A Kinder, Gentler Fourth

1918 Fourth of July

The 1918 Fourth of July celebration in Rochester. Mayor Hiram Edgerton is on a platform with Gov. Charles S. Whitman. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

It’s that time of year when, to quote The Simpsons, we “celebrate the independence of [our] nation by blowing up a small part of it.”

All joking aside though, fireworks and their discharge could be a very dangerous–and deadly–activity for early Rochesterians.

Mention of the earliest celebration of Independence Day appeared in the 1844 Rochester City Directory.

The first public celebration here, deserves a passing notice. The few settlers having moved from a more thickly settled portion of the country, and having been accustomed to celebrate “Independence day,” on the morning of the 4th of July, 1812, resolved themselves into a “committee of arrangements.”

The celebration, which took place near the corner of Main and St. Paul streets, featured a feast of lamb, pig, vegetables, bread, pies, and a bottle of whiskey. Twenty people attended; no incidents involving fireworks is reported.

The July 4, 1939, edition of the Democrat & Chronicle describes the 1817 celebrations as “truly a Glorious Fourth, replete with patriotic oratory, a bounteous feast at a pioneer dinner, martial music and explosives” during a holiday “that was not marred by a single accident or unpleasant thing.” Citizens had twice the reason to celebrate, as the holiday also marked the opening of Johnson’s new mill race.

Our next insight into area Fourth of July celebrations came two years later in the Rochester Telegraph, whose July 6 edition includes a small, almost passing mention of a celebration of which the paper had “not room to give a detailed account.” An oration was given by Rochesterville’s first printer, Augustine G. Dauby, and a dinner provided for the occasion at the Mansion House on Carroll Street (today’s State Street). According to the Telegraph, “Harmony and good order marked the proceedings of the day and clearly showed that the ‘era of good feelings has indeed arrived.'”

Those good feelings, however, would give way to a troubling increase in injuries and fatalities as the scale of the city’s celebrations grew in proportion to its population. An 1826 article in the Rochester Album noted that about fifty people were killed in the United States during the Fourth of July that year. The July 6, 1839, edition of the Rochester Daily Democrat described a particularly odd and gruesome incident:

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A program from the city’s 1840 celebration makes no mention of an exhibition of fireworks–only that multiple-gun salutes would occur at sunrise and noon.

A malicious prank during the 1842 celebration resulted in one fatality and a multitude of serious injuries when, at the commencement of the fireworks exhibition on Seneca Street, someone threw a lit firecracker into a basket of fireworks, which “were discharged directly down Main street” (Rochester Republican, July 12, 1842). Joseph D. Fulton died instantly. John Easter’s injuries were so severe that the newspaper offered “little hope of recovery.” A Mrs. Snelling, by sheer providence, was only spared when a rocket that struck her in the chest was deflected by her corset board.

From that time forward, editions of the newspaper following each Fourth of July could be counted upon to feature macabre stories of fun celebrations gone wrong, usually due to alcohol. Commonly performed as a substitute for fireworks during celebrations, the practice of “firing the anvil” often resulted in serious injury. According to the July 6, 1858, edition of the Union & Advertiser (UA),

John Reed was engaged with a party at Fall’s tavern in Greece, firing an anvil, when the plug driven into the anvil flew out, and passing along the side of his face, mangled it in a shocking manner.

Even a simple evening stroll through the city could leave citizens vulnerable to wayward missiles. The July 5, 1867, UA reported that a girl “had her face badly lacerated…by being struck by a rocket stick which was fired in Main street, near the corner of Elm.”

By 1888, the UA had all but given up reporting every detail of the many Fourth of July mishaps that occurred and instead took to listing the injuries, one after another, in a long paragraph of pain and misery. Seven years later, the July 5th headline read simply, “Chapter of Accidents.” After devoting several paragraphs to City Alderman J. Miller Kelly’s injuries from “a premature explosion of a fire-cracker,” the UA went on to highlight the yearly litany of wounds (usually to the face), culminating in the severe hand injury suffered by James Stebbins when someone threw a lit firecracker into the trolley for which he served as conductor.

The City Council attempted to curb the carnage with the 1928 passing of Ordinance 757, which banned the sale and discharge of fireworks within the city limits. However, the law didn’t prohibit the possession of fireworks. That oversight, coupled with the enterprising citizens who set up roadside stands just outside the city line, would result in the steady increase in Fourth of July-related injuries and fatalities.

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Clearly, it was time to get serious. In 1940, Rochester Public Safety Commissioner Tom C. Woods joined forces with State Senator Earle S. Warner to pass a statewide law banning the sale, possession, and use of explosives except at duly licensed celebrations. The new law had the desired effect, as newspapers in subsequent years touted the city’s new “quiet Fourth.” “I’ve never seen it as quiet as this before, and I’ve been on the job here 37 years,” police telephone supervisor Charles E. Mahoney remarked in the July 5, 1944, Democrat & Chronicle. To this day, consumer fireworks remain illegal in New York State. (Even sparklers are off-limits, much to my surprise.)

So if you want to see some fireworks tomorrow, head over to one of the many town-sanctioned displays around Monroe County, or brave the hordes that will be sure to line the streets downtown. Above all, have a happy and safe Fourth of July!

~Cheri Crist, Librarian

Sources

“For a Hospitable–And Not A Hospitalizing–July Fourth.” The Democrat and Chronicle Sunday Magazine (Rochester, NY), July 30, 1939.

“When the 4th Had Clamor.” The Democrat and Chronicle Sunday Magazine (Rochester, NY), June 29, 1941.

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