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Civil War Cannon (1886 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-78370

Deadly Cannon

John Betz died in Madison on July 5, 1871, a day after the cannon he was firing on the Capitol lawn to celebrate Independence Day went off prematurely. A 34-year old German with five children, he had served in the 31st Wisconsin from August 1862 until 1864. Subsequently he had worked in the agricultural rooms at the Capitol for five years. The Wisconsin State Journal graphically described the accident:

Captain A. R. McDonald and John Betz were engaged in firing a salute when a premature discharge of the cannon took place just as Mr. Betz was ramming a cartridge home. The terrible force of the explosion tore both his arms off, the left one above the elbow and the right one below (carrying part of the rammer over to Mr. Ogden’s house across Carroll Street, taking his hand down to the Park gate), driving some splinters into his side, splitting his nose and badly burning his chest and face. He was taken to his house near the UW, where he died at noon on July 5. A considerable sum was raised for his family by the crowd as the 4th celebration continued.

An inquest was demanded, since rumors were circulated that one of the men involved in firing the cannon was intoxicated at the time.

Twenty-eight years to the day later, William J. Melvin, who had moved to Madison only six weeks earlier from Shawano, was killed firing a cannon on the Capitol grounds to mark the 4th of July. The flesh was ripped from his right hand and arm to the elbow, and his forearm was broken in four places. Forty-five years old, he left a wife and three children between the ages of 10 and 20. He had served for three years in the 3rd Wisconsin battery during the Civil War. Governor Hoard attended his funeral at Forest Hill Cemetery. N. B. Hood, the man in charge of the firing, was later found negligent in his death.

In what had to be one of the strangest coincidences in Madison history, both Betz and Melvin lived in the same house, at 1036 University Avenue.

Mark Gajewski