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.


The Body of Captain Ward Comes Ashore

The Minneapolis Journal, 23 Feb. 1901

It was the inscription on Capt. William Charles Ward’s simple grave marker at Raleigh’s Oakwood Cemetery that caught my attention:

Went Down With His Ship
City Of Rio De Janeiro
San Francisco Bay

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"Flung Himself From a Tower" (1894)

On the morning of August 23, 1894 banker Col. James Monroe Winstead sedately climbed the stairs to a balcony tower at Richmond’s City Hall, “threw his cane and shoes down” and then jumped to his death, landing on the iron fence over 90 feet below.

As I dug deeper into the circumstances surrounding this gruesome death, I found two additional pieces of information that in some ways shed more light on what happened that day and other ways only open up more questions.

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Man & Dog Shot By Jilted Admirer

This story is of personal significance to me because George Shackelford was my great-great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I started working on my family tree that I even knew his name, let alone the fact that he’d been killed in front of his wife and daughter.

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Descriptions of the Valencia’s Unknown Dead

As much as I love oceans lakes, and rivers one of my biggest fears is being sucked underneath its fierce waves knowing that I’m virtually powerless if the roaring sea decides to claim these mortal remains.

Even so, I find maritime disasters and water-related tragedies fascinating and have written about unfortunates who fell victim to deathly shipwrecks or were otherwise lost at sea: Capt. Ward of the City of Rio de Janeiro, Dr. Reuben Knox, the Flagg family, and the Titanic casualties.

This episode of Lore Podcast left me hungry for more of the 1906 Valencia wreck, which claimed around 136 lives (sources vary) and sparked  a few ghostly yarns.

One of the most commonly quoted accounts from survivor Chief Freight Clerk Frank Lehn is as follows:

“Screams of women and children mingled in an awful chorus with the shrieking of the wind, the dash of rain, and the roar of the breakers. As the passengers rushed on deck they were carried away in bunches by the huge waves that seemed as high as the ship’s mastheads. The ship began to break up almost at once and the women and children were lashed to the rigging above the reach of the sea. It was a pitiful sight to see frail women, wearing only night dresses, with bare feet on the freezing ratlines, trying to shield children in their arms from the icy wind and rain.”

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“Men Blown To Pieces” During Target Practice

Alexander N. Dossett was a 26-year-old seaman in the United States Navy when he sustained fatal burns from a powder explosion during target practice aboard the U.S.S. Massachusetts. He was buried in Durham, North Carolina’s Old Maplewood Cemetery.

Below the photos is a newspaper article from 1903 describing the accident and listing  other casualties. The explosion occurred on January 16 and Alexander died January 22, so when the article was published he was still alive.

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“Tavern Row Is Fatal To Local Sailor”

“Some day we will understand.”

This inscription on Benjamin Dyer’s tombstone in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery has always intrigued me. While the presence of a phrase or quote is not unusual on grave markers this one (combined with the fact that the decedent was only 35) suggested there was an unexpected tragedy associated with Benjamin’s death, something that his loved ones struggled to comprehend.

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Cause of Death: “Saw Throat”

BORN NOV. 27, 1848
DIED JULY 24, 1859
This tall marble grave marker in Danville’s Green Hill Cemetery belongs to ten-year-old Florence Ayres. Her parents were William Ayres, a wealthy tobacconist, and his second wife Julia Ann Henderson Ayres. At the time of the 1850 Federal Census, the only census that Florence was living during, her family lived in Danville. Sadly there is no street address listed on the census. I think it’s interesting to be able to link the house to its former inhabitants & imagine what life was like when they were living there.

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A Ghostly Prank Turns Fatal (1833)

In memory of Elizabeth
Eldest daughter of John B. and Pamela W. Royall
of Halifax County.
She was born in the year of our Lord 1818 and departed this life on the 30th day of July 1833.
Aged fifteen years, 4 mo’s. and 18 d’s.
When blooming youth be snatched away
By Death’s resistless hand
Our hearts the mournful tributes pay
Which pity must demand
While pity prompts the rising sigh
Oh may this truth impress’t
With awful power ‘I, too must die’
Sink deep in every breast”
Elizabeth’s grave in Grove Street Cemetery is memorable for two reasons: she the earliest known burial in the cemetery and according to folklore, the teenaged boarding school student was “scared to death” after a foreboding message appeared on her bedroom wall in 1833.

The plaque by her brick tomb gives an outline of the events surrounding her death. “Elizabeth Royall, a native of Halifax County, died while a student at one of Danville’s female academies. She was supposedly frightened to death by a prank played by schoolmates.”

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