A superhero origin story too good to be true.
Five years ago, I wrote a piece called George Washington’s Superhero Origin Story. It focused on the true (or so I thought) story of George Washington’s pregnant mother Mary Ball Washington and a near-death experience that, I joked, imbued the unborn George with superhuman powers.
This was a story I couldn’t resist sharing – a dark and stormy night, a deadly dinner party, a founding fetus – it was almost too good to be true! As it turns out, it probably was.
As I wrote then:
Augustine Washington and his very pregnant wife Mary Ball Washington were hosting some church friends for dinner while a thunderstorm raged outside. As they dug into their dinner, the house was struck by lightning.
The bolt came in through the chimney and struck a young girl, zapping her to death with such force that her knife and fork fused together…But the electricity didn’t stop at the poor girl’s silverware, or her charred meal. It continued along the table and sent a terrifying jolt through the pregnant Mary.
This was one of the first pieces I wrote on my presidential biography journey, and I didn’t question nearly as much then as I do now. I trusted investigative journalist Willard Sterne Randall had done his homework when he retold this story in his 1997 book George Washington: A Life. So I passed it along as truth.
And now, if you ask Google “Was George Washington’s mother struck by lightning?” the top result, complete with a featured snippet, is my 2014 post.
I recently found a post by Heather Baldus, Collections Manager at The George Washington Foundation in Fredericksburg from April 2019 called The Legend of Mary Washington And The Deadly Lightning Strike. Baldus was fascinated with the legend, and she wisely decided to hunt for the primary sources. Her quest reminds me of my own rabbit hole to dig up the truth behind John Quincy Adams’s legendary pet alligator. I did not apply the same curiosity or rigor to this lightning bolt, but I ‘m glad she did.
Baldus could only trace the story as far back as 1850, more than sixty years after Mary Ball Washington’s death. In Margaret Conkling’s Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, Conklin wrote that Mary’s “almost constitutional timidity, was occasioned by a singularly distressing incident of her youth – the instant death, from the effects of lightning, of a young friend, who was at the moment when the accident occurred, sitting close beside her.”
Absolutely no mention of Mary being pregnant.
Then Baldus dug into how different writers have used the story over the years, and I suspect she may be calling me out as well.
“The earlier versions use the story to illustrate a woman of courage and intelligence who, despite being strong, still had flaws. The later version uses the story to show a nervous, harsh woman who tried to hinder her son’s greatness due to her own fears. While traumatic for Mary, this alleged lightning event also serves as a kind of prophecy or superhero origin story for her future son, turning George into a demigod worthy of becoming the father of a nation. Each writer used the story as an illustration to fit their own narrative but none of them provide evidence that the event really happened.”
Even more recently, a new biography of Mary Ball Washington came out. In The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington, author Martha Saxton works to reclaim the truth behind George Washington’s oft-maligned mother. (When I finish Saxton’s book, I suspect I’ll have a few things to update in my post George Washington’s Mortifying Mother (And My Own).
Saxton focuses on primary sources and just briefly mentions a “family tradition” that a close friend of Mary’s was “struck by lightning while eating.” She includes that “her fork and knife were reputed to have melted” but she appears skeptical and non-committal about the truth of such a story. What is clear is that the details of Mary being pregnant with George – and being struck herself – were added much later.
Knowing this, it’s too much of a stretch, even in jest, to link that lightning strike to George Washington’s origin. I regret my role in propagating this story, and I just went back to my 2014 post and updated it with a link to this one.
I realize spreading this tall tale about lightning doesn’t really hurt anyone, but in a world full of fake news and false cries of fake news, I strive to get to the bottom of things. From now on, I vow to apply the same level of fact-checking to Mary Ball Washington that I apply to John Quincy Adams’s fake pets.