My grandfather, who was a carpenter among other things, was always missing his right thumb and forefinger. They were just stubs. He always said it was from playing with firecrackers, and he said it as an angry admonition that was supposed to instill fear. And it did — I never lit firecrackers in my fingers, which in the ’60s and ’70s made me something of an oddity I suppose. But Grandpa, there’s a bit of a difference between firecrackers and blasting caps.
This article from the Gloversville Morning Herald, July 17, 1926, details how my 15-year-old grandfather (the “aged 16” in the article is either erroneous or, more likely, a lie) blew his thumb and forefinger off by applying flame to a dynamite blasting cap, the device that detonates a stick of dynamite. He was up to no good, probably stole the caps from another boy, and this would hardly be his (or his father’s) only trouble in the rough-and-tumble immigrant city of Amsterdam, New York in the 1920s and 1930s.
The article reads as follows:
Dynamite Cap Injures Three
One, John Crisalle, Loses Thumb And Finger Of Right Hand In Explosion.
John Crisalle, 140 Forbes street, Amsterdam, aged 16, had the thumb and finger of his right hand blown off shortly before noon yesterday by the explosion of a dynamite cap, to which he was applying the flame of a match. His left hand was mutilated and his face gashed also, while Dominick Severa, 268 East Main street, and Edmund Carbonelli, 9 Eagle street, who stood near, received puncture wounds and gashes in the face, neck and chest.
The dynamite cap which exploded was one of several which Crisalle had, three others being found in his pocket after the accident. The explosion occurred in a yard between St. Casimir’s church on East Main street and the residence of Raymond J. Gilston. This yard is often used by the boys of the neighborhood as a playground. There were several there at the time of the explosion, the three who were hurt being close together watching for the results of fire applied to the cap. The explosion was heard throughout the neighborhood, and four or five men were on the scene within a moment or two. Fragments of bone and flesh blown from Crisalle’ [sic] hands were discovered lying on the ground. He was taken to the office of Dr. Lombardi and thence to St. Mary’s hospital. The stumps of the thumb and fore finger of the right hand were amputated, but the wounds to the left did not indicate that there will be any loss of fingers to that hand. His face was cut, a gash under the left eye being very deep. The other two boys were attended by Dr. Tomlinson at his office.
The cap which exploded is one of the kind used in quarries. The caps are metal cylinders only about an inch and a half to two inches in length and hardly the diameter of an ordinary pencil. They are used to communicate the spark from the battery to the dynamite charge proper. It is not quite certain how Crisalle obtained them. He spoke of having received them from a lad named Joseph Bucci of Lark street. Bucci was summoned to police headquarters. He admitted having had quite a number of similar caps for some time. He got them, he says, from a bunch of rags, part of a collection of his grandfather, who is a dealer in rags and junk. He had a box full, he said, and has played with them himself now and then and thrown them around, but they never went off.
He had no idea that they were dynamite and had evidently been under the impression that they were some ordinary sort of cap or blank cartridge. He denied having given any of them to Crisalle, but he did say that he was throwing them about in the neighborhood of his home, and that Crisalle was there and must have picked some of them up, or somebody else did and then gave them to the injured boy.