June 26, 2011

Cannons, Pranks, and Scaring Horses: Happy Independence Day!

In our current era, pranks are usually played on April Fool's Day and on Halloween. But in the 19th century, the Fourth of July was also an occasion for youngsters to cause mischief.

In his 1932 book Black Tavern Tales, Stories of Old New England, Charles Goodell describes what life was like in Dudley, Massachusetts in the 19th century. Boy, the kids really got into a lot of trouble!

The Black Tavern in Dudley.

Dudley's town common featured a historic Revolutionary War cannon, and on the Fourth of July the local boys would fill it with paper, grass and wet rags. Oh, and lots of gunpowder. They'd heat up a scythe blade, stick it in the cannon, and then run for cover as the gunpowder ignited. It all sounds like fun and games, but Goodell relates than one year a friend was hit in the face by the exploding cannon. His eyebrows were burned off, gun powder was embedded in his skin, and he was temporarily blinded. Luckily he recovered his sight, but the powder marks never left his face.

Other pranks were less life-threatening. The boys would ring the church bell at midnight to signal the beginning of Independence Day, and then run around down in the darkness taking gates off their hinges. The gates would be hidden in bushes or tall grass. Annoying, but at least no one was blinded.

The Dudley boys also enjoyed scaring horses by throwing firecrackers under their hooves. Goodell writes,

Frightening horses by tossing lighted firecrackers near them was considered legitimate sport. If your horse bolted in consequence of a firecracker exploding under its feet, you got little sympathy. You should have known better than to take your horse out on the Fourth. So most people stayed home and ate watermelon and ice cream...

So I guess despite all the noise and mischief, at least most horses in Dudley had the day off.

If you want to read about an even more raucous celebration, check out my post about Independence Day celebrations in Haverhill, Massachusetts.

Have a good Fourth, and don't do anything to scare the horses!

1 comment:

Rich Clabaugh said...

Thanks for the post Peter! It's funny how such pranks were tolerated back in the day!