The Sparkling Susanna Sewall by Edward Chaney

Patricia Samford was so pleased to have the very first guest blogger on Maryland History by the Object.  Colleague Ed Chaney agreed to prepare this post while she is away in Maine hiking around Acadia National Park.  Thanks, Ed!


Susanna Sewall’s bodkin
Photo courtesy of Naval District Washington

In 1999, archaeologists at the Naval Air Station, Patuxent River recovered a silver-plated bodkin inscribed with the initials “SS”.  A bodkin is a blunted, needle-like object that was commonly used by colonial-era women as a tool to aid in dressing, or worn in a cap as a fashion accessory.  The “SS” bodkin was found at the late 17th-century home of Nicholas and Susanna Sewall (18ST704), so it presumably belonged to her (Rivers Cofield and Chaney 2007).  You can learn more about this rare and interesting object at:“SS”Bodkin.html, but in this article I want to focus on a fascinating event that centered on Susanna. 

Susanna was the daughter-in-law of Lord and Lady Baltimore, and lived on a large plantation at the mouth of the Patuxent River.  In 1683, her brother-in-law, William Digges, wrote a letter to the Rev. John Clayton of Virginia, describing a strange incident:

There happened, about the month of November, to one Mrs. Susanna Sewall, Wife to Major Nic. Sewall of the Province abovesaid, a strange Flashing of Sparks (seem’d to be of Fire) in all the wearing Apparel she put on, and so continued till Candlemas: And, in the Company of several, viz. Captain John Harris, Mr. Edward Braines, Captain Edward Poulson, &c. the said Susanna did send several of her wearing Apparel; and, when they were shaken, it would fly out in Sparks, and make a Noise much like unto Bay-leaves when flung into the Fire; and one Spark litt on Major Sewall’s Thumb-nail, and there continued at least a Minute before it went out, without any Heat: All which happened in the Company of Wm. Digges.

The Reverend Clayton had followed the electrical experiments of the great English physicist Robert Boyle (do you remember Boyle’s Law from high school science classes?), and had corresponded with him on the luminosity of American fireflies.  Clayton forwarded Digges’ letter to Boyle, with the following annotation:

My Lady Baltimore, her Mother-in-law, for some time before the Death of her son Cecilius Calvert, had the like happen to her; which has made Madam Sewall much troubled at what has happened to her.  They caused Mrs. Susanna Sewall one Day to put on her Sister Digges’s Petticoat, which they had tried beforehand, and would not sparkle; but at Night, when Madam Sewall put it off, it would sparkle as the rest of her own Garments did. 

Clayton went on to note that the petticoat’s owner, Elizabeth Digges, had also been surrounded by “crepitations” and shining flames, adding, “how it should transpire through the pores, and not be inflamed by the joint motion and heat of the body, and afterwards so suddenly to be actuated into sparks by the shaking or brushing of coats, raises much my wonder.”  According to Park Benjamin, in his A History of Electricity (1898:425-426), Clayton’s account was the “first electrical observation in the New World.”

Clayton’s letter was published in Boyle’s collected works, and was later reproduced in a 1745 report by the Rev. Henry Miles that appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Miles 1746:441-446; Rowland 1895:22-23).  In his paper, Miles included other accounts of “luminous emanations” from bodies, and noted that he had observed something similar when petting a cat, or as a woman brushed her hair.  Of course, today we know that he was describing the phenomenon we call static electricity, but his report appeared just as the first device for storing that electricity, the Leyden jar, was invented, and much was still unknown about it.  This was a period of great scientific interest in electricity, and the workings of static electric generators captured the popular imagination. 


Photo by Ken Bosma. From

The actions and attitudes of Susanna Sewall and her friends also reflect the changing worldviews of her time.  At the beginning of the 17th century, men like Francis Bacon had begun to develop the “scientific method,” based on experimental observation of the natural world.  The educated elite who noted the “sparks” in Sewall’s house were aware of this, and their repeated testing of different items of clothing, at differing times of the day, using various test subjects, was a reflection of this new approach to understanding nature.  They were no doubt acquainted with two men of science from Calvert County — Arthur Storer, a friend of Isaac Newton who is known as America’s “First Astronomer,” and the Rev. Hugh Jones, a naturalist who sent botanical specimens to England that can be seen today at London’s Natural History Museum.  But even while Susanna was involved in the tests, she was afraid that there was a relationship between static electricity and child mortality, because of the experience of her mother-in-law.  This fear derived, at least in part, from an older, supernatural conception of the universe.  We have seen the same thing at the early 18th-century Smith’s St. Leonard site, which we are excavating here at JPPM.  We have found artifacts indicating that someone in the Smith household was collecting “curiosities” from the natural world, like prehistoric stone tools and unusual animals, and probably putting them on display.  At the same time, we have found things like pierced and cut coins that were used to ward off evil, and horseshoes that were hung over mantles for good luck – all indicators that magic was still quite alive for the Smiths.  The Sewalls, the Smiths, and their neighbors had their feet very much planted in two worlds, one rational and scientific, one supernatural and traditional.  To some degree that may still be true for most of us today, but the influences of these two distinct worlds were much more pronounced for early Marylanders, as “shocking” as that seems!  


Benjamin, Park.  1898    A History of Electricity: From Antiquity to the Days of Benjamin Franklin.  John Wiley & Sons: New York.

Miles, Henry. 1746    A Letter from the Reverend Henry Miles D.D. and F.R.S. to the President; Containing  Observations of Luminous Emanations from Human Bodies, and from Brutes; with some       Remarks on Electricity.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, v. 43.    London.

Rivers Cofield, Sara and Edward E. Chaney. 2007    “A Flashing of Sparks”: Susanna Sewall and Colonial Science.  Chronicles of St. Mary’s, v. 34.3.

 Rowland, Kate Mason. 1895    Experience of Mrs. Elizabeth Digges.  William and Mary Quarterly, v.4.1.

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