July 4, 1876 – The United States was celebrating its first centennial eleven years following the end of the Civil War. In Philadelphia, soldiers from the North and South, “the Blue and the Gray”, marched together. There were lively and soul-stirring festivities held throughout the country, speeches galore, fireworks – or “Gunpowder and Glory” as The Times of Philadelphia reported.
As cannons were fired and firecrackers lit, explosions and costly fires marred the festivities for some. In Philadelphia one headline read “A Salute That Cost One Hundred Thousand Dollars”. Around one o’clock on the afternoon of the Fourth, some boys fired off a cannon salute which ignited a pile of chips behind a flour mill. Within fifteen minutes the entire block was engulfed in flames.
“A Dynamite Horror” occurred around the same time elsewhere in Philadelphia. A druggist, Dr. H.H. Bucher, was apparently experimenting with explosives in an attempt to create his own pyrotechnics:
The doctor, who was a man of scientific mind, had accumulated in the cellar of the house a considerable quantity of dynamite, the properties of which, with sulphuric acid and other combustible chemicals, he had for some time been endeavoring to unite, to effect a pyrotechnic result. It was his ambition to complete his experimenting yesterday, that the people of the lower section of the city might be treated to a grand display of fireworks.1
Around noon, the doctor believing he had achieved just the right mix, sent word for his next-door neighbor to come see the result. Meanwhile, the doctor’s brother came downstairs from their living quarters and two other gentlemen happened to enter the drug store at about the same time. Dr. Bucher held a can of dynamite which exploded and killed the four men instantly.
The result was catastrophic, as evidenced by the newspaper’s account:
The arms of Edward Bucher and Bernard Klosti were blown entirely from their bodies; Young’s body was cut almost in two, and Bucher himself was burned to a crisp. The only one whose features could be recognized a moment after the explosion was Young. The fire did not approach him. The doctor’s identity was established by a heavy seal ring, bearing the mark of the thirty-second degree of Masonry, the Scottish rite. The other two bodies were recognized by the clothes they wore only.2
Dr. Bucher’s wife was sitting near a window in their second story residence when the explosion occurred. She narrowly escaped death herself – an eight by ten foot hole was blown in the floor – but a neighbor rushed into the burning building and rescued her. One can only wonder, what was Dr. Bucher thinking by playing around with dynamite?!?
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, suffragists were conducting a lively meeting – touting “The New Declaration of Independence.” Their speeches, including those of Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, harangued “the national government and society in general for the deaf ear they have turned to the clamorers of universal suffrage.”3
Mrs. Stanton read “The Woman’s Declaration of Rights and Articles of Impeachment against the Government of the United States”. In contrast to the 1776 Declaration of Independence the suffragists were making their own declaration. While the latter spoke of colonists determined to “throw off the yoke of tyranny”, the former demanded “the equal determination of the female portion of this great republic to resist the hard-heeled oppression of the then oppressed but now oppressors.”
Their declaration impeached the federal government for its insertion of the word “male” in the Constitution. If these “incongruities” were not remedied they believed it would “result in the total dissolution of the social fabric of the nation.”
One of the attendees, a Washington, D.C. lawyer named Mrs. Belva Lockwood, defended the cause from a constitutional standpoint. She was hopeful, however, that the following century, unlike the first which had been “governed by brute force”, would usher in the age of reason and the names of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would be rewarded for their efforts on behalf of “suffering women” – and indeed, they eventually were, albeit not until the next century.
DESTRUCTION: What the Centennial Cost Brooklyn
Clearly, the doctors of Brooklyn were kept busy on the 4th, as was the fire department. The reported incidents included:
- Fourteen year-old Patrick Malley decided to have a little fun with a bottle of powder. He placed the bottle on the sidewalk, lit a match – his hands and feet were badly burned.
- Struck By a Sky Rocket – A boy standing on a hill observing the fireworks display was struck on his right side by a mis-fired sky rocket, fracturing two of his ribs.
- Explosion of a Cannon – In two separate incidences, two boys were badly burned by an exploding cannon fired in the yard of their residences.
- Shot in the Thigh – A sixteen year-old boy fired a one-barrel Smith & Wesson pistol from the rooftop of his parents’ home, accidentally shooting himself quite seriously in the thigh.
- Shot in the Eye – A man was shot in the eye while standing on his front stoop. The bullet lodged behind his eye and a doctor quickly arrived to perform “an exceedingly painful and dangerous operation, in which he was successful. He removed the optic and extracted the ball, and then replaced the eye in its natural position.”4
- A Child Shot – A one year-old boy was shot while being carried in his mother’s arms outside their home. The bullet grazed his temple, causing a severe wound.
- Shot in the Forehead – A fifty year-old night watchman was shot in the forehead by an unknown person.
- Bursting a Barrel – Two boys, aged sixteen and twelve, sustained injuries “of a painful nature” after using firecrackers to explode an empty barrel.
Many of the fires which occurred throughout the city were due to a combination of fireworks and carelessness, including: firecrackers thrown into a cellar, firecrackers thrown onto a roof, firecrackers thrown on a wooden awning, firecrackers thrown into a basement, a burning sky rocket setting fire to the roof of Catholic orphanage, firecrackers thrown through a bedroom window, firecrackers thrown down a coal chute, a barrel of firecrackers in a wood shed ignited and more. The fire department had a busy night as well.
I Gave Him a Match
The most shocking of all the accidents stemming from perhaps an “over-celebration” of the “Glorious Fourth” occurred about eight o’clock that evening on Smith Street. Frederick Somerville owned a store on the ground floor of a three-story building, selling cigars and stationery. With the upcoming Centennial celebration he had decided to increase traffic to his store by adding a “large stock of flags, firecrackers, rockets, and all the other combustibles used in the celebration of the day.”
Somerville had also purchased a large quantity of powder, thinking he would place it in small packages and sell it to the neighborhood boys. By the Monday before the Fourth business was so brisk he needed to hire some help. A young man by the name of Francis Lent was recommended to him “for honesty and smartness.” Frank arrived soon afterwards and worked until six o’clock that evening when he left for dinner at his nearby home.
Francis returned around seven o’clock and continued to stand outside the store selling flags and fireworks. Mr. Somerville returned after stepping away for a few minutes and told Frank it was dark enough to light the lamps. Frank replied, “Yes, sir” and went into the store while Somerville took over the stand.
Frank went behind the counter, climbed onto a chair, filled a lamp with oil and lit it. While attempting to climb the chair again, he carelessly threw the match to one side. KABOOM!! “In the twinkling of an eye the store was lighted with the brightness of a furnace, followed by a noise of the explosion of powder, and a rumbling sound, as though the walls of the building were giving way.” Mr. Somerville, “at first stunned and stupefied” recovered consciousness to discover his store was in flames.
Within minutes a crowd of over two thousand people arrived at the scene. Firemen were called and while frantically attempting to extinguish the fire someone realized that Francis had not been seen – “Where’s Lent?” Firemen rushed into the store, groped around in the flames and nearly suffocated, but found no sign of the young man. They concluded he must have escaped unnoticed – that is until one of the firemen stumbled over something resembling a “rotten log of wood.” Upon touching it, a sickening odor was emitted. “My God!” he exclaimed, “I guess this is Lent.”
Other officers rushed to examine the body but were unable to distinguish it from a roll of black cloth or a human frame. They removed his body on a stretcher and took it to the police station. Most of the crowd forgot about the conflagration and rushed to the station house, crowding around the stretcher. The Lent family, frantic and overcome with grief, arrived. Mr. Lent could not identify his son.
He sank into a chair and Mrs. Lent fainted. The crowd, as well as the officers, were visibly affected. All the clothing had been burned from his body – all flesh burned to a crisp and black as jet. Meanwhile, the fire was still raging.
The rear of the store had been blown away and apparently Frank was the only casualty although dozens of others were injured. The following day the fire marshal began an investigation. Somerville gave him the details:
My young man, Frank Lent, a clerk, asked for a light and I gave him a match and saw him trying to put out a fire in a torpedo box; I said, “leave that for God sake, think for your life.” I dragged him to the door between the back room and the front store; then the explosion took place and I did not see him any more; I rushed upstairs to save the child and the explosions kept going on all the time. I had about $300 work of fireworks on the premises. I did not attempt to make a light, I gave Lent the match and he attempted to light the kerosene lamp suspended from the ceiling in the back room. The powder was in a keg near the back window. I had no license to sell powder or fireworks.5
The Fires of Patriotism
On July 6, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle praised the heroic efforts of the city’s fire department. During the period from nine o’clock on Monday the 3rd, until nine o’clock Tuesday the 4th, thirty houses had been set on fire by firecrackers. Damage estimates weren’t complete yet, but the Eagle was questioning “whether the damage is not greater than anything rational in the celebration justified?” Was the destruction of property, the injuries and deaths cause for the discontinuation of the firecracker business?
Hereafter we trust there be an abundance of decoration and a rational indulgence of social and generous impulses, but unless we desire to go down to posterity as lunatics at large, let the firecrackers be discontinued. The disposition which finds pleasure in noise is childish at the best, but when to be gratified it involves the spreading of tun and personal suffering, common sense is bound to suppress it.
Maybe the editorial rant made its point – the following year there were no such incidences reported during the Fourth of July celebration. From the headlines, it appears the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Indpendnece was indeed “a blast.”
Today fireworks are still dangerous and as we celebrate the 239th anniversary of our nation’s independence, the world is in ever-increasing peril from pending monetary collapse to widespread threats of terrorism. Still, we have much to be thankful for – be safe this holiday weekend and GOD BLESS AMERICA!
Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!
© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.