Countless Cincinnati Children Died Agonizing Deaths Caused By An Illegal Toy

Local parents were in a panic about toy pistols when children actually died—but not for the reasons you might imagine.

In the long history of toys intended to maim our children, from pogo sticks to skateboards to lawn darts and even kites, toy pistols took a definite back seat. They are noisy, it’s true, and some parents believe allowing their children to play with toy firearms will guarantee an adulthood devoted to sociopathic serial killing. In the 1880s, however, Cincinnati was in a panic about toy pistols because children actually died—but not for the reasons you might imagine.

Throughout the 1880s, Independence Day in Cincinnati was followed by the grim toll of children who died from injuries caused by toy firearms.

The Glorious Fourth From Harper’s Weekly 10 July 1869 Page 448 Digitized by Google Books

Beginning just after the Civil war, Cincinnati boys brandished cap pistols, cracking noisily on locally made paper caps loaded with gunpowder. But there were two types of toy pistols sold in the Queen City in those days, and one version was notoriously deadly. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [27 June 1883] took pains to differentiate between the harmless and the harmful:

“The usual warning touching the dangers arising from the use of the ‘toy pistol’ has again appeared in the daily papers. That the pistol which fires a blank cartridge is dangerous, is generally conceded. There is, however, for the young patriots whose enthusiasm on and near the 4th of July finds vent in a noise, a harmless pistol which fires a paper cap. Confusion has arisen between these two toys, and it is but justice to the merchants interested in the manufacture and sale of the harmless toy that the difference should be suggested to the public.”

You read that right. Cincinnati toy stores sold pistols to children that fired a blank cartridge. This newer and more lethal toy first appeared around 1880. As is demonstrated regularly even today, there is nothing safe about being nearby when a blank cartridge goes off.

Despite easy access to blank-cartridge toy pistols, they were illegal in Ohio, prohibited by a bill introduced in April 1883 into the state General Assembly by Senator Walker Yeatman of Winton Place. As the upper house debated the merits of Senator Yeatman’s bill, he produced the actual toy that caused the death of a Cumminsville lad, swaying the vote and ensuring passage. The state law followed a Cincinnati city ordinance of July 1882 prohibiting the sale or possession of toy pistols.

This breech-loaded toy pistol was made to fire blanks, but most Cincinnati hardware stores sold live rounds of the same caliber.

The Deadly Toy From Cincinnati Post 30 October 1885 Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The blank-cartridge pistols were dangerous for several reasons. First, any pistol designed to fire a blank cartridge could be loaded with a live round. Even though the toy blanks were of small caliber, a live round as small as buckshot could be deadly. Such was the sad demise of Albert Edgar, aged 7, at the hands of Willie Schlenker, aged 10. The gun actually belonged to a boy named Tommy Ward, chastised for bringing it home. He gave the toy pistol to the Schlenker boy, who showed it off to little Albert. According to the Cincinnati Post [21 October 1885]:

“Willie drew the hammer back, but having no catch it fell back onto the cartridge again when a sharp crack was the first intimation either boy had of it being loaded. Albert fell to the sidewalk bleeding from a bullet hole in the left cheek just below the eye, while his slayer, bending over him, tried to raise him from the pavement, and begged him to speak and say how badly he was hurt. He was taken to the City Hospital in Patrol No. 1, where his baby form was soon cold in death, with a bullet the size of a buckshot in the base of his brain.”

Even without a live round, the blank-cartridge pistols left a toll of death from an insidious source—tetanus or lockjaw. In those pre-antibiotic days, when hygiene was more preached than practiced, minor scrapes and punctures often terminated in fatality by microbe. Toy pistols were too frequently the agent, according to the Commercial:

“In the blank cartridge pistol which is a breech loader, the wad of the cartridge is propelled from the muzzle of the pistol with sufficient momentum to produce a wound in the hand, which in consequence of the delicate organization of that member, may prove very serious, and even produce lockjaw. In addition to this, particles of copper from the cartridge often get into the hand and produce severe ulcers, resulting at times in the death of the child.”

That grim analysis was not some empty alarmist threat. The Cincinnati Post [15 July 1882] reported a deadly tally:

“The last fourth of July celebration is beginning to bear fruit in the usual number of cases of lock-jaw, or tetanus, from wounds made by toy pistols. Several cases have been reported in this city, five in Covington, one in Newport, and yesterday’s dispatches told of six deaths in Boston, two in Rhode Island, and two in Dayton, Ohio.”

The newspapers of the day regularly reported the heartbreaking details of deaths by tetanus among young children. This Cincinnati Gazette [15 July 1882] squib is sadly all too typical:

“Hattie Stahley, the twelve year old daughter of Israel Stahley, who accidentally shot herself in the hand with a toy pistol on the 4th of July, died yesterday morning at her father’s residence, No. 179 Front, of lockjaw, the result of the wound so unfortunately received. This is the fifth fatal case of lockjaw brought on by toy pistols in this city.”

By the 1890s, the blank-cartridge toy pistol had mostly disappeared from Cincinnati, but young boys are ever creative in their pursuit of novel ways to shoot their eyes out. As the new century rolled in, the deadliest toy around was the Flobert rifle, a cheap, Belgian product firing a .22 caliber “cap bullet”—basically a BB-sized lead ball powered only by the primer from a .22 cartridge. Floberts were made from soft steel and generally cost less than $3.00 during their popular lifetime between 1880 and 1910. More a target piece or varmint gun than a hunting rifle. Thousands were imported to the United States.

On Sunday morning, 25 March 1900, a Cumminsville truck farmer named Fred Lutterbei, 38, chased some boys out of his cow pasture. Among them was Warner Eversull, 17, showing off a new Flobert rifle to several of his chums. As Lutterbei hollered for the boys to vamoose, Eversull raised his new rifle, aimed, and fired. Lutterbei fell to the ground, the bullet having struck him squarely between the eyes, and, ranging upward, came out of the top of his head, He managed to struggle to his feet and, although blinded with blood, managed to make his way home. Lutterbei survived, but Eversull was arrested and charged with shooting to kill.

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