Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning: Fact Check

Someone sent me an email with a link earlier this week. He¬†wanted me to use a quote out of Mark Twain’s short story, “Mrs. McWilliams and the Lightning,” but instead I read the story. Twain writes about a couple that argues over common thought on lightning and lightning protection here in the Southeast in the late 1800’s. I encourage you to give it a read. It is funny how little things have changed over the ¬†past 125 years. Instead of looking at one quote, I’m going to cover a few pieces of Mrs. McWilliams’ thoughts on lightning and its behavior.


A man wakes up to his wife screaming for him to get up while hiding in the boot closet in the middle of a thunderstorm. Once he is awake he immediately starts an argument about why he doesn’t need to take cover during the storm. (Like I said, not much has changed in the past 125 years.) The cool part is how their argument covers what will and will not cause and protect you from a lightning strike.

What Does Protect Mrs. McWilliams from Lightning?

Hiding in a Boot Closet

Unfortunately, lightning isn’t coming to play hide and seek. Mrs. McWilliams immediately seeks shelter in the boot closet once she hears the first clap of thunder. Lightning is not coerced by where you are within your house, or even if you’re in your house at all. She chastises her husband for lying on their bed in the middle of a storm. She puffs,

Don`t talk to me, [Mr. McWilliams]. You know there is no place so dangerous as a bed, in such a thunder-storm as this, — all the books say that.

I don’t know what lightning protection books existed back then, but NASA’s findings and the code for the NFPA, the Lightning Protection Institute, and Underwriters Laboratories are unanimous that this is certainly not the case. If anything, a boot closet would be more dangerous than the bed because it will be harder to get outside of your house if it were to be struck. We have to give it to Mr. McWilliams on this one.

You Need Lightning Rods

She is frustrated with the way her husband is acting and would feel more protected if a lightning protection system was installed on their home.

I don`t see how you can act so, when you know there is not a lightning-rod on the place, and your poor wife and children are absolutely at the mercy of Providence.

Lightning protection systems do work. This point goes to the Missus.

Lightning is Attracted to Light

Once Mr. McWilliams finally gets out of bed he starts to light a match because it is dark since it’s the middle of the night. Mrs. McWilliams becomes flustered because she thinks that the light will actually attract lightning.

What are you doing? — lighting a match at such a time as this! Are you stark mad? …Put it out! put it out instantly! Are you determined to sacrifice us all? You know there is nothing attracts lightning like a light. [Fzt! — crash! boom — boloom-boom-boom!] Oh, just hear it! Now you see what you`ve done!

Lightning is only attracted to the most efficient path to ground. While metal conducts electricity better than other materials by providing less resistance, it has much more to do with height than material, and definitely not fire. Sorry, Mrs. McWilliams.

Lightning is Attracted to Wool

Now it looks like the two are going to be up for a while, so Mr. McWilliams starts to get dressed. He looks for his wool pantaloons. Mrs. McWilliams won’t have it.

Quick! throw those things away! I do believe you would deliberately put on those clothes at such a time as this; yet you know perfectly well that all authorities agree that woolen stuffs attract lightning.

Back on what does and does not attract lightning. Even if wool was conductive, it is a small amount of wool within the house, and the same amount of will will be in the house regardless of whether Mr. McWilliams is wearing it.

Singing Attracts Lightning

After Mrs. McWilliams tries to keep Mr. McWilliams from getting dressed in the name of a lightning strike, he decides to start to sing.

Mrs. McWilliams: Oh, don`t sing! What can you be thinking of?

Mr. McWilliams: Now where`s the harm in it?

Mrs. McWilliams: If I have told you once, I have told you a hundred times, that singing causes vibrations in the atmosphere which interrupt the flow of the electric fluid.

Mrs. McWilliams makes an effort to reason some of this stuff out scientifically now, but unfortunately she’s got it all wrong. While singing does send out vibrations, it will not affect the atmosphere, and lightning isn’t a fluid.

Mrs. McWilliams Takeaways

While it is humorous to read through this short story, it covers a pretty grave subject. Mrs. McWilliams, for all her misdirected thoughts on lightning, is right about how scary lightning can be. Lightning has the ability to blow bricks off of the side of a house or burn it down altogether. She was also right that she would be safer with a lightning protection system installed on her home. A lightning protection system could divert the charges away from her home and safely in the ground. The couple could have avoided this entire argument and the loss of a good night’s sleep with one call to us.

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