Excerpt: ‘Right Back Where We Started From’

Lightning and a mysterious fire spark a departure from Maine for the California gold rush.

right back where we started from, joy lanzendorfer
JOY LANZENDORFER
AUGUST 1851 — PORTLAND, MAINE
Excerpt from Chapter VI, page 7 from Medical Oddities and Other Horrors by Oliver Goldhammer, MD, PhD (Walter J. Black, Inc., copyright 1947):
…Incan murals dating as far back as the 15th century give accounts of men who glowed “azul” before the “finger of god” knocked them down, suggesting ancient cases of this phenomenon. More recently in 1927, witnesses claimed that a New Jersey man named Alvin Elah turned periwinkle before his tie started zigging back and forth like a metronome. In 1941, an unnamed Indiana man was not only “cobalt blue,” according to the Indiana Tribune, but his socks flew out of the laundry basket and into the garden, where they proceeded to cling to him.
Yet these incidents might be dismissed if not for Vira Webb. Her case is unusual in that unlike with Elah or the Indiana man, the event occurred at a society ball in Portland, Maine in 1851. There was a large amount of coverage at the time, including an article on the front page of the Portland Heralder with the headline: YOUNG LADY ESCAPES IN ELECTRICAL STORM SPECTACLE. Webb, unique among her fellow afflicted, is the only person to experience this phenomenon and live. Indeed, she went on to marry and her daughter, Mabel Sanborn, survives her...

It’s a recorded fact that the Sanborn ball was held during thunderstorm season. While the weather might have been enough to cancel an ordinary party, this ball was much anticipated by Maine society because the venerable judge, Luke Sanborn, was expected to announce the engagement of his son, James Sanborn, to Melissa Fletcher. On top of that, the judge had converted the attic of his three-story home into a ballroom.

When the guests arrived, they were directed up two flights of stairs to the third story, where the new ballroom spanned the length of the house. The maple floor gleamed, chrysanthemum bouquets hung on the walls, and refreshments were laid out beside a barrel of Judge Sanborn’s applejack. At one end of the room, a small orchestra was setting up. At the other, a balcony overlooked a field. Someone in reckless spirits had thrown open the doors and an energized breeze blew through the room. Every so often, lightning struck the field, and each time the guests exclaimed, “Oooh!”

Only Elmer Sanborn, James’s cousin, remained unmoved. He had more important things to think about than lightning. In less than a month, he was planning to leave for the California Gold Rush.

His family was against the plan. They’d pleaded with Elmer to give up what they saw as a dangerous and foolhardy journey, and when that didn’t work, they insisted he come to the ball, hoping that a young lady would distract him from his goals. But they could never understand how dull the twirling dancers seemed to Elmer. Compared to the sparkling promise of California gold, Maine society women were as ordinary as wrens to his eyes. As everyone danced, he stood by the wall with his hands behind his back, measuring the cost of the journey against the riches he expected to make in California.

The newspaper said that a man could net over $1,500 a day in the Gold Rush. That was more than Elmer could expect as a yearly salary after a lifetime of working at his father’s bank. And that was just one figure. It was possible to make 10 times that if you were lucky. Men were said to be able to stroll down the American River and scoop gold out of the water. A Frenchman had moved a stump on his land and found $15,000 in gold lying underneath it. Given this, Elmer couldn’t understand why every man at this ball wasn’t leaving for California this instant.

Take his cousin James, whose engagement to Melissa Fletcher this ball was celebrating. Everyone said James was going to be a great lawyer like his father, but Elmer could only pity him. James would spend every day rearranging papers in an office while Elmer would be living a life of wealth and adventure. Elmer had asked his cousin to come with him to California, laying out how easy it would be to get rich, but James had proposed to Melissa instead. To do something like that when there was a gold rush going on! Elmer couldn’t fathom it.

Near the balcony, James was standing beside Melissa, who was patting the bottom of her ringlets so that they bounced upward. Elmer had seen her do this several times, once while talking to another lady at a concert and a second time while in line at a picnic. Each time, the gesture had struck Elmer as particularly vain. Now Melissa was talking to someone else, a woman. Who was that? Elmer could only see the side of her head. He strained forward, squinting through the dancers that separated him from the balcony until he recognized the girl. It was the piano player from church. Her name was Vira Webb.

Here Elmer tried to go back to thinking about the Gold Rush, but he kept trailing off to watch Vira. There was something arresting about her. It wasn’t that she was prettier than the other girls here. Elmer wouldn’t even have noticed her if she didn’t get up in front of the congregation to play hymns every Sunday. No, something else was drawing Elmer’s attention to Vira as she stood on the balcony with the evening sky streaked purple and gray behind her. He blinked to clear his vision.

Yes, it was still there.

Vira was glowing blue.

It wasn’t so much that Vira herself was blue as it was that the blue was hovering over her skin, encircling her face and neck, and fading into her clothes. It was a soft blue, the color of forget-me-nots, but noticeable enough that Elmer could see it from across the room.

The feet of the dancers pounded to the rhythm of the Virginia reel as another gust of wind blasted the women’s skirts. As if hypnotized, Elmer pushed through the dance floor to get closer to Vira. The blue outlined her body in a fuzzy radiance, like halos Elmer had seen in pictures of saints. She even looked a bit like a saint just then, smiling at Melissa with her hands clasped in front of her.

Then, as Elmer watched, one of Vira’s blond curls rose off her forehead and stood straight in the air, as if someone was holding it there. She was laughing and the curl moved with her as she leaned forward and touched Melissa’s arm with her icy blue hand.

If nothing else, Elmer was a man of action. Without knowing why, he dove across the room and tackled Vira, pulling her into the ballroom. The dancers stopped in collective shock, but there was no time for outrage. As Vira’s shoes cleared the balcony, there was a violent crack, like monstrous billiard balls slamming together. Lightning struck where Vira had been standing, hitting the balcony in a fierce stab as red and hot as a fireplace poker. Flames began to creep toward the ballroom.

Before anyone could stop him, James Sanborn grabbed the barrel of applejack and emptied it onto the fire. It was the wrong thing to do. Smoke billowed everywhere as the flames reacted to the liquor and traveled closer to the dancers. Women began to scream all over the room.

“Everyone, to the stables! The stables!” Luke Sanborn shouted.

The guests rushed toward the stairs. Though the newly hewn doorframe was wide enough for a man and woman to enter the ballroom in grand style, it wasn’t wide enough for the minister’s wife and two portly widows to shove through at once. For a moment the women were caught like caterpillars in the beak of a bird, then they burst into the hallway, their petticoats flying up in all directions.

While this was going on, Vira lay in Elmer’s grasp, apparently having fainted. Undaunted, and rather enjoying himself, Elmer picked Vira up and carried her through the stampeding guests to the stables, where she regained consciousness in time to be laid in a carriage. For a moment she met Elmer Sanborn’s hazel eyes with her own. He grinned and galloped off to help with the fire.

“That’s a very brave young man,” said a friend, watching Vira closely.

“Yes,” she said.

She might have said something else then, but as the word left her mouth, rain began to pour down in a torrent. The balcony was doused and smoke rose to the sky. People hurried to their carriages, ball gowns slick like wet rose petals. The air was filled with the smell of burnt apples.

As the women gathered around Vira, her blue eyes followed the men rushing to keep the weakening fire from spreading. Onlookers noted how she watched one man in particular as he darted through the rain. Some later said she caused the fire by standing where lightning could hit her.•

Excerpted from Right Back Where We Started From, copyright © 2021 by Joy Lanzendorfer. Reprinted with permission of Blackstone Publishing.

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RIGHT BACK WHERE WE STARTED, BY JOY LANZENDORFER
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