The Horses Behaved Better Than Many People: Taunton’s Fourth of July

Old Colony History Museum
6 min readJul 3, 2023

By Eric B. Schultz

By July 4th, 1900, America’s most patriotic holiday had become its most lethal.

In Taunton, Samuel Goodwin of Lawrence Street lost his third finger to a cannon cracker. Patrick Goldrick lost his thumb to another. A little boy watching others light firecrackers on the Taunton Green singed his eyebrows and, the Taunton Daily Gazette noted, “The wonder is he didn’t lose his eyes.”

Edward Morris lit too much cannon cracker with his cigar, ripping the buttons off his vest and burning his hand. Fortunately, the paper added, Morris eased his burns with a visit to Ripley & Brigg’s drug store in East Taunton (presumably one of the Gazette’s good advertisers). Had that remedy not been available, alcohol was generously provided by “perambulating rumshops” circling the Green.

But these mishaps were just the beginning of Taunton’s patriotic celebration in 1900, the last of the old century.

George Brown of Godfrey Street put a bullet from his 22-caliber revolver into his right leg. Some anonymous marksman shot a pistol ball through the window of E.E. Rogers’ barbershop on Weir Street.

Edward P. Coleman was riding his horse up Cohannet Street near Church and Burt’s stable when a man threw a giant firecracker under the animal’s nose.” Fortunately, Coleman kept his mount under control. “There were times,” the Gazette reporter wrote, “when it seemed actually dangerous to walk across the street, so many cannon crackers were flying through the air, and so reckless were the people behind them.” In general, he concluded, the horses behaved better than many people.

And then there were the fires.

A cracker thrown on the roof of Dr. Gillon’s on Broadway had the fire department on the run. Another alarm called them too late to an unoccupied home on Winter Street belonging to the Elbridge Dean estate, which burned to the ground. Miss Georgia Crossman’s home on East Britannia Street was damaged by fire. A bonfire set on School Street near the Union Club House was so dangerous that it had to be extinguished.

The Gazette placed Taunton’s patriotic mayhem of 1900 in context, saying it was “The Usual Grist of Accidents and Fires,” eased slightly by rain on July 3.[1]

The “Safe and Sane” National Movement

In 1902, the American Medical Association began collecting July 4th national accident statistics. Totals for July 4th, 1903 — thought to be understated by half — noted 4,449 accidents countrywide. This carnage included the loss of 85 eyes, 54 legs, arms and hands, and 174 fingers. That year’s Fourth of July festivities also resulted in 466 deaths, most of which came from tetanus after suffering a wound. Many of those wounds were caused by toy pistols and blank cartridges.[2]

By 1904, bills were circulating at city and state levels to bring some sanity to America’s favorite patriotic holiday. The Daughters of the American Revolution proposed a bill in Massachusetts that would outlaw “fire-crackers more than three inches in length and one half of an inch in diameter, and of all fire-crackers containing dynamite or other high explosives, other than gunpowder, and of toy pistols, toy cannon and blank cartridges.”[3]

Ultimately, however, Cleveland, Ohio, would lead the charge.

On July 3, 1908, a sparkler demonstration inside a Cleveland Kresge department store set off $30,000 worth of fireworks in a nearby display. Five people were killed and dozens burned. The Cleveland Congress of Mothers mobilized. Ten days later, on July 13, 1908, the city’s Council voted to approve an ordinance forbidding the sale or possession of any “toy pistol, squib, rocket crackers or roman candles or other combustible fireworks, or any article for making of a pyrotechnic display.” This short ordinance became landmark legislation adopted nationwide and embraced by the incoming administration of William Howard Taft the following year.[4]

By 1910, Massachusetts had acted. “Everybody should know that the ‘safe and sane Fourth of July law’ took effect upon its passage,” The Boston Globe reported in May, “so that in Massachusetts now the blank cartridge, the toy pistol, dynamite, nitroglycerine and picric acid firecrackers, and in fact any crackers bigger than your little finger are already under the ban.”[5]

President Taft celebrated the Fourth of July that year by visiting Boston, Chelsea, Somerville, and Everett, presiding over two parades. There might not have been the “ear-splitting bursting of cannon crackers, nor sharp report of revolvers and cracking of torpedoes,” The Boston Globe noted, but there was still “the singing of school children and the cheers for President Taft.” And, if the President’s six feet, 330 lbs. wasn’t impressive enough, all six feet-ten inches of Fred R. Smith from Bellows Falls, Vermont, appeared dressed as Uncle Sam to awe children with his size and a monstrous American flag.

Taft was enthusiastic about this first “safe and sane” celebration, addressing a group of children after the parade with a direct (and perhaps indelicate) sentiment, “I always preferred a live boy or girl to a dead or wounded one . . . .”[6]

Taunton 1911: Safe and Sane

So, on July 5, 1911, it was with pride that the Taunton Daily Gazette announced: “Total number of accidents — none!”[7] That year’s patriotic observance, the paper said, “will go down in history as the quietest ever held locally.”

Of course, the holiday didn’t lack noise or good cheer, nor did the police take time off.

Main Street was jammed with celebrants by 8 p.m. on July 3. A few small firecrackers were heard after midnight, but most noise came from horns, bells, and “numerous other noise-making contrivances.”

One form of entertainment that survived from prior years was the “coax fight.” A few young men would “congregate and look daggers at one another,” drawing a huge crowd anticipating a rumble. All the time, they would be “winking knowingly at each other” until the police arrived and chased them to some new location, where the charade would begin again.

Impromptu parades erupted on Taunton streets. Several vehicles were stolen by “reckless young men.” One crowd came racing down School Street driving a harrow stolen from a local barn. The police also sprinted from place to place, putting out bonfires. A fruit stand near Star Theatre was robbed, not the only retailer to lose merchandise.

However, by 1911, the city of Taunton, the Old Colony, and much of the United States had adopted “safe and sane” Fourth of July practices. “At both local hospitals,” the Gazette concluded, “physicians in general denied any knowledge of accidents in connection with the celebration.”

In a decade, one observer noted, a holiday that had featured “the lavish consumption of gunpowder” had traded “perils and disasters” for “enthusiasms and inspirations.”[8]

May your Fourth of July celebration be safe, sane, fun, restful, and patriotic this year, full of enthusiasms and inspirations!


[1] “Taunton’s Fourth,” Taunton Daily Gazette, July 5, 1900. “Taunton and Vicinity,” Taunton Daily Gazette, July 6, 1900.

[2] “The Great and Glorious,” The Pittsfield Sun, May 19, 1904.

[3] “The Great and Glorious,” The Pittsfield Sun, May 19, 1904. For a summary of current fireworks law in Massachusetts, see

[4] “Safe and Sane Fourth of July,” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, Case Western Reserve University, Web May 15, 2023, Also, “Cleveland’s Saddest Fourth — The 1908 S.S. Kresge Fireworks Explosion,” Gray and Company Publishers, Web May 15, 2023,

[5] The Boston Globe, page 1, May 31, 1910.

[6] “Thousands Cheer Taft,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 1910.

[7] “Not An Accident Of Any Importance Occurred in Taunton,” Taunton Daily Gazette, July 5, 1911.

[8] “The Great and Glorious,” The Pittsfield Sun, May 19, 1904.



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