In a new book, Melancholy Accidents: Three Centuries of Stray Bullets and Bad Luck, Peter Manseau collects American newspaper notices of tragedies involving firearms from 1739 to 1916. The book’s title comes from the term newspapers often used to headline news of local mishaps, listing these gun accidents alongside “drownings, horse tramplings, or steamship explosions,” Manseau writes.
Guns, Manseau writes, provided editors of these “accident” columns with “the most pathos per column inch,” because these incidents often involved intimates. Many of the people who were the proximate cause of firearm accidents killed or injured their siblings, hunting companions, wives, and neighbors. Their painful feelings—one husband who killed his wife was described as being “rendered almost beside himself”—added human interest, from the editor’s perspective.
The group of clippings below is a representation of the much larger body of stories collected in Melancholy Accidents: an impressionistic narrative that shows not only the history of gun use and misuse in the United States but also the way people have processed and commented on the deadly unintended consequences of gun ownership. “To judge not only by the content of the reports but by the fact that they were popular enough that they continued in much the same form for a dozen generations,” Manseau writes, “the people who read them not only lived by the gun, but were apparently fascinated by the ever-present possibility that they would die by it.”
The reader should be warned that 18th- and especially 19th-century newspapers were much more graphic in describing the results of such accidents than they are today. (One example: the Chillicothe, Ohio Supporter described a victim this way in 1910: “His head hanging down with large streams of blood pouring thereform.”)