Death by Patriotic Tetanus

While collecting clippings from historic newspapers about Fourth of July tragedies I noticed an interesting trend in the late 1800s-early 1900s: an alarming number of deaths attributed to tetanus from Independence Day injuries. In fact, there were so many lockjaw fatalities after that particular holiday that the condition became known as “Patriotic Tetanus.”

Tetanus or lockjaw is something that we rarely hear about these days with the availability of the tetanus toxoid vaccine, which  wasn’t developed until 1924. However, people living in the very dark ages of medicine who were exposed to the tetanus-causing bacteria through flesh wounds were pretty much at the mercy of the infection if the available antitoxin serums failed. Taking into account how many people celebrated (and still celebrate) July 4 with firecrackers, reckless pistol-firing, and other potentially bloody activities, it makes sense that “Patriotic Tetanus” was a real problem back in the day. After July 4 festivities in 1903 alone 415 lives were lost to the condition.

The good news in modern times is that you’re less likely to find yourself with lockjaw after Independence Day, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to go out and act a fool. Safety first, people. Even if you’re not at high risk for tetanus you can still learn something from this small sampling of Independence Day death.

Public Ledger 13 July  1882


The Big Stone Gap Post, 20 July 1899
Perrysburg Journal, 17 July 1903


The St. Louis Journal, 16 July 1903


The Daily Journal, 13 July 1903
Daily Public Ledger, 13 July 1909
The St. Louis Republic, 11 July 1905

*Originally posted in July 2014.

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