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When the Fourth of July Was a Day of 'Carnage' in New York City

By Nicole Levy | June 28, 2016 11:11am | Updated on June 30, 2016 7:35am
 An illustration of boys celebrating the Fourth of July by stuffing gunpowder into a toy cannon.
An illustration of boys celebrating the Fourth of July by stuffing gunpowder into a toy cannon.
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NYPL/Eugene Zimmerman

The use of fireworks in New York City has been outlawed by state penal law since 1909, but that’s never stopped rogue New Yorkers from celebrating the anniversary of America's independence from the British with pyrotechnics. On our nation’s birthday, you’re bound to hear explosions far from the Macy’s barges on the East River.

Still, you shouldn’t underestimate the state’s reasons for banning them in 1909.

According to the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” cited in a pamphlet by anti-noise crusader and public do-gooder Mrs. Isaac L. Rice, Fourth of July celebrations from 1903 to 1907 claimed the lives of 1,153 Americans and injured 21,520 more. Among those injured, 88 lost their sight, 389 suffered partial blindness, 308 people lost arms, legs or hands, and 1,067 lost one or more fingers.

In New York City alone, three people died and 321 suffered injuries during July 4th festivities in 1909, according to the New York Herald Tribune. The year prior, seven people died and 253 were hurt.

The Fourth of July had such a reputation for danger that New York City hospitals stocked hundreds of vials of tetanus antitoxin to cure blood poisoning, prevent lockjaw and, as a Herald Tribune article from 1909 under the headline “Ready for Carnage” put it, “cope with the emergencies of over-patriotism.”

It wasn’t the roman candles and pinwheels that proved to be the most lethal when held in hand: toy cannons and blank cartridge pistols were “two of the most dangerous mediums.” The wadding of the latter often caused a poisonous wound, the newspaper reported.

“The day was one of terror to parents, who, while deeming it unwise to interdict to their sons the enjoyment of gunpowder, dreaded to see them maimed or disfigured for life by some unlooked-for accident,” wrote Robert Haven Schauffler, author of a history of Independence Day, recalling his memories of growing up in New York City.

scary calendar

A creepy 1904 advertisement for a monthly magazine depicting a child with a firework and a calendar of the month of July (credit: NYPL)

In her scathing pamphlet, Mrs. Rice took a far less sympathetic view of the holiday’s rabble-rousing: if an outsider were to encounter Fourth of July celebrations, “our annual massacre,” she wrote, “I doubt whether he would have so exalted an opinion of a people who could desecrate so noble a memory by so barbarous an observance.”

In its stead, she envisioned a holiday marked by readings of the Declaration of Independence, performances of patriotic music and “displays of fireworks in open places, where the exhibitions can be conducted by experienced men, thus avoiding all danger of the shocking accidents which now sadden our celebration.”

Rice wasn't the only American with a vision of a "sane fourth of July." 

"It seems extravagant to hope for a sane and safe Fourth, but it's coming," predicted a 1909 New York Herald Tribune editorial. "In fact, it has arrived in several small cities, and maybe next year New Yorkers will not have to flee to the woods, stuff their ears with cotton, increase their fire insurance and wonder whether their offspring will lose their hair, their eyes or their fingers."

A sea change would follow reform in small towns like Springfield, Massachusetts; Hinsdale, Illinois and Roebling, New Jersey, which hosted civically coordinated firework displays, as well as parades, games and other activities "which delight and occupy the younger generation to a degree that eliminates the passion for blowing up things," the editorial reads.

safe and sane

Credit: Library of Congress/L.M. Glackens

On May 26, 1910, the mayor of New York City, William J. Gaynor, appointed a committee to organize Gotham's very own "safe and sane Fourth," which was to be funded through donations from private citizens and groups. Gaynor himself launched the collection drive with a check for $100, which he described in a letter to the committee chairman, "my contribution according to my means."

Fundraising proved to be no easy task, but the New York Times would ultimately declare the event a victory for Gaynor. The day was, in the paper's estimation, "bombless, firecrackerless, and revolverless, but not joyless."  

"Fathers cake-walked and danced in City Hall Park instead of buying firecrackers. The grown-up boys paraded instead of setting them off, and ... at night there were displays of fireworks, but they were controlled and developed no casualty list," the Times reported.

Only one New Yorker lost her life that day, according to the Tribune Herald. Almost 200 suffered injuries, but still far fewer than the 321 hurt the year before. The city also saw a 93 percent reduction in the number of fires, per the 1911 Annual Report of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society to the Legislature of the State of New York, with a decrease in the cost of damage from $14,620 in 1909 to $1,630 in 1910.

Mrs. Isaac L. Rice was not just pleased, but "jubilant over the comparatively noiseless celebration in the Fourth of this city," the New York Sun reported, "and said she hoped Mayor Gaynor would do more for the cause of peace before leaving City Hall."