One of the staples of newspaper journalism in the early 20th century was the annual July 5 roundup of Independence Day mayhem, much of it caused by children’s attraction to fireworks.
What probably was the worst local Fourth of July-related accident took place on July 3, 1907, in Chatham, when a 5-year-old girl and her 9-year-old brother were killed and the rest of the family badly injured in the explosion of seven cans of blasting powder.
The children’s father, William Heffron (the family’s last name was misspelled “Haffron” in some newspaper coverage), a mining engineer, brought the blasting powder home from the Chatham mine where he worked as the basis for Fourth of July fireworks. Heffron left the cans, each of which held three gallons of powder, in the back yard.
The Illinois State Register reported what happened next.
The plans for the celebration of the next day were discussed at the supper table and the children were much impressed with the idea of the splendid fireworks and left the table before their parents, going to the yard to look at the cans of powder.
Little Mary, who was but 5 years of age, lighted a match near one of the cans and the explosion of all the powder followed.
Thomas Heffron, 9, tried to pull his sister away after the first can exploded, but was fatally injured. He died the next day.
Maggie, 11, and 3-month-old Ernest, who Maggie was holding when the explosions took place, were badly burned. “It is probable that all of the children will be terribly scarred when their wounds have healed permanently,” the Register said. Their parents, William and Rose Anna, who rushed outside after the first blast and were caught when the other cans exploded, suffered burns to their hands and faces.
The neighborhood, and in fact the whole town, was aroused by the explosion, and flocked to the scene to render such assistance as they could. A local physician took charge of the children and advised that they be taken to Springfield and to a hospital where they could have the best of care. Accordingly the children were taken aboard an interurban car, and accompanied by the mother and a number of friends, went direct to S. John’s Hospital at Springfield.
Word was sent ahead and an ambulance belonging to Kirlin & Egan was at the interurban station when the part arrived. On their arrival in Springfield, all of the children were in very critical conditions. (Mary died in her mother’s arms on the train – ed.)
Interestingly, William Heffron, who hoped to celebrate Independence Day so spectacularly, was an immigrant from England. He had lived in the U.S. for less than 20 years.
The Fourth of July 1907 was particularly dangerous for children in Sangamon County. Three-year-old Etta Reynolds, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Reynolds of Springfield, suffered burns “from the knees up” when an exploding firecracker somehow ignited her dress.
“(I)n awful agony, she died at 8:30 o’clock,” the Register reported.
Several other children were injured over the 1907 holiday, along with a number of adults. The Register’s matter-of-fact roundup, published July 5, reported:
*Bartender Charles Fernandes shot himself in the foot while loading his pistol “preparatory to celebrating the Fourth of July. …The ball went through the man’s shoe, through the instep of the foot, through the floor and lodged in a beer barrel in the basement.”
*A 12-year-old on East Jackson Street was slightly injured in a powder explosion.
*Albert Schen, “a Syrian residing in the vicinity of Concordia college,” was seriously burned in the “premature explosion of a giant cracker. … (H)e will probably recover unless complications should set in.”
*A 10-year-old who lived at 14th and Adams streets was slightly injured when a wad from a blank cartridge was shot into his hand.
*John Wheeler, 21, was almost certain to lose an eye after another “giant cracker” exploded in his hand.
*A 12-year-old from West Calhoun Avenue lost his right thumb and part of his right ring finger when a toy cannon exploded.
*A preacher’s son “was painfully injured” while playing with fireworks.
*Another premature explosion badly lacerated the right hand of a young boy on East Carpenter Street, “but no fingers were lost.”
*“The small son of T.W. Wickham of 1325 West Edwards street was painfully injured yesterday by the premature explosion of a toy pistol.”
*“Harry Starr, a small boy who was celebrating Independence day in the most approved fashion yesterday, was painfully injured by the premature explosion of a toy cannon.”
Springfield city officials and editorial page writers frequently urged residents to observe “safe and sane” Independence Day celebrations in the early 20th century. The city council in 1912 even went so far as to ban cannon crackers, repeating cap pistols and other very powerful explosives.
Nonetheless, the Register reported July 4 that the days preceding the holiday had been marked by “practically the usual amount of noise.” However, the paper went on to hope that children, at least, had less access to powerful explosives than in years past.
“(T)he greatest danger rests,” the Register concluded, “with the grown-ups who are not satisfied with a sane celebration, but go to such extremes that sometimes the results are disastrous as well as dangerous.”
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