Meet the Man Struck By Lightning 7 Times

iStock
iStock

It’s said that seven is a lucky number, but Roy Sullivan, a.k.a. the “Spark Ranger,” probably would have disagreed. The Shenandoah National Park ranger was apparently a natural conductor of electricity, and was struck by lightning a staggering number of times. Though some doubt Sullivan's stories—no one ever witnessed any of the strikes, only the aftermath—Guinness World Records was able to verify them enough to award the ranger the "Most lightning strikes survived" title. Here are his stories.

Strike 1

It was April, 1942, and Sullivan had only been with the park service for about six years. He was stationed at the brand-new Miller’s Head fire tower when a storm blew in. The tower was so new lightning rods hadn’t been installed yet, and it ended up being struck seven or eight times. Sullivan decided to get the heck out of there, but only made it a few feet away before the lightning found him. “It burned a half-inch strip all the way down my right leg, and knocked my big toe off,” he said. “My boot was full of blood, and it ran out through a hole in the sole.”

Strike 2

Nearly three decades later, in 1969, Sullivan was driving a park truck when lightning struck two trees on one side of the road, then jumped to another tree on the other side. Sullivan’s truck was in the middle, with both windows rolled down. As a result, the ranger lost consciousness, and very nearly drove his truck off the edge of a cliff. When he came to, Sullivan was missing his eyebrows and eyelashes.

Strike 3

The third strike, a year later, happened while Sullivan was off-duty. He was tending to his garden at home when lightning hit a nearby transformer and jumped to his shoulder, knocking him down and burning him lightly.

Strike 4

Number four set poor Sullivan on fire. “There was a gentle rain, but no thunder, until just one big clap, the loudest thing I ever heard,” he said. “When my ears stopped ringing, I heard something sizzling. It was my hair on fire. The flames were up six inches.” Luckily, he had been registering people at a camping station, so he was able to use wet paper towels from a nearby bathroom to smother the flames.

Strike 5

August 7, 1973, brought the fifth strike. Again, Sullivan was in a park truck, and saw storm clouds coming. All too aware of his track record, the ranger tried to outrun the lightning. Once he felt he was out of harm’s way, Sullivan stopped to have a look. Big mistake. “I actually saw the lightning shoot out of the cloud this time, and it was coming straight for me,” he said. It even knocked off one of his shoes, leaving the lace tied.

Strike 6

Sullivan was walking along a park trail in 1976 when he was struck a sixth time. It was the final straw for the Spark Ranger—he retired five months later.

Strike 7

Unfortunately, the lightning found him anyway. On June 25, 1977, Sullivan was trout fishing when the hair on his arms bristled. This strike to the head burned his chest and stomach and caused hearing loss in one ear. To top off Lucky Seven, Sullivan ran into a black bear on the way back to his car.

In case you’re wondering, the odds of getting struck by lightning are about one in 280,000,000. The odds of getting struck by lightning seven times are 4.15 in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

When Sullivan did pass away, it was a bullet, not a bolt, that did him in. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1983 at the age of 71, perhaps tired of constantly fearing a fatal strike.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

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