Everything’s Relative

By Family Tree Editors Premium

Lightning Strikes Twice

When I was growing up in Iowa in the 1940s, fierce lightning and thunderstorms, or twisters that uprooted huge trees all across town, often sent us scrambling to the storm cellar or basement. It was then that my mother sometimes mentioned that her grandfather had been killed by lightning. “And little Essie, too,” Ma always added, speaking the words “little Essie” with a kind of reverence.

My mother’s grandfather was too far back in time for me to imagine him as a real person, but “little Essie” intrigued me. From what I gathered, she was taking lunch to her father in the field when they were both killed by lightning. I envisioned this little girl, perhaps my age, skipping happily through the field, then being struck down. Who died first, daughter or father?

It wasn’t until many years later, when I began doing genealogy, that I learned the full story. Using my great-grandfather’s name, his death date and the information that he had been killed by lightning near Britt, Iowa, I wrote to the Britt News-Tribune. Britt was a small community, and surely such an event would have been worthy of an account in the paper. Indeed it was. I received a copy of the fact-filled obituary, written in the flowery prose common in those days. When I finished reading about my great-grandfather’s life and death, my eyes were filled with tears. I felt as if I had met him and then lost him all within minutes:

August 5, 1909 — Struck by lightning and instantly killed at the farm of his son, Linford, 7 miles northwest of Britt, August 5th at 5:45 p.m., Henry O’Brien, at the age of 70 years, 1 month, 11 days. Mr. O’Brien and his son had been in the harvest field all day, but were compelled to leave hurriedly at 5:30 p.m. on account of an approaching storm. The old gentleman was driving when, suddenly, without a moment’s warning, he was hurled from this earth to eternity by a tremendous bolt of lightning which struck him in the back of the head, throwing him from the wagon among three prostrate horses which were also stunned….

The story related that the son, shocked by lightning, too, jumped from the wagon to aid his father, but “he was even then beyond recall.” Oddly, there was no mention of the child Essie. It wasn’t until I received another obituary for Henry O’Brien (shown above with wife Bridget) that the pieces fit. This brief account stated, “Twelve years ago, a daughter was killed by lightning near Garner.” A bit more research netted me “little Essie’s” obituary (it turned out her death had been 17 years earlier, not 12):

Garner — Hancock County, Iowa — 28 July 1892: Hester Kate O’Brien, daughter of Henry O’Brien who lives on the old Cusick place, was killed by lightning yesterday afternoon about four o’clock. She was a bright little girl, about twelve-years-old, and was a general favorite with all who knew her.

Perhaps it’s true that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place, but it struck twice in the same family.


Sarasota, Fla.

Accent Grave

In 1975, I wondered if I could find the roots of my paternal ancestors who were from the Richelieu River Valley area in Quebec. A friend and I visited cemeteries surrounding the oldest churches of the province of Quebec, along the Richelieu River. I knew that my grandparents, by the surname Bourgeois, had been born, lived and were buried in the cemetery of the parish of St-Mathias sur le Richelieu, one of the oldest parishes in Quebec.

We walked in the cemetery of a neighboring parish to St-Mathias, reading the stone inscriptions. We didn’t find stones marked Bourgeois, other than my grandparents. We did find stones marked Cournoyer, which was the surname of my maternal grandmother. That was interesting, since I hadn’t thought the Cournoyer side of my family was from the Richelieu River Valley area.

Our search in a second cemetery produced similar results. The priest there said, “I suggest you take the ferry, go across the river to the parish of St-Roch, where the priest there is a professional genealogist.”

A look at the St-Roch cemetery revealed the same pattern as we had found in the other two. But here, a man dressed in plain clothes with a beautiful smile on his face approached us. When I looked at him, I thought, “This man has the same facial expression as my brother.” He turned out to be a third cousin of mine, on my mother’s maternal side!

He invited us for dinner, where he gave me a kiss and a file that contained my Cournoyer genealogy from my mother’s name all the way back to Montigny, Rouen, France, in 1620. Finding more than 350 years of ancestors in one evening — not bad, wouldn’t you say?


Santa Barbara, Calif.


Every year, someplace in Maine, we hold a family reunion of the descendants of Israel and Susannah (Hood) Kinney, who were married in Topsfield, Mass., on June 9, 1763. Israel and Susannah had 14 children, who among them had 127 children, so the potential number to attend the reunion must be in the thousands. But only about a hundred or so attend, though new finds turn up every so often.

When our children were small, our youngest son had one little pal, Albert, who seemed to act like pouring gasoline on a fire when the two of them were together. What mischief one couldn’t think of to get into, the other could. Each year, our son asked if Albert could go to the Kinney reunion with us, and each year I said, “No, you’ll have enough cousins there to play with.” Privately, I thought, “Spare me from the little nuisance!”

The little pals continued to get into scrapes together as they grew up. They went to college and now both work in the same financial institution in Boston.

One year at the reunion, there was a new attendee who said to me as we were comparing genealogical notes, “You have someone right in your own town who’s a relative.” When she told me who it was, I exclaimed, “Why, that’s Albert’s grandmother!”

I figured out that the boyhood pals are fifth cousins. The pals, of course, think it’s hilarious.


Woolwich, Maine


The labor of uncovering the names and dates that identify our family can make us forget that investigating the human side of our ancestors can often provide humbling bits of information. Sometimes we’re even reminded of how tenuously gained was our very existence.

I learned, for example, how in early 1820 Darke County, Ohio, my ancestor Israel Wertz was one evening enjoying a night of revelry with friends when the subject turned to Miss Jane Dugan, the object of young Israel’s great esteem. In the spirit of joviality, it was suggested that Israel should render a proposal of marriage. Perhaps due to the drink he’d consumed, or maybe due to some other strong urgings, Israel agreed.

Immediately, the small band marched on the home of Miss Dugan, where they coerced Israel into offering the proposal. It’s doubtful he would have done so without the benefit of drink and without the urging of his friends. For reasons known only to her, Jane accepted.

In that era of moccasins and buckskins, it was customary for frontiersmen to outfit a groom in the finest obtainable clothing and accoutrements — a borrowed jacket here, a pair of trousers there, Pa’s new boots and so on. Soon, Israel was dressed befitting a man from the civilized cities of the East and the entire party was on its way to the office of the justice of the peace.

En route, however, Israel apparently gave the impending wedding further consideration. Before the party reached its destination, he bolted from the wagon and fled into the forest, borrowed clothes and all.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity for a fine good time, one of Israel’s “friends” rushed home to his cabin and fetched his hunting dog to retrieve the young fugitive. (Perhaps the pooch was aided by the familiar scents on Israel’s borrowed duds.)

Once Israel was caught, the wedding was held without further problems. The couple remained together into old age, having many children and becoming separated only by death.

Because of this ancestral incident, I am humbly reminded that I owe my very existence to the nose on a good huntin’ dog.


Springboro, Ohio
From the December 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine