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Samuel Brashear Avis

Charleston Gazette
June 9, 1924


Bolt of Lightning Strikes Dead Two Prominent Local Attorneys While Playing Golf at Edgewood

Avis and Altizer Killed Instantly; Scott Is Unhurt

H. G. Scott, Standing But a Few Feet Away, Unhurt As He Watches Giant Ball of Fire Snuff Out Lives of Friends; Shocked by Unexpectedness of Double Tragedy

That intangible thing, a bolt of lightning, richochetted through space on the links of the Edgewood Country club at noon yesterday, tore a hole through the roof of a summer house and struck dead two of the most prominent attorneys in West Virginia, and through the idiosyncracies of nature left unscathed a third member of the golfing threesome. The dead are:

Captain S. B. Avis, former member of congress and one of the most eminent attorneys of the state.

R. G. Altizer, vice president and general counsel of the United Fuel company.

H. G. Scott, director of the United Fuel company, third member of the party, escaped after a close-up on death.

Scientists say that when there is a discharge of electricity between a cloud and the earth it may destroy and conducting material it may encounter. And, while the players sought shelter in a dilapidated building, the current ripped its way through the decayed roof and destroyed two men of consequence as if they were mere atoms instead of rational human beings, while a third was unscathed as he was a witness to a manifestation of nature when it was in its most violent mood.

Death was instantaneous to Avis and Altizer. When the courier came they were not cognizant of the fact. When the passing had been made they lay on the earth and in their hands were the implements of play, mashies, which they were leaning on when the current struck them and burned them out, and one of the clubs, the one in the hands of Altizer, was marked near the head with a burn that resembled the scar on steel made by an acetylene torch, and not unlike an ulcer or an open sore.

Scott Only Witness

The only witness to the deaths of Avis and Altizer was H. G. Scott, and one of the most dramatic stories ever told was the recital by Mr. Scott of how the lives of his two friends were snuffed out and how he escaped miraculously the fate that overtook his comrades in play. And not the least interesting was his own state of mind, that of grief, rather than an expressed and manifest thankfulness at his own escape, and the innate consciousness of the eternal fitness of things when he thought of his own colorful sporting clothes as he hurried to the caddy house as the spectre of death kept apace with him.

The summer house, which turned out to be a charnal house, is on the most elevated position of the property of the club. It overlooks the entire course and from the pinnacle can be seen the billows of hills rolling to the corners of the landscape. The three had just played the first hole when rain, which had started to fall, became so incessant that they sought the sheltering roof of the dilapidated summer house, closeby [sic]. They casually walked to it, as golfers do who are accustomed to playing in the most inclement weather. Once under the roof which was supported by a heavy timber center pole and smaller side supports, they stood for about half an hour as they watched the violent storm and commented as men often do on the manifestations of nature.

Off to the west a big black cloud, ominous and portending, had assumed threatening prop[o]rtions just as they climbed the hill to the first green. When the players were under shelter they commented on the fact that the rain was all that had been anticipated, and as they stood and gazed on the horizon around them they conjectured the distance off of the rumbling of thunder, and as the forked lightning illumined the skies, resembling somewhat serpents of fire at play, their conversation turned to a discussion of electricity and the scientific causes of the disturbances in the sky.

Tiring of the talk, and the rain showing no disposition to stop, they turned from the elements to a playful attempt to clip balls into a little hole on the earthen floor of their retreat. Altizer and Avis had ended their trials and stood about two feet from the center of the post, leaning on their irons. Scott, four feet away, and just within shelter of the house which had no walls and was but a roof on supports, was stooping to skip his ball, when suddenly there was a crash, almost cataclysmal in its intensity. Scott, in his narrative, says it did not stun him, but rocked him and he probably closed his eyes. Instantly he was conscious of a smell of something burning, an odor not unlike brimstone. And while he was registering these immediate impressions, he fell and stumbled out of the house with an instinct born of fear of the building collapsing. When he recovered his composure, a matter of a few seconds, he was fifteen feet from the house. He hurried back and found his two friends lying still, one just outside the building and the other just under shelter.

Mr. Scott, fearful that the men were dead, but fortified by his scientific knowledge of electricity, its cause and effect, hoped to render some aid. He found the clothing of Altizer burning near the left shoulder. He extinguished the blaze, and then hurried to Avis. The clothing on his right should was burning. He also pinched out this flame. Then, looking around for aid, and seeing no one on the links he ran a quarter of a mile to the club house. It seemed here that circumstances played into his hands for Dr. H. L. Robertson and Patrick D. Koontz, an attorney, had just driven in front of the club house. Although out of breath from his exertions, which at first indicated his own disability as a result of shock, he mumbled some elementary facts about the fate of his friends and Robertson and Koontz hurried up the hill to find two dead men. Dr. Robertson said that death was instantaneous. Scott, in the meantime, had told Mr. Braid, the golf professional, who with his crew started up the hill with sand screens upon which to carry the dead down the hill as it was impossible for an automobile to make the ascent.

Scott, in his narrative, said he felt no ill effects himself and said that he did not even suffer any shock, but he said he felt, on regaining his composure, which really never left him, that he was first conscious of the sport clothing which he wore and which seemed so out of place, so bizarre a costume to wear, as he prepared to break the news of the deaths of his friends and playfellows. Mr. Koontz volunteered to communicate the news to Mrs. Altizer, while Mr. Scott called on Mrs. Scott and told the news to her, who, in turn, notified Mrs. Avis, whose house guest the Scotts have been for 10 days.

The summer house was an open structure, about fifteen feet in diameter and resembled somewhat a hay rick. It was in a state of decay, its pillars rotten and its roof leaky. A survey of the scene of the tragedy eloquently told the whole story. The center support was splintered, and a great rent had been torn into the stick of timber from the roof to the ground, resembling somewhat a groove cut by a sharp wood-working tool. The part of the pole that protruded through the roof was mere kindling wood and parts of it had been thrown as far as 150 feet from the house, yellow, dry reminders of the forces of an element and the non-resistance of frail things.

About eighteen inches from the center of the roof was a hole about four inches in diameter and through this the bolt crushed with its destructive impetus. From the survey of the premises and the narrative of Mr. Scott, coupled with his knowledge of things electrical, he was of the opinion that the bolt struck Altizer on the top of the head, passed through his body and was communicated to Captain Avis, whose body touched that of Altizer as the two men stood as they watched their companion clipping a golf ball. The opinion is fortified by the fact that Mr. Altizer’s felt hat was ripped into shreds. Both men lay with arms outstretched, a condition in which men who meet death by a positive current of electricity, are always found, while an alternating current leaves their bodies in a contracted or tense condition.

The bodies of the dead men were taken to their homes, that of Mr. Altizer to his residence in Edgewood and that of Mr. Avis to his home on the corner of Virginia and Duffy streets. An examination revealed that both men had been slightly burned about the hands, but there was no disfigurement of the countenance.

Were Seeking Shelter

Mr. Scott says that the accident occurred about 12 o’clock, for, while he and his companions were under the shelter of the house, they commented upon the time and were of the opinion that they could finish the nine holes before they were to be joined by their wives for luncheon at the club. Mrs. Altizer had driven her husband to the club just an hour before and Mr. Scott had come with Mr. Avis. It is an unusual and noteworthy incident that Mr. Scott during the past week had been playing every day on the links of the Kanawha County Club where he broke the course record by shotting [sic] a 74 and qualified as the probable winner of a silver cup for the best score during the week of an invitation tournament.

Captain Avis was of the most eminent members of the Kanawha county bar and the legal profession of the state. He was a captain in the Spanish-American war, a member of congress for two terms, was former prosecuting attorney of Kanawha county, and counsel for the Public Service Commission. He was a son-in-law of former Governor George W. Atkinson. He has two children, one son who has been a student at Washington and Lee university where he was taking law, but now in a New York hospital recovering from a serious illness to his hip which necessitated the use of a plaster cast to affect a cure. Captain Avis’s daughter is in her early teens.

Mr. Altizer, vice president and general counsel for the United Fuel Gas company, has four children, the oldest one, “Jack” Altizer, being a student at Dartmouth. Mrs. Altizer before her marriage was Miss Collie Duncan, of Clarksburg. She is the soprano soloist of the choir of St. John’s Episcopal church. Mr. Altizer was considered one of the most able lawyers in the state. Before he came to Charleston he was counsel for the Hope Natural Gas company, and lived in Pittsburgh.

Escape Is Miraculous

Mr. Scott, who so miraculously escaped death, is a director of the United Fuel Gas company, and the Columbia Gas company. He formerly was with the Virginian Power company, and was general manager of the Charleston Industrial Corporation which bought the site and equipment of Nitro from the government.

Announcement was made last night that the funeral of Captain Avis would be held from the residence on Tuesday afternoon at 3:00 o’clock[.] Bishop W. L. Gravatt will conduct the funeral ceremony.

No arrangements have been made for the funeral of Mr. Altizer and none will be made until today, when Mrs. Altizer’s brother and sister, of Clarksburg, will arrive here.


Victims of Lightning Bolt Prominent In Civic Affairs

Captain Avis, Native of Virginia, Located in Charleston Soon After Completing Education in Law College

Captain Avis came to Charleston early in life, after having completed his education at the Staunton Military Academy and Washington and Lee university, where he received his LL.B.

He was born in Harrisonburg, Va., February 19, 1872, the son of Braxton D. and Harriet Elizabeth (Wilson). He received his early education in the public schools and later went to preparatory school at Staunton Military Academy. He went from there to Washington and Lee University where he received his degree as LL. B. Shortly after his graduation from the University he came to Charleston, where he entered the practice of law.

He was married to Florence Mariam Atkinson, daughter of ex-Governor G. W. Atkinson, of Charleston.

He was admitted to the West Virginia bar in 1892 and practiced in Charleston as the senior member of the firm of Avis and Donnally. He was later appointed to the United States District attorney’s office where he was connected for four years, leaving it to serve in the Spanish-American war. In 1898 he was commissioned Captain of Company A, Second Virginia volunteers, and his command was stationed at Camp Meade and Greenville, S. C., ready to embark on transports to the seat of war.

After the close of the war, Captain Avis resumed his duties in the United States attorney’s office, where he continued until 1900, when he was elected prosecuting attorney of Kanawha county. He was re-elected to that office for two more terms after completing his first, quitting the post in 1912. After leaving the public office, he resumed his private practice.

He was a member of the Sixty-third congress, 1913 to 15, representing the Sixth district of West Virginia as a Republican.

He was a member of the Episcopalian church.

Besides being a member of the Edgewood Country club, where the tragedy occurred, he was a member of the Metropolitan and Army and Navy clubs and of Chevy Chase in Washington. He was also a member of the S. A. R. and of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.


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