James Rada Jr., Columnist
While new year’s celebrations tend to be loud and boisterous, they can also get out of control. It was still early on New Year’s Day 1870 when a group of boys gathered on Polk Street in Cumberland to celebrate in their own special way.
“A crowd of small boys were amusing themselves to ‘the very top of their bent,’ in firing off, each in his turn, a sort of pistol cannon. There is nothing in earth or heaven — no, agencies which man employs which perhaps afford boys more thrilling enjoyment than the explosion of gunpowder — crackers, fireworks, firearms, anything which causes an explosion, and if there is a little danger around the edge of the amusement, that only adds to the thrill of pleasure for the boys,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.
After firing off the pistol cannon a few times, the noise attracted the attention of some parents who realized that boys and gunpowder don’t always mix well. They called their children away.
Elwood Richards, a 15-year-old boy who was the son of a well-liked blacksmith in town, finally got his turn with the pistol cannon. He raised his arm excitedly and pulled the trigger, expecting to hear another loud boom.
“Young Richards, using unusual care to avoid accident, had turned partly around to examine the pistol and fix the cap on again, thinking that with his back to the crowd and the pistol pointing to the ground there would be no danger but as he turned about, one of the youths, Charlie Taffel, about 13 years old, was for a second brought in range and in that fatal moment the pistol went off, to the surprise of all, and the single buckshot, with which it was most culpably and imprudently loaded, considering where it was and who was using the weapon, passed through the eye of the poor youth,” the newspaper reported.
Elwood went pale as he saw his friend begin to crumple to the ground. He threw down the “now hated instrument of their pleasure and their grief” and rushed forward to catch Charlie. Elwood and his friends started to carry Charlie to his house while someone else ran ahead to get Mrs. Taffel. She was a widow who was baking bread at the time.
“What’s the matter? What have you got there?” she called out as she heard the group approaching.
“It is Charlie. He is shot,” someone said.
She dropped what she was doing and rushed outside to get her son.
Others had rushed off to fetch doctors. Doctors McCormick, Healy Jr. and Ohr all arrived at the Taffel home, but they were too late. Charlie had died within 20 minutes of being shot.
Charlie was interred a few days later at the cemetery of the German Lutheran Church in Cumberland. The Sunday school children followed the body respectfully as it was carried from the church to the graveyard.
The Richards family paid all of the expenses of the funeral. Elwood attended, but he was reported as suffering “poignant anguish of mind.”
The experience may have shaped Elwood’s future. Instead of following his father’s footsteps as a blacksmith, he grew up to become a doctor who moved to Milwaukee.