J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, February 04, 2013

Gun Accidents in the Founding Era

According to Chris Rodda at Free Thought Blogs, in a recent sit-down with television entertainer Glenn Beck, the debunked author David Barton stated:
I have searched and in the founding era I think I’ve only ever found two gun accidents and everybody was hauling guns back then. You took your guns to church, you were required by state law in some states to take your guns to church. We didn’t have accidents because everyone was familiar with how to use them.
It’s not clear what “law in some states” about taking guns to church Barton had in mind. Clayton Cramer’s Armed America notes laws in colonial South Carolina in 1724 and 1739 requiring white men to bring their weapons to church because of fear of slave rebellions, but those were exceptions. If it had already been usual for “everybody” to go to church armed, the colony wouldn’t have needed new laws to require the practice.

It is clear that Barton’s search for “gun accidents” in the “founding era” was inadequate and produced findings that match his political preferences, not the historical record.

The Boston News-Letter carried this report on 15 Sept 1774:
On Monday last, another very melancholy Accident happened at the same Place [Roxbury].—Mr. Henry Wilson, Baker, in the 32d Year of his Age, having just finished making Bread, spoke to a small Lad, who was standing by him, in Mr. Howe’s Bake house, and told him to take a Gun, and he would learn him the Exercise; the Lad accordingly took a Gun, not knowing it was loaded, and placed it upon his Shoulder,—Mr. Wilson then gave the Words of Command, when he came to the Word Fire,—the Lad instantly pulled the Trigger, and to his inexpressible Grief, shot Mr. Wilson (through the Head) dead on the Spot. The Jury of Inquest returned their Verdict, accidental Death.
That was just when the Massachusetts populace was strengthening its military organization. Was the trained American army free from firearms accidents? Not according to the the diary of Pvt. Samuel Bixby of Sutton:
21st [July]. Friday. A man of Col. Reed’s Regt. was accidentally shot. . . .

7th [Sept]. Thurs:—A Lieut. in Col. Cotting’s Regt. was accidentally shot in the side.
In between those events came this one on 16 August, from the diary of Pvt. Caleb Haskell of Newburyport:
To-day the sentries fired at each other all day; an express came from Cape Ann for men; a number of riflemen marched off; one of the riflemen was shot through the back by accident, but not mortally wounded.
On 16 September, a year and a day after the Boston New-Letter reported the death of baker Henry Wilson, Pvt. Aaron Wright, a Pennsylvania rifleman at the siege of Boston, wrote:
One of the musketmen killed another by accident.
So that’s five “gun accidents” in a little over a year, at least two fatal, all in eastern Massachusetts. And all reported in sources published several decades ago.

TOMORROW: And later in the war?


Anonymous said...

Boston Post-Boy, March 18, 1774 Issue 867, P3
We hear from Martha's-Vineyard, that Mr. Eadey Manter, of that Place, being on a Militia Muster, went to discharge his Musket, which being over-charged, split, whereby he had his Hands tore to Pieces, and otherwise wounded so badly, that he died a short Time after.

Chris the Woburnite

Anonymous said...

Connecticut Journal [New Haven] Dec. 2 1774 p.4
On Wednesday last the following melancholy accident happened at the house of Mr. Frazier Collet, near Ame[?]sham, between ten and eleven o'clock at night :-- Some of the family were alarmed by a noise in the yard, which they imagined was occasioned by some persons endeavouring to break open the house. Mr. Collet went up stairs with a loaded blunderbuss, and looking out of a back window, saw a man in the yard, at whom he immediately fired, and lodged the contents of the piece in his body. As soon as the neighbours were gathered together, they went to the body of the supposed robber who proved to be Mr. Collet's own son. The unfortunate young man had been in London, and was not expected home till the succeeding day, but returning at the above time, and having the key of the garden gate, let himself in, which occasioned this lamentable catastrophe.

Chris the Woburnite

Anonymous said...

Bost. Eve. Post: Mar 26, 1750 --
Last Friday, a very melancholy accident happened at Brookline, to a son of Mr. Josiah Quincy of this town; between 15 and 16 years old, viz: This youth had been shooting of robins, and having got over a fence, was drawing his gun after him, when it unfortunately went off, and the whole body of shot entered between his shoulder and body, and went out under his should blade, so that he is in a very dangerous condition.

NY Weekly Journal: Apr 2, 1750 --
Some few days ago, as a man in Talbot county was hammering the flint of a loaded gun, she went off, and shot an elderly man who was near him, in on of his thighs, when seven swan shot, in a terrible manner; tho' twas thought he would recover.

Bost. Eve. Post: Oct 15, 1750 --
On the 30th of September past, a sorrowful accident happened at Andover, viz: a lad about 8 or 9 years old, being left at home with one or two other children, took up a loaded gun, and playing with it, it went off, and shot on of the children in the breast, and killed it on the spot.

New York Gazette: June 20, 1763 --
[On Saturday] another person out on fowling, near this City, was kill'd by the accidental discharge of his piece through his head, as he was leaning against a fence observing others on the same sport ready to discharge.

Penn. Chronicle: May 27, 1771 --
We hear from Chesterfield, in New Jersey, that on Tuesday, the 14th instant, was suddenly summoned hence, in the 18th year of his age, by the accidental discharge of a gun (which it was supposed went off at half-cock, by a person's attempting to remove it from the place it stood in) Mr. Edward Page Jr., the only son of Edward Page, of that place. He was a young man much esteemed, and whose unfortunate death is therefore greatly lamented by all who knew him.

Providence Gzt: May 21, 1774 --
Mr. George Chace, of East Greenwich, who was killed by the accidental discharge of a musket...

The Spy (Boston): Jan 19, 1775 --
DIED: At Providence, Mr. Thomas Bigelow. His death was occasioned by the accidental discharge of a musket, which a person was exercising with, not knowing it to be loaded.

{And there are HUNDREDS of other such items to be found]

Anonymous said...

There actually was a reference in Connecticut to church goers always bringing their guns to church during the start of the Revolution. The irony was that the story was told in the context of fights between the Patriots and Loyalists when a church full of parisioners with guns was not enough to prevent the church preacher from being kidnapped and taken hostage by a group of loyalists.
KMillman, Minnesota

Robert S. Paul said...

As a firearms enthusiast AND a user of a flintlock musket, I find it highly unlikely there were never any accidents. Although if you're careful with them and they're regularly cleaned, they're fairly reliable, I wouldn't trust them anywhere near what I would trust a modern cartridge firearm when it comes to safety.

Also we didn't have Col. Cooper's Four Rules yet. :)

Xathos said...

It is just more proof that Barton and Beck are not interested in factual history, but rather in a version that supports their concept of what America should have been and what they want it to be.
You can easily see that they are attempting to distort the historical record to support their opinions of gun control in today's America.

John L Smith Jr said...

I also believe a young Henry Knox blew his fingers off when a gun misfired? Which is why in his most famous portrait (hanging in Faneuil Hall), his damaged hand is on the cannon and unseen.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for all the examples!

The news story about Josiah Quincy’s son is particularly interesting since there’s a story about (what I assume is) the same man setting off a gun near a young woman as a joke and supposedly sending her into such hysterics that she never married. I believe that’s in Grandmother Tyler’s Book.

There's a temptation to look back on the whole "colonial" or "founding" period as the same, but I bet that we'd find more references to people carrying guns as worries about war, slave revolts, and similar dangers heated up. The story from Connecticut is clearly a wartime story, and I think my first example of the boys teaching each other how to drill (with poor results) shows sudden increased interest in military knowledge.

J. L. Bell said...

I decided to save mention of Henry Knox's accident for a few days. His gun burst, so it could have been a problem with the technology of the time; as Robert Paul notes, firearms have definitely become more effective for the shooter, usually meaning safer.

Then again, as one of Chris's examples shows, a bursting gun might be caused by overloading—i.e., operator error.

Historianess said...

I believe that in Virginia men of militia age were also required at certain points to carry their guns to church, again for fear of slave rebellion. Lt. Governor Gooch wrote about how exhausted the militia became in 1729 after a reported threat of slave rebellion. I can check on these tomorrow, but South Carolina was not unique in that respect.

Moreover. One of the first deaths at Jamestown in 1607 was caused by a friendly fire incident during militia training. I could go on...

Anonymous said...

I had a similar accident myself, although it wasn't a Revolutionary War firearm; it was a Civil War musket. I was shooting it at an outdoor firing range. The musket was supposed to take a particular measure of black powder; the way it was measured is that you poured it from the powder container into a tube, and then into a smaller device that held the correct charge. But on one shot, I forgot the second step and rammed in the tube's entire amount. When I fired, I was slammed with the most horribly loud bang in my right ear, almost deafening; a great deal of smoke was in the air, and my forehead was burning. I reached up and pulled out a flange of the percussion cap, which was sticking into my forehead. Besides sending the ball on its way, the overcharge had flashed back through the nipple and the percussion cap that was on it, blowing the metal cap to pieces. Fortunately, these injuries weren't serious. -- Joe Bauman

Heather Wilkinson Rojo said...

An accident about 1700, Reading, Massachusetts as told in “Genealogical History of the Town of Reading, Massachusetts”, pages 72-3.

“Tradition says that his was the first framed house in the Precinct, and that it was early used as a garrison house in the Precinct, while there were hostile Indians in the Colony. Another circumstance connected with this family is, that on a certain Sabbath all the family were absent at church (five miles distant) but two daughters of Sergt. Flint, who were left at home in charge of the house. During their absence, one of the daughters took a pistol, and aiming it at the other, said: "Suppose you were an Indian, how easily I could shoot you!" At that moment the pistol went off and lodged its contents in the shoulder of her sister, which crippled her for life. Mary, the wounded daughter, is listed as a cripple in her father's will. Sergt. Flint was selectmen of the town and a very influential citizen.” This is my ancestral family. I descend from a brother of the little girls in the story. You can read more about this incident at my blog "Nutfield Genealogy" at this link: http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2010/10/amanuensis-monday-horrific-accident.html

Shannon Combs-Bennett said...

I have an example from the 1850s that I found in an ancestors Civil War pension file at NARA. At 12 he accidentally shot and killed his 10 year old brother while they were loading wood into a wagon in the wilderness of Iowa.

Janet said...

One of the camp followers on Benedict Arnold march to Quebec in the winter of 1775 was Mrs. Grier, a sergeant's wife, described in the journal of John Joseph Henry as a large, virtuous and respectable woman....No one so long as she was known to us dared to intimate a disrespectful idea of her." Mrs. Grier made it to Quebec but came to a tragic end."A woman belonging to the Pennsylvania troops was killed today by accident—a soldier carelessly snapping his musket which proved to be loaded."

Steve MC said...

Excellent comments here.

About Barton's remark that "We didn’t have accidents because everyone was familiar with how to use them," I was reminded of this recent article about just how safe guns are even among their enthusiasts.


J. L. Bell said...

I knew I had filed another example of a gun accident in the period above, but I just couldn't find it last month.

It's from the journal of Samuel Hawes, 28 Apr 1775: “...one abial Petty axedentely discharged his peace and shot two Balls through the Body of one asa cheany through his Left side and rite rist.”