Among the victims of 1902's Fourth of July were:
• Miss M. Postlewait, who was hurt by a flying iron bolt while she was riding a streetcar at North Avenue and Wells Street. The bolt was propelled by the explosion of a giant firecracker.
• Robert Kuhn, 13, of 6607 S. Park Ave., who with his cousin Mary exploded firecrackers while his parents were out of the house. When the firecrackers were used up, he started playing with a revolver. He put a bullet through his brain and was killed.
• Willie Theiss, 10, who was hit and injured by a piece of a wagon axle that had been turned into a homemade toy cannon and detonated at 441 Irving Ave.
• A bank teller in Troy, N.Y., who blew off his hand with a firecracker. "Maddened by the pain," he stabbed himself to death with a potato knife.
Such was the celebration of our country's birth at the beginning of the 20th century. Firecrackers, toy cannons and revolvers left a hundred or more dead every year and thousands injured in the U.S.
The holiday had become so predictably deadly that it was often heralded with articles even before it happened. "Gore and Glory of Fourth here — Thousands flee to Country, leaving City for the small boy to blow it up if he can," read one headline.
Newspapers then loved hyperbole, but it is hard to argue with the name they used: the "Insane Fourth."
It didn't have to be that way, and the Chicago Tribune decided to do something about it. In so doing, the paper helped create the holiday as we celebrate it today.
Critics had lamented the bloody Fourth for decades, but in 1899, the Tribune counted the toll. It ordered its correspondents to gather statistics on Fourth-related casualties from 250 cities. The paper put the story on Page 1 and printed the initial totals: 33 killed and 1,730 hurt. The number left maimed would probably rival those of theSpanish-American Warthe year before, said an editorial that blamed increasingly large explosives. "At the risk of deep juvenile displeasure, it may be frankly stated that the giant firecracker is a murderous nuisance," the Tribune said.
Even worse, many of the injured would be dead by August, thanks to lockjaw, dubbed "patriotic tetanus."
The Tribune was accused of hand-wringing for printing the numbers. "Is it too late for the conference at The Hague to take up this subject?" mocked Iowa's Sioux City Journal.
The Tribune kept it up, printing casualty statistics year after year. "Thanks to you my two boys, 8 and 9, came through the 4th unscathed," wrote one reader in a letter to the editor.
The Tribune had many allies in this era of Progressive reform. Well-off city dwellers were launching crusades to improve cities that had grown dense, dirty and dangerous. "This is about the modernization of the American city. What should a city look like?" said DePaul University associate professor of history James Wolfinger recently.
But some Americans simply wanted to enjoy the holiday as they saw fit, which created a problem: No anti-fireworks law would truly work unless it enjoyed the support of public and police.
An early ordinance that targeted "cannon crackers" resulted in arrests one year, but most of the offenders were freed before they got to the station, the Tribune complained. In one case, the paper said a green police officer who didn't realize the law was considered "a joke" by the public tried to arrest a boy, only to have a mob try to liberate the youth.
In 1909, a nationwide campaign started for "A Safe and Sane Fourth of July," with backers writing appeals, collecting endorsements of governors, and even producing a movie about a pretty widow who persuaded a widower mayor to adopt a "Safe and Sane" law.
By 1911, Chicago and 160 other cities limited or banned fireworks. In 1916, fatalities plunged to 30 from a peak of 215 in 1909.
There was a new way to mark the Fourth: parades and pageants. As for fireworks displays, they were put into the hands of professionals. The controlled Fourth was safer and served another of the reformers' goals, instilling American values. On Michigan Avenue in 1911, 200,000 turned out to watch parades of glittering troops and German, Irish, Bohemian and Lithuanian floats exemplifying their "racial loyalty and American patriotism," the Tribune reported.
Editors stayed vigilant in their "Safe and Sane" campaign, raising the alarm as late as 1932, when guns and fireworks injured 55 in the Chicago area. The leading cause of Fourth deaths that year, though, was the automobile. Today, federal law limits the size of firecrackers, even in states like Indiana that allow them.
A Tribune columnist in 1944 wistfully recalled his childhood Fourths, when "Pop" fired his salute to the day with a revolver. "Such was the Insane Fourth of dreadful reputation," the columnist wrote. "We prefer its memories to the ennui of today's alleged sanity."
Maybe so, but in all of 2011, there were only four deaths in the U.S. from fireworks.