Red, White, and (ka)Blue(y): Firecrackers and “Wife Beaters” on a “Safe and Sane” Fourth

The use of fireworks in America to celebrate special occasions is as old as America itself, of course.

No, wait. Older than America itself:

For example, the people of the British colony of New York celebrated the birthday of England’s King George I in 1716 with fireworks. (The Boston News-Letter, first published in 1704, is regarded as the first continuously published newspaper in British North America. The British government subsidized the newspaper, and the governor of the colony approved all editions.)

Later that century, of course, we Yankee doodle dandies declared our independence and traded King George for President George, and ever since we have celebrated the Fourth of July with fireworks. This clip from 1777 describes the celebration of the “anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America” in Philadelphia, which included “a grand exhibition of fire-works” that “concluded with thirteen rockets.” “The city was beautifully illuminated.”

Fast-forward to the nineteenth century. Now there was a town called “Fort Worth” in a state called “Texas.” But this notice for the annual Fourth of July “old-fashioned” barbecue at the Cold Springs in 1856 does not mention fireworks. Three years later Sam Houston would attend the barbecue.

Now fast-forward to the twentieth century. The population of the United States was about ninety million in 1907. Fort Worth’s population had exploded from less than five hundred when Sam Houston spoke here in 1859 to seventy thousand, due in large part to the railroads and stockyards-packing plants complex.

In 1900 Associated Press had begun reporting how many Americans were killed and injured—most of them by fireworks—in Fourth of July celebrations. As of July 6 in 1907 fifty-nine Americans had been killed and 3,807 injured that year—a record, AP wrote. Some people were injured each July Fourth when fireworks frightened horses, causing them to bolt.

In reaction to all that celebratory carnage in 1907, in 1908 many cities promoted a “safe and sane” July Fourth campaign to limit death and injury, especially by fireworks. The headlines in the July 5 Telegram declared Fort Worth’s “safe and sane Fourth” to be a success as “Small Boys Escape Injury” by firecrackers. Twenty thousand people went to the city’s three trolley parks (White City, Lake Como, Lake Erie). At Lake Erie five thousand people watched a fireworks display. At Lake Como the main entertainments were races and a dance contest. Two thousand people went to Riverside Park, where the main entertainment was races, and “fireworks played but a small part in the day’s program.”

However, Associated Press reported seventy-eight fatalities and 2,594 injuries (1,944 by fireworks) nationwide. The Dallas Morning News called the numbers “appalling.”

Then came 1909. Independence Day fell on a Sunday, meaning a three-day celebration for some.

Associated Press reported forty-six fatalities, 984 injuries nationwide: a “marked decrease” in “the annual carnage.” The Dallas Morning News credited large cities for issuing licenses to sell fireworks to a limited number of reputable dealers and for forbidding the sale of “giant crackers, toy pistols, dynamite canes and similar deadly weapons” to “children or irresponsible persons.”

Likewise, on July 5 the Star-Telegram reported a “sure enough ‘sane’” Fourth in Fort Worth with only four injuries through July 4. Sales of fireworks had been restricted, and “explosives” had been prohibited on Main and Houston streets.

Ah, but one more day of the three-day holiday (July 5) remained.

“Four Hurt in Fourth of July Riot at Lake Como!” the Star-Telegram shouted across the top of page 1 on July 6.

The story was news across Texas.

The Star-Telegram reported that fifteen thousand people were at Lake Como park on the night of July 5. That was a big crowd for a park that size and for a city with several parks for celebrants to choose from. In 1909, when automobiles were not yet common and Lake Como was still outside the city, most of those celebrants from Fort Worth would have traveled to the lake on the Arlington Heights Boulevard (Camp Bowie) streetcar line, which ran directly to the park. Fare was a nickel.

Seems the riot began on the causeway, which stretched from the entrance of the park across the lake to the large wooden pavilion. This photo from about 1912 shows the pavilion and causeway.

This map shows the causeway over the lake between the pavilion and the loop of the streetcar line.

Here is the “fuse” that set off the riot: On the causeway a man struck a young woman with a “wife beater.” The woman was being escorted by Lawrence McCart, son of Robert McCart, a prominent lawyer and land speculator who had owned hundreds of acres in what became British-born Humphrey Barker Chamberlin’s Arlington Heights addition.

And what, you ask, was a “wife beater,” which the Star-Telegram report described only as “a new carnival device”?

Other newspapers of the time reveal that a wife beater was a novelty made of cardboard folded in such a way that it created a loud noise when slapped against a surface—such as another person. It resembled a slapstick. The wife beater was banned by some cities.

And what is a slapstick?

A slapstick is a wooden device that dates to sixteenth-century Italian comedy. A main character in Italian comedy was Pulcinella (the basis of Punch in the Punch and Judy shows), who used a short stick to hit other characters, including his wife. His “slapstick” gave its name to the physical comedy form that was popular in vaudeville in 1909.

In fact, in 1909 the Star-Telegram published an article with instructions on how to make your own slapstick.

Meanwhile back at the riot, young McCart took exception to the man’s affrontery and “was himself struck over the head with a stick” (the wife beater?). The assailant then fled across the causeway, pursued by “a crowd of at least 100.” The assailant disappeared into the crowd.

But then a free-for-all erupted among about 250 members of the crowd.

Meanwhile, another man hit another woman with a wife beater. This woman’s escort, like young McCart, took exception. He knocked the assailant to the ground and kicked him into the lake.

Meanwhile, pavilion manager Thomas C. Bunch and three other men—two of them special police officers—tried to break up the free-for-all. The rioters attacked the four men and surged into the pavilion, where rioters smashed chairs and tables and glassware. Two rioters were taken into custody, but then the other rioters began trying to free the two prisoners and succeeded in freeing one. Meanwhile, the two special officers called for police reinforcements from downtown. Two police officers requisitioned an automobile and arrived at the scene within ten minutes.

In the heat of the riot someone ignited a wagonload of fireworks on the dam. The fireworks were to be used in a display later that night. “Skyrockets and Roman candles mingled with firecrackers. . . . Explosions, streaks of light and color, rockets and balls of fire shot in all directions from the wagon. . . . The wagon was blown to pieces and a small bridge destroyed.”

What a scene Lake Como must have presented that summer night as a free-for-all was fought beneath the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air. Like a reenactment of the War of 1812.

But soon manager Bunch secured a revolver and used it to get the attention of the rioters.  The Fort Worth Record reported that Seventeenth District Judge James W. Swayne, who on more than one occasion provided the voice of calm when emotions ran high in Fort Worth, “also took part in quieting the crowd. Standing upon the cigar case [?], he told the people there was no trouble to amount to anything and for them to be quiet and orderly. He also deputized every private citizen in the crowd to see that the law was not violated.”

Between Bunch’s show of force and Swayne’s appeal to decency, the mob began to disperse.

Amazingly, after the dust and gunpowder had settled, only four injuries were reported. Damage was estimated at $750 ($20,000 today).

By 3 a.m. the three-day celebration of Independence Day had blown itself out. Lake Como park was quiet again.

“Happy birthday, America. Now go to bed!”


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