Kites Proved Fatal For Many Cincinnati Children

Life was tough in a frontier town in the 1800s. Even your toys could kill you.

It’s amazing, if you think about it, that your great-grandparents survived to adulthood. As if rampant disease, non-existent sanitation, and complete disregard for occupational safety weren’t enough, Cincinnati children had to dodge the fatal side-effects of their toys.

To advertise an 1888 sale on children’s clothing, Mabley & Carew advertised that it would give away kites.

Cincinnati Post (March 5, 1888). Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.

Take, for example, kites. Composed of tissue paper, light wood, string, and a rag or two, how harmful could a kite possibly be? Well….

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune announced [March 19, 1858] that Hubert Murphy, “the unfortunate lad who fell through the skylight of Morrison & Co.’s store, day before yesterday, while flying a kite,” had died at the Commercial Hospital of his injuries. He was an orphan.

An unnamed kite-flyer was bullied in 1859 by an older boy, who cut the young lad’s kite string and began choking him. The little boy pulled out a penknife and stabbed his assailant.

In 1861, Amos Delsew was in the street flying a kite when he was run over by a milk truck, breaking one of his arms. The reckless milkman sped off and remained unidentified.

A young lad of the Gordon family fell while flying a kite on Eighth Street in 1870, “striking his mouth against a curbstone and knocking out a large percentage of teeth.”

Oscar Jones, 11 years old, fell in 1874 from the roof of Matthew Smith’s livery stable at the corner of Race and Longworth while flying a kite. Although he fell more than 30 feet, he was expected to survive.

Frank Eckland’s boy was flying a kite in 1877 when he stepped into an open cistern and was drowned.

Willie Harris, aged 9, while flying a kite in 1888, fell into an open unused cistern in Madisonville. He remained trapped for several hours until his cries for help attracted a neighbor, who gathered several men to pull Willie from the “living grave.” He was not expected to live.

Fontaine Fox’s “Toonerville Trolley” cartoons featured the gender-bending adventures of Edith “Tomboy” Taylor, whose masculine pursuits included death-defying kite flying.

Cincinnati Post (November 11, 1919). Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.

Flying a kite from a Central Avenue roof in 1895, 9-year-old David Katz took a step too far back and fell 40 feet to the ground. According to the newspapers, nearly every bone in his body was broken and he survived just half an hour.

John Erhardt, 14, was flying a kite on the roof of his Dayton Street home when he fell 50 feet to the pavement below. According to The Cincinnati Post [November 1, 1897]: “His left leg was broken at the hip and he was internally hurt. He will probably die.”

Frank Gers, 8 years old, fell down an embankment near his Covington home in 1911 while flying a kite. He landed in a pond and was drowned.

It wasn’t only the kite flyers themselves who were at risk. The Cincinnati Enquirer [April 2, 1850] reported:

“A horse attached to a buggy, in which were a lady and gentleman, became frightened by the flying of a kite on the corner of Third and Plum streets yesterday. The horse reared up and the lady attempted to jump out, but was pulled back by her companion. Luckily a drayman passing along caught the horse by the head and soon quieted him. In a few moments he moved off as kindly as ever. Flying kites in the city should be stopped.”

For some time, kite flying was, in fact, illegal in Cincinnati—at least on Sunday. An 1824 ordinance prohibited marbles, pitch quoits, or any other game or sport on the Sabbath. According to Charles Greves’s Centennial History of Cincinnati [1904]:

“The second section was even more comprehensive. It provided that it should be unlawful to fly any kite in the city or to kick any football, roll any hoop, play at the game commonly called shinny or engage in any other play or sport. Fortunately the boys of the day did not have to go very far to get outside the town limits.”

Still, according to The Cincinnati Daily Star [March 27, 1880] there were worse things than death by kite, like vandalism:

“Boys, confine yourselves to top-spinning, kite-flying, and other harmless amusements, and quit throwing stones and using rubber slung-shots, as you are doing a great deal of damage to property—breaking window-glass, &c., to say nothing of the danger you are continually subjecting pedestrians to.”

Although risky for children, Cincinnati adults had a fondness for kite flying. In 1911, 300 members of the Business Men’s Club enjoyed an excursion to Laughrey Island in the Ohio River where, in addition to baseball games and a fried chicken dinner, the financial titans of the city engaged in a kite-flying contest.

John Puthoff, 35, won the Mt. Auburn kite-flying contest in 1928. The Post [March 26, 1928] opined that athletes usually fade after age 30, but Puthoff “flew his kite like a stripling.” He explained his continuing prowess:

“I owe it all to right living, constant training, and the confidence of a good wife and four children.”

The contest, on the summit of Goat Hill, required 17 participants to spool out 550 yards of string, then reel their kite safely back in. Puthoff had a vociferous cheering section among his offspring as well as solid motivation, in that Mrs. Puthoff wanted a new hat.

The Mt. Auburn contest grew out of some trash talk at Anthony Seiter’s grocery store at 1735 Highland Ave. As Chat Nickum and Frank Myers raised their voices, Judge Chester R. Shook, resident sage, suggested the competition and arbitrated the rules. No man with a beard longer than one foot was allowed, due to fears that fatal consequences would result if the kite string got tangled in his whiskers.

No one died that day. Puthoff finished his flight five minutes ahead of his nearest competitor and briefly pocketed the $14 prize. Mrs. Puthoff got her new hat.

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