Some people we cover here and on our YouTube channel led revolutions, boxed Nazis, survived perilous journeys, and won battles almost single-handedly. But not Roy Sullivan. No, Sullivan achieved legendary status because Zeus (or Thor, if you really must) hated him. Throughout his 71-year life, lighting struck him at least seven times. This is his story.
The Early Days of Roy Sullivan
Roy Cleveland Sullivan was born in 1912 in Greene County, Virginia, and beyond that, we don’t know much about him. His troubles began when he was just a young lad. Helping his father reap the wheat harvest with a scythe, Zeus took a potshot at him. Lighting struck the blade of young Sullivan’s scythe, but the boy was unharmed. This incident doesn’t count among the seven confirmed lighting strikes Sullivan suffered throughout his life. In 1936, Sullivan scored a gig as a ranger for Shenandoah National Park in his home state. Working in a national park, Sullivan spent a lot of time in the great outdoors. This improved his chances of tangling with electricity quite a bit.
What are the chances?
The stats vary, but some suggest that, within an 80-year life span, you have a one in 10,000 to one in 15,000. Only around 10% of people struck by lightning die. According to John Jensenius from the US National Weather Service, “It’s such an overwhelming amount of energy that not all of it can go through the person. It’s like taking a gallon bucket of water and in three seconds trying to pour it all through a straw.” There are also different ways you can get pinged by lightning. It can smack you head-on, pass through the ground and fry you, or strike another object and “splash” onto you. It can also travel through a conductive object (like a wire) you’re touching or spit-roast you as it reaches out to a “streamer” on the ground.
The Seven Strikes of Roy Sullivan
Sullivan’s first recorded tango with lightning occurred in April 1942. Hiding from the lighting under a fire lookout tower, lighting struck the tower several times and caught fire. Freaking out, he left the cover of the tower and took a bolt of lightning. It burnt a ribbon up his left leg and cooked his toe.
In July 1969, Sullivan was driving his truck along a mountain road. If he thought he was safe in his vehicle, he was wrong. A bolt of lightning splashed off a nearby tree and caned him through his open window. His hair went up in flames, and he lost his eyebrows and eyelashes. Unconscious, his truck rolled to a stop not far from the edge of a cliff.
In July 1970, Sullivan was just chilling in his front yard when the lightning hit a power transformer and leapt to his shoulder, barbecuing it.
In 1972, a bolt hit an electrical box beside him and jumped to his head. He was able to smother the fire with his jacket but probably thought there was something odd about him. No, attracting lighting is not a good superpower.
In August 1973, Sullivan saw a storm brewing and tried to drive away from it. The storm followed him. Finally, when he thought it was safe to get out of his truck, a bolt travelled down his left arm and left leg and blasted his shoe off his foot. It then jumped to his other leg and fried that back too. Once again, his head caught fire. He put out the flames with a can of water he kept in his truck for lightning-related emergencies.
In June 1976, a particularly malicious cloud hunted Sullivan down and shot a lightning bolt into his ankle. What hair he’d grown back since his last encounter went up in flames.
In June 1977, Sullivan was casting a line in the hopes of snagging a trout for dinner when Zeus took his final potshot. The bolt speared through the top of Sullivan’s head and smoked his guts.
Zeus actually missed one time, too. When Sullivan and his fourth wife were hanging their clothes on the clothesline in their backyard, he pitched a bolt that flew past Sullivan and zapped his wife instead.
The Fate of Roy Sullivan
While the god of the sky failed to smite Roy Sullivan, Roy Sullivan did not. We don’t know his exact motives for taking his own life with a gun in September 1983, but supposedly there were rumours that his wife shot him. This would have been the same wife who got struck by lightning standing right next to Sullivan. According to Robert Jacobsen, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park from 1972 to 1986, “A long-standing rule in the park was that if you see a dark cloud heading your way — get away from Roy Sullivan.”
But what did poor Sullivan think about all this? Who did he think was responsible? “I do not think God is behind this,” he said in an interview. “If he were, the first lightning strike would have been enough.”