Lightning Struck Twice in 1885: The Bedstead From the McKinnon Log House
When a 19th-century low-post bedstead was offered to Grey Roots this year, and we heard about its tragic story, the Collections department at the museum took it into the collection without hesitation. I was quite intrigued by the story, as some of my Highland Scottish Presbyterian ancestors had farmed in Bentinck Township, and I can imagine that the freakish happening that is associated with the McKinnon bedstead likely had been talked about by them and others in the Crawford community, and beyond.
In the 1860s-1870s, what we would call a wooden bed frame was referred to as a “bedstead”, the “bed” was what we would now call a mattress or tick, and bedding were items such as sheets, blankets, coverlets and quilts used on the bedstead. A bedstead of that time period also likely would have had a firm bolster and a white linen bolster cover, rather than individual pillows, which would incline the sleepers’ heads somewhat. Sometimes local turners in Ontario made the turnings on lathes for bedsteads, and then a fellow with woodworking skills could finish up a bedstead himself. Often there is some slight variance in the size of the turnings of the posts of these beds, as the posts were turned one at a time on the lathe. The family lore of this particular bedstead is that it was made by Neil McKinnon, but we do not know in which year he made it. Its turned posts have ball and urn finials. The plain side rails still have their horseshoe-shaped iron bed latches (four in all) with them, which fit into metal socket hardware that is inset into the inner sides of the headboard and footboard posts. The bedstead also has a turned blanket rail above the footboard. The bedstead was altered at the rails at some point in later years, and looks like it had used slats to support the bed tick, as there are no holes in the old boards for rope springs. The reddish-brown finish also looks like it was refinished (remnants of a darker, blackish finish are present on the inner areas of the rails).
Now, here is the story…
Neil McKinnon was born in Scotland in 1838. His family had eventually emigrated and moved to Bentinck Township, and he chose a lot next to his brother’s lot. A number of Scottish settlers had moved into the township, and sometimes the Gaelic was still spoken among these pioneers. The marriage of Neil McKinnon and “Pheme Cameron” (a shortform for Euphemia) took place at Priceville, Grey County, on April 3, 1868. She was 22. Neil was recorded as Scottish-born, 32 years old, and he was a son of Allen McKinnon and Catherine McKinnon (nee McArthur). Neil and Effie had an 1868-built log house at Lot 26, Concession 9, North of the Durham Road, in Bentinck Township, Grey County. It was located on a hill. Their frame barn with stone stables was built in 1878. They eventually had a family of six sons and three daughters, but one of the children, Alexander (b. 1875), had died in 1876. Little did the McKinnons know of the further grief in store for them, just a few years later.
Three weeks previous to July 20, 1885, the McKinnon family lost five or six cattle to a lightning strike at their farm. Their house has been described in a local history book as having had two downstairs bedrooms, and a sitting room and kitchen. There also was a large room upstairs underneath the rafters. Perhaps there was a metal stovepipe or something that conducted electricity. Another lightning strike hit their farm on the night of July 20th, this time entering the house, perhaps via the chimney. According to descendents, the strike reportedly travelled downwards, went into an umbrella hanging on the wall, and jumped to the bedstead, where it instantly killed Mr. McKinnon! The bedding also caught on fire. Mrs. McKinnon, and wee Angus McKinnon, who was also in the bed at the time, were lucky to survive, as Mrs. McKinnon was rendered unconscious by the strike. The eldest daughter of the family, Catherine (Kate) McKinnon, who was sixteen years old, had the presence of mind to grab a pitcher of milk that was nearby and put out the fire. Angus, amazingly, was unhurt. After Kate hurriedly dressed, she ran in the dark through a waist-high grain field to the neighbour’s farm, in order to fetch help from Mr. Boyce.
The medical doctor who had attended the scene after being summoned from Durham was Dr. David Jamieson. The tragedy was reported in the Guelph Daily Mercury & Adviser (July 22, 1885 edition). A similar account was published in The Flesherton Advance: DURHAM – July 21 – During a thunderstorm last night the house of Neil McKinnon, Bentinck, about ten miles from here was struck by lightning and Mr. McKinnon instantly killed. His wife, who was in bed with him, was seriously injured by the electric fluid, her face, head and both arms being bruised and blistered. She was insensible for some hours but she is likely to recover. It is only about three weeks since McKinnon had five head of cattle killed by lightning while they were lying under a tree about fifty yards from the house. (July 22, 1885 edition, page 1).
It also was reported in the DURHAM CHRONICLE / MARKDALE STANDARD in the July 30, 1885 editions: “Mr. N. McKinnon, of Crawford, was killed in his bed by lightning last Monday night, Mrs. McKinnon was also seriously injured. Two weeks ago last Sunday, McKinnon had six head of cattle killed by lightning, but this last catastrophe is far more shocking in its nature.”
Even the The Dominion Annual Register and Review (1886), edited by Henry James Morgan, included a short entry re the fatal lightning strike in its journal of remarkable occurences of 1885.
Kate was later commended by the insurance company for having saved her family’s house, and there is a possibility that she later received a letter on behalf of Queen Victoria. Edith Filsinger (whose mother was a childhood friend of Kate’s) later told a descendent that her mother had often told her the story of her friend, who had received a letter from Queen Victoria for her bravery in saving her family. Kate’s youngest sister, Rachael (Rachel) McKinnon, was born on October 7, 1885, so she had saved her life as well. Kate was always considered a heroine by her family.
The next eldest child in the family, Duncan McKinnon, was fourteen in 1885, and asthmatic. Nonetheless, Mrs. McKinnon and Duncan, with help from the other siblings and kind neighbours, managed to keep the farm going. Mrs. McKinnon had some facial scarring due to the burns she had received. In the 1891 census, she was the head of her household, with Duncan, Margaret, Allen, John, Donald, Angus and Rachel (age 5) still at the farm. Kate spent some time in Toronto as a young woman. She married A. Andrew Milne of Bentinck in 1894 (and they had a family of six children). Kate Milne’s grandson, Jim, recalled that his grandmother, in later years, would always get up and get dressed whenever there was a lightning storm, and would rouse up the rest of her family to do so as well, as she was still terrified of lightning after what she had witnessed in 1885.
There is a gravestone at the Rocky Saugeen Cemetery that records the lives of Neil and Effie McKinnon (she passed away in 1920), their infant son Alexander (d. 1875) and their son Duncan McKinnon (who didn’t marry, and died in 1929). Some of the McKinnon family moved out west. Kate, who stayed in the area, was especially close to her youngest sister, Rachael (Mrs. Jim McDougall). Forty-two years later, the house that had been saved by Kate in 1885 was owned by the McDougalls. In March, 1927, Rachael McDougall was very ill with pneumonia, and her sister Kate came to her bedside and helped to nurse her. Rachael died within the week, leaving her husband Jim with three young children to raise (Cameron, Edward and Duncan). The day after her sister’s funeral, Kate Milne, who had been suffering from chronic colds all winter, came down with pneumonia as well. Pauline Bierworth nursed her, and Kate’s son, Dr. John Eric Milne, a recent medical school graduate, was in constant attendance on his mother for about three weeks, before she passed away on March 25, 1927. Kate’s youngest child, Catherine Milne, was only fifteen years old at the time. The old McKinnon bedstead was kept for a long time by her brother, Dr. John E. Milne, who was a medical doctor at Flesherton (1929-1955), and later lived at Markdale (1955-1963). It later was passed down to one of his nieces, and she and her sister informed us of this interesting story.