‘Toy-pistol tetanus’

Dozens of young Sangamon County residents were injured, and a few killed, by toy pistols during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The pistols were a regular feature of the Fourth of July, which is when the vast majority of injuries took place. Wounds inflicted by toy pistols were so frequent, and so widespread, that they got special attention in a 1915 book, Gunshot Injuries: How They Are Inflicted/Their Complications and Treatment, by Louis LaGarde, formerly a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps.

Images of lethal toy pistols from the 1880s are rare, but they probably resembled this 1880s' cap gun (minus the modern orange muzzle plug). Cap guns did not use the dangerous cartridges (eBay)

Images of lethal toy pistols from the 1880s are rare, but many probably resembled this cap gun (minus the modern orange muzzle plug). Cap guns did not use the dangerous cartridges (eBay)

The toy pistols of the time were essentially blank pistols, loaded with copper-jacketed cartridges that didn’t contain bullets, but did contain explosive powder and cloth or paper wads that held the powder in. Most injuries involved powder burns, although some pistol-packing boys lost fingers or eyes to pieces of cartridge or wadding.

But the most dreaded result was lockjaw – modern-day tetanus – which almost always resulted in death. LaGarde estimated that as many as 160 people died annually of what was known as “toy-pistol tetanus,” most of those around Independence Day (and most, presumably, boys or young men).

Tetanus, which took several days to develop, often resulted from what seemed like a minor injury. The Illinois State Journal described the last hours of Frank Austin, 16, a Kentucky resident who was visiting in Chatham when he played with a toy pistol on July 4, 1903.

Austin “expired in terrible agony,” the paper said.

(H)e was unable to receive food all day yesterday, and his last hours were spent in the tortures of paroxems (sic), which were heartrending and terrible to behold.

The boy was injured on July 4 while playing with a toy pistol. Particles of a cap entered his left hand, and after a few days symptoms of lockjaw appeared, and his condition became so serious that he was removed to the hospital here Saturday. Every effort of the hospital surgeons was directed toward saving his life, but all to no avail.

Austin was one of two toy pistol fatalities in 1903. The other was Charles Wartenbe, also 16, of the north-end suburb of Ridgely. Wartenbe suffered what appeared to be a minor powder burn while firing a pistol July 4. He died of lockjaw 10 days later.

Two toy-pistol deaths the same year were unusual for Sangamon County – the county probably saw a total of six to 10 deaths due to the pistols between the 1880s and 1913.

Even discounting deaths, however, the number of injuries caused by blank pistols and similar items was substantial. The Illinois State Register reported this tally on July 5, 1881.

There were quite a number of accidents of minor character during the day, all of them, nearly, resulting from that devilish little article, the toy pistol. Abraham Collins, Pat Duffy, James Hanson and a son of C. Deilig were shot through the hands. … Hanson had a portion of a finger torn away by a toy cannon, and the member was amputated. T.S. Lanson had his left arm fractured by a pistol ball. It was set by Dr. Dixon. A little son of Tom Leary was shot through the hand by a toy pistol at the fairgrounds, and a son of Frank Riley, of the Junction, had his hand torn by a pistol which exploded in a street car.

It took 30-plus years of death and injury, and nearly as many years of newspaper editorials, before the Illinois General Assembly voted to make it a misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $5 to $25, to sell or give away any “toy pistol so constructed that it can be used to shoot blank cartridges.”

schs-logo-2Gov. Charles Dunne signed the law on June 27, 1913. That same day, young Walter Hartman of South Fifth Street shot himself in the face with a toy pistol. “It was feared that he would lose the eyesight in one eye, but the powder scattered and he is doing nicely,” the Journal reported.

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.



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