Apocryphal or True? Man Struck by Lightning 4 Times!

One of the joys of doing family history research in newspaper archives are the startling stories you occasionally run across – stories you would never expect, and seem to prove truth is stranger than fiction.

Digging through GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives the other day, I found this article by weatherman Pat Shingleton about Walter Summerford, a man struck four times by lightning – three times while alive, and once after he was lying in his grave!

An article about Walter Summerford, Advocate newspaper article 2 June 2013
Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 2 June 2013, page 25

According to the story, Walter Summerford was a major in the British Army during WWI when he was struck by a lightning bolt on a battlefield in Belgium in 1918. Paralyzed from the waist down, Summerford retired to Vancouver and slowly rehabilitated back to the point where he could walk again.

Six years later, while fishing in 1924, lightning struck him again! This time the right side of his body was paralyzed, and Summerford began another long, slow period of rehabilitation.

Then, 10 years after that (and here’s where the reader can’t help but feel a bit of incredulity), Summerford was struck by lightning a third time, while walking in a park in 1934. This time he was left completely paralyzed, never recovered, and died two years later in 1936.

The final detail is either the most incredible of all, or the hardest to believe: shortly after his burial, Summerford’s gravesite was struck by lightning!

That’s a total of four lightning strikes, three during his lifetime and one shortly after his death.

According to the National Weather Service’s How Dangerous Is Lightning? webpage, the odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are 1 in 15,300.

Here’s a research challenge to our readers: look into Shingleton’s story about Walter Summerford. Could it be true? Let us know what you find.

6 thoughts on “Apocryphal or True? Man Struck by Lightning 4 Times!

  1. Just an educated guess based on what I know about human psychology–

    He likely suffered from some kind of recurring movement disorder that paralyzed parts of his body from time to time, possibly brought on by nerve damage from an actual first lightning strike. He may have not wanted to seem like he was inherently sick/infected/malfunctioning, so each major bout he couldn’t hide–he just blamed it on getting struck by lightning.

    It’s like saying a weird skin growth is a burn scar, or a missing finger from leprosy was actually bitten off by a dog. It makes people recoil less and see you as less naturally sick. Lightning isn’t your fault, really.

    The gravestone likely just cracked naturally, and somebody said it was lightning without having any idea. I mean, who would have been close enough to the gravestone to know it was specifically hit, and did that person show up in the news with injuries too?

    I believe with a large enough population, eventually there will be many extremely unlikely coincidences, but have to say that this one delves into the scientifically improbable realm, especially because it took place at a time when the public couldn’t verify facts so easily.

  2. An earler version of this legend first gained popularity in a 1930 Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoon, the text of which said “A bolt of lightning killed C.J. Summerford of Columbia, Ala. – and a month late his gravestone was destroyed by lightning! Another stone was erected, and lightning destroyed that also!” The modern legend is clearly the same one, further embellished and transferred to another Summerford, who may or not have been a real person. I do not see any evidence of any legend of this sort having been associated with a Walter Summerford until quite recently. Many postings have a photo of a broken Summerfeld gravestone (first name unreadable) with 1912 as the year of death, which is not in agreement with the Walter Summerfeld version of the legend.

    The C.J. Sommerford legend was investigated by a couple Alabama newspapers immediately after the Ripley cartoon was published. They found that C.J. “Charlie” Summerford of Columbia, Alabama was killed by a lightning strike in 1892, and his gravestone did get broken at some point. No one could say they knew how it became broken; his brother-in-law neighbor thought it had simply fallen over and broken when the grave site settled. It would appear, however, that a local legend had sprung up that lightning had been responsible for breaking the stone. There was also disagreement among residents as to whether the broken stone at the grave site in 1930 was a replacement, also damaged, or the original.

    Here is the Ripley cartoon, as published in the Johnson City Chronicle March 20, 1930:

    And from the Dothan [Alabama] Eagle, April 29, 1930:


  3. Roy C. Sullivan, a Virginia park ranger was struck 7 times by lightning.
    The years were 1942, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1973, 1976 & 1977. In 1983 he committed suicide.
    He is listed in the Guinness Book of World Recorded & is well documented.
    All information on this is easily available through a simple Google search.
    Personally, I have no problem accepting that Mr. Summerford was struck 3 times, but the latter strike of his grave seems a bit far-fetched.

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