In The Early 1900s Americans Celebrated the 4th Of July Exuberantly, Though It Killed & Maimed Lots Of ‘Em

At The Turn-Of The Century, 4th of July Celebrations Injured Thousands and Killed Hundreds of Revelers

4th of July Accidents - 1915 World AlmanacThis small informative chart was reprinted in the 1915 World Almanac. The Journal of the American Medical Association provided the statistics of accidents occurring during Fourth of July celebrations from 1904 – 1914.

According to the AMA the most accident prone cities were:

Pittsburgh, PA
Cincinnati, OH
Providence, RI
Worcester, MA
Syracuse, NY
Omaha, NE
Grand Rapids, MI
Hartford, CT
Reading, PA
Wilmington, DE
Des Moines, IA

In a large city, like Philadelphia, PA, 22 were killed and 422 injured on July 4, 1907. Usually the cause was fireworks related.

Do's and Don't of Fireworks New York Tribune 1908

A fireworks warning to children (who were smart enough to read a newspaper?) from The New York Tribune, 1908

Foolish acts by children causing injuries included pinning a string of firecrackers on to the back of another unsuspecting child. Another dim-witted act was throwing a lighted firecracker or shooting a roman candle at somebody. Adults and children setting off dynamite or other strong explosives often ended with tragedy. Many times a person who got hit with fireworks had their clothing set on fire. These were all common ways to “celebrate” America’s independence.

More Victims Than The Revolutionary War

Chicago Daily Tribune July 5, 1906 Fourth of July deaths

Chicago Daily Tribune – How People Were Injured Or Killed on July 4, 1906 (click to enlarge)

Before 1903 no reliable records were kept on Fourth of July accidents. According to a 1908 New York Tribune article it was conservatively estimated that the total for the last decade was 47,000 killed or injured. That is three times the number of American Army casualties in battle during the entire Revolutionary War.

The reported injuries Americans suffered from 1903 – 1907 reads like a gruesome stat book. 477 were blinded, 308 lost legs, arms or hands, and 1067 lost some of their fingers.

Another common cause of mayhem was people discharging firearms erratically. Children especially were guilty of picking up guns believing they were unloaded or had blank cartridges in them. They would innocently aim and shoot putting a bullet directly into their playmate’s body. Too often the result was usually instant death.

An unusual but all too common cause of death was lockjaw resulting from tetanus. Every year dozens of people died of tetanus after the July 4 festivities, and were added to the death tally.

After being struck by a blank cartridge fired from a pistol or a self inflicted explosion usually on their hand, the poisonous explosives would enter the victim and they would develop tetanus. An agonizing demise would follow within a week or so. Recovery from tetanus occurred in just one in every 270 cases. In 1904, the State Board of Health of Pennsylvania declared that nationwide 406 people died of lockjaw the previous year due to Independence Day celebrations.

There were calls to prohibit the sale of blank cartridge guns, but to no avail. Any child could buy one, the cost, 25 cents. In 1905, the “toy” blank pistol and cartridge manufacturers had sales estimated at $2.4 million on the Fourth of July.

There were many holiday victims who were just minding their own business and were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On July 4, 1911, Martha Minnie Cerwinsky of Windber, PA was standing on a second story porch of the Midway Hotel watching the fireworks festivities.  The Windber Fire Company was setting off explosives in pipes to guide rockets in the air, when one pipe exploded into many pieces. One piece of pipe went flying into Martha’s neck, severing her jugular vein and nearly tearing off her head. She suffered for ten minutes before dying.

The American Medical Association ceased issuing its annual Fourth of July casualty tabulations in 1916. Newspapers and municipalities had always appealed to educate the public on the dangers of fireworks with the Safe and Sane program. Deaths and injuries on the Fourth of July were never truly reduced. But over time the celebrations were definitely less boisterous.

Fireworks No Longer The Leading Cause Of Death On The Fourth

The AMA resumed their annual fireworks report in 1936. Many hospitals did not return the AMA’s questionnaire and countless other injuries were treated at home and went unreported. Even so, the AMA’s incomplete survey disclosed that 7,738 people were treated at hospitals for injuries caused by explosives on the Fourth of July. Only two people contracted tetanus.

The rising popularity of the automobile saw more families celebrating the Fourth of July by driving to parks and recreation grounds for picnics. Others went to the seashore to sunbathe and swim. Car accidents rapidly replaced firework mishaps and tetanus as the leading cause of death on the holiday. Over the four day Fourth of July holiday in 1940 the death toll from fireworks was only four. 115 people died in auto accidents.

But as long as there are tempting and dangerous Fourth of July activities, you can be sure there will be stupid people ready to engage in them.

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1 thought on “In The Early 1900s Americans Celebrated the 4th Of July Exuberantly, Though It Killed & Maimed Lots Of ‘Em

  1. Kevin

    When we were kids, we were allowed to get so close that the fireworks would shower down on us as they approached the ground.

    Reply

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