In Episode 260, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the small town of Orford, New Hampshire, searching for a woman written up in the 1837 American Journal of Science for exhibiting the strange ability to shoot sparks from her body all day long with no ability to stop. Dr. Willard Hosford or Orford, documented this strange case that we’re still talking about today.
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[ELECTRIC SOUNDS BUZZING]
JEFF: Woah, don’t get too close, Ray. That’s a Van De Graaf Generator.
RAY: It looks like something right out of an old Frankenstein movie!
JEFF: It does. The Van De Graaf generator has been around since 1929. A belt generates an electrical charge inside the insulated column and then…
JEFF: It can shoot a spark.
RAY: At it looks cool.
JEFF: It looks wicked cool! No question.
RAY: So did we come to the small town of Orford, New Hampshire, looking for old lab equipment?
JEFF: No, we came to Orford, searching for a woman who was once written up in the American Journal of Science because she couldn’t stop shooting electricity from her body.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to episode 260 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We can’t do what we do without you—our community of legend seekers sharing strange tales of the bizarre, the haunted, and the just plain odd. Please be sure to subscribe to our podcast, because it’s free. And tell a friend or two about us on your social media. It goes a long way in helping us grow.
JEFF: Another way you can support us, is by supporting our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. It sounds like we’re looking for a woman in Orford who has super powers!
JEFF: Kind of. Though this would sort of be a power we ALL possess.
RAY: Shooting electric sparks?! I don’t think so.
JEFF: Ha! Come onnnnn…. Take your shoes off with me.
JEFF: I’m glad you’re wearing socks today for a number of reasons! Okay… if we shuffle our feet on this carpet.
JEFF: And then I shuffle over your way and touch your cheek…
RAY: Okay, okay…. My turn.
RAY: (LAUGHING) Clearly, I stand corrected. Man, I don’t think I’ve pulled this trick since I was a kid!
JEFF: Fun with static electricity! And while this little experiment is NOT new, it’s been around since long before the lightbulb and long before we harnessed electricity. There was once a woman here in Orford, New Hampshire, who… they say… didn’t need wool socks or carpet or anything like that in order to shoot sparks out of her body, and her story was captured by a local doctor and published in The American Journal of Science, Volume 33. The local doctor never revealed her name, but gave us great details otherwise. Let’s head back to 1837, and meet this electrified lady.
RAY: It’s late January of 1837 here in Orford, and there’s a buzz around town about a local woman who possess a strange and electrifying ability.
JEFF: Word soon reaches Dr. Willard Hosford, who lives in town and tends to the medical needs of just about everyone around here. Dr. Hosford is curious enough to take a look for himself.
RAY: Wait… before we meet doctor Hosford, we should mention what we saw outside tonight.
JEFF: What did we see?
RAY: There’s a brilliant aurora in the sky tonight.
JEFF: That’s right!
RAY: Usually the aurora borealis is green and blue in color, but tonight it’s red, almost crimson.
JEFF: That IS unusual, but not impossible. Do you think there’s a connection?
RAY: I’m not saying there is a connection to what’s happening with this local woman…. But not saying there ISN’T a connection, either.
[FOOTSTEPS GETTING CLOSER]
[DOOR OPENS AND CLOSES]
JEFF: Ahhh. Doctor Hosford is here. Good. Doctor, I know you need to keep her name anonymous, but what can you tell us about this mysterious woman?
HOSFORD: This lady is the wife of a very respectable gentleman of this place: she is aged about thirty, of a delicate constitution, nervous temperament, sedentary habits, usually engaged with her books or needle-work, and generally enjoying a fine flow of spirits. During the autumn and part of the winter preceding this electrical development, she suffered much from unseated neuralgia in the various parts of her system.
RAY: Okay, so otherwise a seemingly normal 30-year-old woman. How did this start?
HOSFORD: At the time when the aurora occurred, she became suddenly and unconsciously charged with electricity; and she gave the first exhibition of this power in passing her hand over the face of her brother, when, to the astonishment of both, vivid electrical sparks passed to it from the end of each finger. The fact was immediately mentioned; but the company were so skeptical that each, in succession, required, for conviction, both to see and feel the spark. On entering the room afterward, the combined testimony of the company was sufficient to convince me.
JEFF: So you experienced this for yourself?
HOSFORD: Yes. A spark, three-fourths of an inch long, passed from the lady’s knuckle to my nose, causing an involuntary recoil.
RAY: Okay, as we’ve already established, any of us can slide our socks across a carpet, generate static electricity, and zap another person.
JEFF: That’s true. But as soon as you zap that person, or touch something metal, the static charge is gone. You’d need to shuffle your feet again to generate a second charge. What makes this woman different, is that ever since the aurora, she seems to have the charge in her all of the time.
RAY: Days go by, and Dr. Hosfurd continues his observations of this woman. He’s asking all the same skeptical questions we are. He continues his observations.
HOSFORD: When her finger was brought within one-sixteenth of an inch of a metallic body, a spark that was heard, seen, and felt, passed every second. When she was seated with her feet on the iron stove-hearth, engaged with her books, with no motion but that of breathing and turning the leaves, then three or more sparks per minute would pass to the stove, notwithstanding the insulation of her shoes and silk hosiery. When most favorably circumstanced, four sparks per minute, of one inch and a half, would pass from the end of her finger to a brass ball on the stove: these were quite brilliant, distinctly seen and heard in any part of a large room, and sharply felt when they passed to another person.
JEFF: Weeks pass, and this phenomena is still happening to this woman who is growing more despondent about getting shocked multiple times per minute. And no one can get close to her or they too get zapped.
RAY: It’s also worth pointing out that it’s winter. Conditions inside are more dry than in other months. There’s not much humidity. The wood stoves and fireplaces suck any moisture out of the room. Less humidity MUST mean more static charge in the air, right?
JEFF: That makes sense. Have you found a correlation, doctor?
HOSFORD: The most prominent circumstances which appear to add to her electrical power were an atmosphere of about 80-degrees Fahrenheit, moderate exercise, tranquility of mind, and social enjoyment. While the reverse diminished it precisely in the same ratio. Of these, a high temperature evidently had the greatest effect, while the excitement diminished as the mercury sunk, and disappeared before it reached zero. We had no evidence that the barometrical conditions of the atmosphere exerted any influence, and the result was precisely the same whether it were humid or arid.
JEFF: Okay, this is really weird. Humid or dry and she’s still producing these static discharges. As February turns to March, this poor woman is sinking into a depression. She’s afraid to touch anything metal, which makes cooking, sewing, or even opening doors an act to fear. And she can’t get close to any person, or they’ll be shocked too.
RAY: By now, many people in the small town of Orford have witnessed this shocking display. But everyone is perplexed on what the cause could be or how to help the poor woman.
JEFF: Just when everyone had given up hope, March turns to April. On the first of the month, this woman touches her stove and is shocked!
RAY: She’s been shocked hundreds of times over the past two-plus months.
JEFF: No… she’s shocked because she wasn’t shocked!
RAY: Oh. Yeah. She didn’t get zapped today.
JEFF: As the day goes on, this woman finds she can touch other metal objects as well, even people. The nightmare, it seems, is over.
HOSFORD: From the 25th of January to the 1st of April, there was no time the lady was incapable of yielding electrical sparks.
RAY: By April 1st, it’s over. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Such a strange story!
RAY: It is!
JEFF: Everything we know about this case was pulled from the January 1838 American Journal of Science and Arts. The article in the Journal explains how Hosford attempted to administer various medicines, but they had no affect at all.
RAY: Hosford also addressed the aurora that was seen the night everything started for this poor woman. He believes it was just a coincidence. That the aurora had nothing to do with the sparks coming out of this Orford, New Hampshire, woman.
JEFF: So we looked this up, and it turns out that some of us are more pre-disposed to carrying a static charge than others. Generally the more humid the air, the less likely you will build up a charge. Which is why in dry winter months, we tend to get more of these charges. If you’re one of those pre-disposed people, it’s also recommended that you add moisturizer to your skin to help prevent the static buildup.
RAY: But that doesn’t explain what happened to this woman from Orford.
JEFF: No, it doesn’t. This case is strange. And stranger still that it suddenly stopped after a few months.
RAY: But it did stop in April after the winter had passed, and the moist Spring air moved back in.
JEFF: I’m sure that had something to do with it. But can you imagine how awful it must have been to live like that for months?
RAY: I can’t. What would be really funny at first, would get old quickly.
JEFF: Not just get old, it would get downright depressing. It would chip away at your sanity. Afraid to touch anyone or just about anything. That would be hell. And this woman suffered through that for more than two months leaving us with a medical curiosity that we’re still talking about today.
RAY: These kinds of weird stories have a way of hanging around, don’t they?
JEFF: They do.
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We’d like to thank Jim Harold from Jim Harold’s Campfire podcast for lending his voice acting talents this week. We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, we’d like to thank our patreon patrons, and our theme music is by John Judd.
Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.