Media Borough History : An Electrifying Experience

Written by Adam Levine
Chair, Media Historic Archives Commission

On April 9, 1901, when James William Daltry Sr. was ten years old, he was playing with friends in the driveway of George Darlington, who lived where the Holly House Condominium now stands on Providence Road in Media. The boys were horsing around, and while reaching for what he thought was a stick thrown by one of his friends, Jimmie instead grabbed onto the uninsulated end of a wire that was dangling from a nearby electric pole.

The Philadelphia Times (and many other newspapers around the country) carried a brief story the next day, with this sad headline: “Picked Up Live Wire: Youth May Die From Injuries Received.” The article stated that Jimmie’s hair and part of his scalp were burned off, and that, until his father, John L. Daltry, came to his rescue and pulled the wire out of his son’s grasp, “sparks were being emitted from the top of the boy’s head and body.”

But that was not the end of the story. A Media doctor, J. H. Fronefield, worked on the boy all night, and after eleven hours finally revived him. The day after the incident, he was sitting up in bed, talking to a reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. “To tell the truth, Mister,” he said, “I don’t think I know what it was that hit me.” That front page article’s headline tells it all: “Electricity Could Not Kill Jimmie Daltry: Vitality of the Boy Withstood Overwhelming Current of 1050 Volts.” One of the story’s subheads called Jimmie a “Human Pyrotechnical Display,” referring to the “long, viscous blue sparks…springing from [the boy’s] feet and from his head.”

Jim Daltry, as he came to be known as a young man, was an all around athlete who played shortstop on local baseball teams, and as Media’s “youngest businessman,” he ran a cigar shop on Orange Street when he was twenty-one. He later coached basketball and played on company softball and bowling teams. In 1911 he married Bertha Habbersett (of the local meat packing family), and they raised two children, James Jr., and Dorothy. His 1960 obituary in the Chester Times makes no mention of his early accident. But it might not come as a shock to learn that Jim Daltry worked 40 years for the Philadelphia Electric Company.

NOTE ON THE PHOTOGRAPH: This photograph, from the Appleton Collection in the Media Historic Archives, is labeled cryptically: “Daltry Case.” I eventually determined that it shows photographer Stephen Appleton’s recreation of the incident described above, and thought it might be illuminating to show how I went about my research. In the photo three boys and a girl are standing in a yard, with two stone pillars in the background. A fourth boy lies on the ground, holding a white flag—this is either Jimmy Daltry himself or someone representing him. I identified the location by zooming in on the background, which shows familiar buildings in downtown Media, taken from what I thought might be Providence Road. The pillars looked familiar, and in fact one of them is still standing on the Holly House property. Maps from the early 20th century, in the Media Historic Archives, identified this as one being the property of George Darlington. I then did a search in and found the story of Daltry’s near- electrocution. I don’t remember the exact search terms—some combination of Daltry and Darlington—but remember feeling that I had gotten very luck to find this story. The photographs were probably used as evidence in a legal case filed by the Daltry family, but a further search of newspaper record turned up no articles about such a case, and have yet to consult the county court ledgers to see if any records of this case exist.