Brighton Beach Lightning Strike Felt By Thousands, Kills Six – July 30, 1905
When walking through Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, you can come across fancy mausoleums and simple grave markers of the famous and infamous. F.W. Woolworth, Fiorello LaGuardia, Duke Ellington, Bat Masterson and Herman Melville are among the half million souls interred in this historic place.
Then out of the blue you may stumble across the lives of ordinary New Yorker’s memorialized in an extraordinary way. Such is the Demmerle monument.
Unlike many other tombstones which record a name and birth and death years with a short epitaph, the Demmerle memorial is an ornate series of carved monuments which tells and shows the story of one family’s tragedy.
Sunday July 30, 1905 started out as a beautiful, sun-filled, hot day and an estimated 250,000 New Yorker’s sought out the seashore of Coney Island for pleasure and a refuge from the heat. Charles Demmerle age 51, his wife Emilie age 49 and their two sons, Frank C. age 23, and Charles R. age 22 all residing at 372 East 16th Street Flatbush, spent the day with their cousin Robert T. Wasch age 16 at Brighton Beach.
After a day of swimming the weather started changing. At 4 pm the sky darkened and swimmers left the water as rain began to fall, coming down heavier and heavier as the minutes passed. Many took refuge near the Parkway Baths on the beach at Ocean Parkway.
As the rain fell, thunder and lightning approached the beach, a large flagpole topped by an eagle on the Boardwalk near the Parkway Baths became a gathering spot for thousands of beach goers seeking shelter. They congregated around the pole, on the boardwalk and under the boardwalk which covered the beach.
There were a few vivid flashes accompanied by thunder cracks before the big one came.
John Manzer, a witness standing on the boardwalk and looking up described what happened next. “A ball of fire seemed to start right up at the eagle’s beak and travel downward around and around the pole. Right at the crosstrees it spread out and seemed to drop into the earth with a noise I will never forget.”
The flagpole was split in half. Everyone on or under the wet conductive boardwalk and sand beneath it was given a jolt and those nearest the flagpole were literally thrown to the ground. Thousands of people felt the electrical shock. After the screaming subsided, it was noticed that five people were blue from head to toe and stone dead. Frank and Charles Demmerle, their cousin Robert and two others, all near the base of the flagpole were killed instantly. At least nine others suffered serious burns. Simultaneously, a sixth man standing under a tree in nearby Gravesend was killed by what was believed by some to be the same bolt that had struck in Brighton Beach.
The dead were taken to a nearby room when Mrs. Demmerle came by looking for her missing boys.
The New York Times reported that she took one look at the bodies stretched out on the floor and fell forward crying “Oh, my boys! The dear boys to whose future I had looked forward with so much pride. I warned them not to go into the water when the storm came up. I feared even then that some evil was about to befall”
The Demmerle’s put up this poignant monument to commemorate their loss. The large memorial stone has three bronze reliefs showing the young men. The monument also has set into the stone in bronze relief the depiction of the lightning bolt striking the flagpole and the boardwalk.
The words on the front of the monument read simply “Our Fondest Hopes Lie Buried Here!” with the names and ages of the three young men. Beneath that it says “TAKEN SUDDENLY IN AN HOUR OF HAPPINESS. STRUCK BY A BOLT OF LIGHTNING.” The rear of the monument contains a long anguished poem.
Parents, Emilie and Charles’ Demmerle’s monument to the left of their sons and nephew depicts a life size statue of mother Emilie, sitting on a tree stump, offering flowers, her head cast down in mourning, with a broken tree limb above her.
It is truly a magnificent work of funereal art and it certainly calls attention today to the fact that this family’s anguish is worthy of remembrance and a retelling.