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Independence Day in the Late 1840s

Author Photo
By Sam Moore

Read this delightful story about a Fourth of July celebration back in the late 1840s and the chaos that ensued.

celebration
Illustration courtesy of Digital Public Library of America
Mayhem on Independence Day.

Thomas Bailey Aldrich, (November 11, 1836 – March 19, 1907) was an American writer, poet, critic, and editor. He wrote a semi-autographical book of his boyhood years, titled, “The Story of a Bad Boy,” and gave the following account of a typical Independence Day celebration of the day.

We began the celebration in the stable-yard, where we set off two packs of fire-crackers in an empty wine-cask. They made a prodigious racket, but failed somehow to fully express my feelings. The little brass pistol in my bedroom suddenly occurred to me. It had been loaded many months before I left New Orleans, and now was the time to fire it off. Muskets, blunderbusses, and pistols were banging away all over town, and the smell of gunpowder set me wild to add to the universal din.

When the pistol was produced, Jack Harris examined the rusty cap and prophesied that it would not explode.

“Never mind,” said I, “let’s try it.”

I had fired the pistol once before and I shut both eyes as I pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked on the cap, nothing! Then Harris and Charley Marden tried; then I took it again, and after three or four trials, the obstinate thing went off with a tremendous explosion, nearly jerking my arm from the socket. The smoke cleared away, and there I stood with the stock of the pistol clutched in my hand–the barrel, lock, trigger and ramrod having vanished into thin air.

“Are you hurt?” cried the boys, in one breath.

“N–no,” I replied, dubiously, for the concussion had bewildered me.

I can’t imagine what led me to do so ridiculous a thing, but I gravely buried the remains of my beloved pistol in our garden, and erected a slate tablet that read, “Mr. Barker formerly of new Orleans, was killed accidentally on the Fourth of July, 18__.” Charley remarked that he shouldn’t be surprised if the pistol-butt took root and grew into a mahogany-tree or something. He said he once planted an old musket-stock, and shortly afterwards a lot of shoots sprung up! Jack Harris laughed; but I didn’t see the joke.

We were joined by several others on our way to the Square, which was always a busy place when public festivities were going on. Feeling that I was still in disgrace with the Captain, I thought it politic to ask his consent before accompanying the boys, which he gave with some hesitation, advising me to be careful not to get in front of the firearms. As I was passing through the hall, Miss Abigail slipped a brand-new quarter into my hand.

Great were the bustle and confusion on the Square, now thronged by crowds of smartly dressed towns-people and country folks; for Rivermouth on the Fourth was the centre of attraction to the inhabitants of the neighboring villages.

On the Square were twenty or thirty booths arranged in a semi-circle, gay with little flags and seductive with lemonade, ginger-beer, and seedcakes. There were tables at which could be purchased the smaller sort of fireworks, such as pin-wheels, serpents, double-headers, and punk warranted not to go out.

It was a noisy, merry scene. The incessant rattle of small arms, the booming of the twelve-pounder firing on the Mill Dam, and the silvery clangor of the church-bells ringing simultaneously–not to mention an ambitious brass-band that was blowing itself to pieces on a balcony–were enough to drive one distracted. We amused ourselves for an hour or two, darting in and out among the crowd and setting off our crackers. At one o’clock the Hon. Hezekiah Elkins mounted a platform in the Square and delivered an oration, to which his “feller-citizens” didn’t pay much attention, having all they could do to dodge the squibs that were set loose upon them by mischievous boys.

Our little party, not being swayed by eloquence, withdrew to a booth on the outskirts of the crowd, where I treated the boys to root beer at two cents a glass. I recollect being much struck by the placard surmounting this tent: ROOT BEER SOLD HERE.

The influence of my liberality working on Charley Marden, he invited us to take an ice-cream with him at Pettingil’s saloon.  The saloon, separated from the shop by a flight of three steps, had about it an air of mystery and seclusion quite delightful.

When we had seated ourselves around the marble-topped table, Charley Marden in a manly voice ordered twelve sixpenny ice creams, “strawberry and verneller mixed.” It was a magnificent sight, those twelve chilly glasses, the red and white custard rising from each glass like a church-steeple, and the spoon-handle shooting up from the apex like a spire. We fell to with a will, and so evenly balanced were our capabilities that we finished our creams together, the spoons clinking in the glasses like one spoon.

“Let’s have some more!” cried Charley Marden, with the air of Aladdin ordering up a fresh hogshead of pearls and rubies. “Tom Bailey, go tell Pettingil to send in another round.”  I looked at him to see if he were in earnest. He meant it. In a moment I was at the counter ordering a second supply, but on returning to the saloon, what was my horror at finding it empty!

There were the twelve cloudy glasses, on the sticky marble slab, and not a boy to be seen. A pair of hands letting go their hold on the window-sill outside explained matters. I had been made a victim.

I hadn’t a cent, and couldn’t stay and face Pettingil. I heard him approaching, rushed to the nearest window, and threw myself out. Landing on my feet, I fled down High Street and was turning into Brierwood, when several voices, calling to me in distress, stopped my progress.

“Look out, you fool! The mine! The mine!” yelled the voices.

Several men and boys were making insane gestures to me to avoid something. But I saw no mine, only a common flour-barrel, which, as I gazed at it, suddenly rose into the air with a terrific explosion. I felt myself thrown violently off my feet. I remember nothing else, excepting that, as I went up, I caught a glimpse of Mr. Pettingil leering through his shop window like an avenging spirit.

The “mine” was but a few ounces of powder placed under an empty barrel and fired with a slow-match. Boys who didn’t happen to have pistols or cannon generally burnt their powder in this fashion.

For an account of what followed I am indebted to hearsay, for I was insensible when people picked me up and carried me home on a shutter borrowed from the saloon. I was supposed to be killed, but happily (for me at least) I was merely stunned. I lay in a semi-unconscious state until eight o’clock that night, when I attempted to speak. Miss Abigail, who watched by the bedside, put her ear down to my lips and was saluted with these remarkable words: “Strawberry and verneller mixed!”

“Mercy on us! What is the boy saying?” cried Miss Abigail.

“ROOTBEERSOLDHERE!”

Sam Moore

Published on Jul 7, 2021
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