"Killed By Lightning" -- so blared the headline in the Medicine Lodge Cresset newspaper about young wife and mother Jeanette "Nettie (White) Bailey (left) in the summer of 1889. Moving from Missouri to Kansas in the spring of 1884, with her parents and siblings, Nettie and her husband Dick and their two small daughters made their home in this "little house on the Kansas prairie." The bandbox of a house, measuring 12 ft. by 14 ft., was south of the town of Isabel, Barber County, located within a family cluster of farms. Today, the Baileys' great-granddaughter, Janet (Hoyt) Sperry (above), is restoring the Bailey house as a guest cottage on her property in Isabel.
In a horrific, ironic twist, the house is a tangible reminder of Nettie's shocking, tragic death 122 years ago. On July 8, 1889, with her husband away in Missouri visiting relatives, Nettie and her young children went to visit neighbors William R. and Anna Sellers during summer harvest. A hard rain approached from the south just after the midday dinner. Every one of the dozen or so gathered there stopped to watch as the torrents came closer, with the children dispatched to the dugout cellar for safekeeping. As the storm hit, the adult women also fled to the cellar, with the men taking refuge in the first floor, leaving a door open to watch the rain. When lightning flashed to the south, the men closed the door for fear of another strike. Five minutes later, when the rain seemed to abate, Nettie and her niece Nona White decided to ascend from the cellar and investigate. As they reached the cellar door, with Nettie holding her baby Blanche, a blinding bolt of lightning struck the flue pipe on the roof of the Sellers house.
What happened next was told in exquisite, tragic detail by the Cresset:
The lightning ... passed down the stove pipe, divided at the stove -- a current passing down each back leg and through the floor into the basement and into the ground. Mrs. Bailey was standing directly under one current. The bolt struck her on the left shoulder and passing down her body passed off her right foot. her clothing was not torn in the least and only a small mark was left on her body; her right shoe was torn off. Nona White was almost under the other current, it passing so close to her as to knock her senseless. Mrs. Bailey had her baby in her arms when she was struck, and strange to say the baby was not injured. The men rushed into the basement and at once carried the woman and girl out into the rain. Miss White soon began to show signs of life, but Mrs. Bailey was dead... Mrs. Bailey's husband was in Missouri and was at once telegraphed. Altogether the fatality is very sad indeed and has cast gloom over the entire community. [ more ]
In October 2011, cousins Eugene Podraza and Mark Miner discovered the details of Nettie's story and met Ms. Sperry while completing their 20th annual end-of-summer research trip, logging 1,000 miles in five counties near Wichita. Among their discoveries was a trove of 150 pages of letters that Nettie and her siblings had exchanged in the 1880s with their sister Helen (White) Clark of Missouri, including one that was half-finished the day Nettie was killed. Typescripts of these letters are held at the Lincoln Library in Medicine Lodge, with the originals preserved in the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. Podraza and Miner also photographed the graves of the four pioneers pictured below, all of whom settled in the south-central region of Kansas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. As well, they found a remarkable paper trail of court records, books and news obituaries documenting the difficult lives of these hardy pioneers, including a record of one cousin's 1881 federal land patent signed by President Chester A. Arthur. Watch for details as their biographies are updated in future months.