The Purple Fire Snowstorm Brought Horror to Bar Harbor and MDI

“Awful and sublime” lightning and fireballs terrorized MDI residents

MOUNT DESERT ISLAND— It was February 26, 170 years ago, just after sundown, that the world of Mount Desert Island became quite quiet, a lull right before a 20-minute lightning storm that pummeled the island, striking dozens of people and creating a weather mystery that the people of the time just couldn’t fathom.

Masts were torn off ships in Southwest Harbor and in Northeast Harbor. One lightning bolt hit a flagpole. The flagpole turned to rubble. The bolt then shot into the ground four or five feet deep and travelled horizontally.

“Although the ground was frozen as hard as a rock, this thunderbolt plowed a trench through for a distance of nearly 500 feet,” a witness told the New York Times. “The debris from this trench, consisting of great masses of frozen ground and stones weighing in some instances hundreds of pounds, were throw in both directions, and some of them in the air for long distances around. One mass of frozen earth as large as a fishing smack (a fishing boat) was hurled more than 75 feet away.”

It wasn’t just inanimate objects that were damaged by the horrific storm. Mrs. E. Holden’s arm was benumbed by a fire ball that came into her house via an open window. Why that window had been opened in February is not mentioned. But the New York Daily Herald’s March 6, 1853 issue tells of how she was standing near that window and was in the process of winding up her clock.

While she stood there, “a ball of fire came in through the window and struck her hand.” She ran and gathered everyone in the house with her until they were in the home’s entry. There was another flash and the room they’d just been in “resembled a volume of fire, whirling round and producing a crackling noise.”

According to the paper, this happened in a lot of homes: whirling fire, crackling noises, the sound of breaking glass but without actual glass breaking.

Captain Maurice Rich was in his bedroom when his light went out. He brought his wife to their bed, found a match to reignite the light when lightning zipped into his room and lit the match he was holding. He flew backwards a few feet. The match was extinguished.

Another man, John L. Martin, was allegedly so stunned by the lightning that he couldn’t speak for a great while.

“I don’t believe there ever was a worse frightened lot of people in the world than the inhabitants of Bar Harbor were that night,” the witness said.

But that’s not all. The lightning? It was purple according to a March 4 1853 report by the Ellsworth Herald. “Sometimes (it) appeared like balls of fire, coming through windows and doors and down the chimneys…. A great many persons were slightly injured. Some were struck in the feet, some in the eye, while others were electrified, some powerfully and some slightly.”

But no one died. And no building was damaged.

Trees were another story. “The electric fluid came down among them, taking them out by the roots, with stones and earth, and throwing all in every direction. Some were left hanging by their roots from the tops of the adjacent standing trees—roots up, tops down.”

The weather that day had been stormy. Gale force winds shook trees and chopped the water. A thundercloud passed that was described as one that “exceeded anything ever witnessed,” and was also called “awful and sublime” according to John S. Dodge writing for the Fountain and Journal, issue unspecified.

According to the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory there are many different types of lightning, including ball lightning. The World Atlas says that the color of lightning, with white being the hottest. Purple lightning is “often accompanied by rain, hail, and other precipitations.”

Ball lightning, which some eyewitnesses recounted, was once thought to be a myth. It is, according to  Cameron Norris, “a supercharged ball of plasma that can occur during thunderstorms. Less is known about ball lightning than other lightning varieties, but it is known to pose a risk to humans.”

He cautions, “If you see ball lightning, stay far away from it!”

Those struck by it probably wished they had been given that option.


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