shirt was also burned

It is presumed that the bolt next struck the Murphy boy and that young Pettis was not struck at all but merely affected by the proximity of the electricity. The body of the former turned black and was in much the worse condition of the two. It seems however, that the Pettis boy was the most badly burned of the three.

The lightning did little damage to the arbor or to the cart in which the children were at play. The right hand shaft of the cart was badly splintered but beyond this sustained little injury. A pile of marble slabs near the entrance of the arbor was some what disarranged, several of the pieces being shaken down from the pile and scattered about.

When the excitement had somewhat subsided the bodies of Whittier Williams and his unfortunate companion were removed.

Manchester Leader and Evening Union, Manchester, NH

Submitted & transcribed by Helen Coughlin.  Thank you, Helen!


Whittier Williams, aged seven years and James Murphy, aged eleven years, were instantly killed by a flash of lightning, in Manchester, Wednesday afternoon at five o’clock. The children were at play in a cart, which was under a grape vine in a yard where they were visiting. It was one of the saddest accidents that Manchester has seen for years. Another little boy was badly hurt and was in a critical condition that night.

Portsmouth Herald, Portsmouth, NH 28 Jun 1900

Transcribed by Helen Coughlin.  Thank you, Helen!


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