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How Dangerous Were Fourth of July Celebrations in the Early 1900s?

Fireworks have always had the potential to be dangerous, but at the turn of the 20th century, they were particularly so. Once firecrackers, Roman candles, and other explosive devices became easily attainable by the public, Independence Day celebrations grew into big, colorful events. But those crowded festivities meant to honor the free soil on which America stands failed to take into account something else about that soil: the danger inherent in it. Lurking just beneath our feet is the bacterium known as Clostridium tetani, which causes tetanus if it gets inside you. With all of the fireworks going off, and blank pistol cartridges being fired, it was only a matter of time before infected shrapnel caused illness, and it did so in such a big way that the ensuing public health issue became known as "patriotic tetanus" or "patriotic lockjaw" (tightening of the jaw muscles is one of the most dreaded tetanus symptoms). Almost two-thirds of the 1,531 deaths related to Fourth of July explosives between 1903 and 1909 were caused by tetanus. The scourge continued for several years, finally coming to an end as access to tetanus antitoxin became widespread.

The terror of tetanus:

  • Tetanus kills approximately 90 percent of those who do not receive treatment.

  • Although tetanus is a type of infection, it is not contagious.

  • Tetanus can be caused by stepping on something rusty, but it also can be caused by a bite from a dog or other animal, or even from burns.

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More Info: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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