Lightning Portrait of Startled Lady Bather
Lightning portraits -- ghostly images from the past etched into glass -- are rare, but at least three in America have attracted tourist interest. The best known is the Lightning Portrait of Henry Wells, burned into the upper window of the Carrollton, Alabama courthouse, marked with a roadside historical sign and a reflective highway arrow next to the window.
Russelville's Lightning Portrait of an Angry Bather is more neglected, probably because the window was painted over in the 1920s to discourage gawkers.
The lightning portrait is in a tower window of the Sexton House, on the southern edge of town. Kelly Williams, Maple Grove Cemetery caretaker, has lived in the lightning portrait house for ten years. "I'm not going to sit here and say it's not true... it could be folklore, but anything's possible."
The Sexton House was built in 1870 on the corner of the Maple Grove Cemetery (a sexton is a cemetery caretaker, at least in the state of Kentucky).
The story goes that at "the turn of the century, the caretaker's young daughter was told by her parents she couldn't go to a dance." She defied them, but her date was late because of the raging storm. She was up in the cupola, maybe taking a bath ... "Some say she was nude," Kelly points out.
She cursed God, and was struck by lightning. Her image was etched into the glass.
By the 1920s, the story had spread, and the house and window had become a tourist attraction. Accounts differ as to what could be seen under the right conditions -- whether it was a full "nude" body or facial etch, visible at night or in bright light. Kelly noted "You could only see it in another lightning storm, I've heard." With the family in the story long since departed, the latest caretaker got fed up with people looking in his windows on a Sunday morning, and painted the over the glass pane...
What lingers today are conflicting accounts, and a dwindling number of elderly eyewitnesses claiming to have viewed the window as kids. "Now I can't say that I've seen it," Kelly said. "Older people swear on a stack of Bibles they've seen it."
Curious himself, for awhile he considered cleaning off the window to reveal the image. "I got some paint remover a few years ago and started to scrape the glass clean. It was a big job, though, so I only got so far."
One theory is that the pane is photographic glass, such as used in photo plates at the time. Nobody can tell exactly what year it happened, there are no news accounts, no name of the family, and no grave. But still....
Another Account of the Lightning Incident
Being a lifelong resident of Bowling Green, Ky (a neighboring county to Russellville), I have grown up knowing the folklore that surrounds the Sexton House in Russelville... (My grandmother was raised there). There are variations to this story (as most stories handed down year-by-year, generation-by-generation). The story I have always heard is as follows:
There was a teenage girl who was "courting" a prominent young man in Russelville. They were to go on a picnic this one particular Saturday. The girl and her mother had fashioned her a beautiful dress just for the occasion, being that the girl felt this would be the day that her beau would propose marriage. How excited she and her mother were!
At evening, about the time her suitor was expected, the skies seemed to open up and unfurl a fury of storms. Lightning flashed as the girl dashed to the upper window, looking for her beau.
After waiting, and storms raging even harder, the girl soon knew there would be no hope for a picnic that Saturday afternoon, dashing her plans of a momentous day with her beau. Anger welled up inside her as she clutched her fist toward the heavens through the glass of the small upper window. She cursed God (some say calling Him a "billygoat") Lightning flashed, ripping through the young girl's thin torso... in a moment she lay lifeless on the floor! Her parents, hearing an awful clap of thunder ran to find there beloved daughter, only to discover her lifeless body sprawled on the floor.
To this day, on a rainy, stormy eve, as you go by the Sexton House, you may get a glimpse of a slight "outline" of a young girl etched in glass, clutching her angry fist toward heaven.
Some say the glass has been removed, time-and-time again, only for the image to reappear. It's been painted over now. But on a dark and stormy eve, if you dare drive by (and are lucky enough to be caught by the red-light that controls the sleepy traffic of the small town of Russelville) you may just be "lucky" enough to see her for yourself! Just thought you'd want to know this variation of the story. [Lynne Clark]