By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
Mr. Llewellen Meder rose from the table at 489 Speer Street after a fine dinner and conversation with his parents John and Augusta Meder, his aunt Lillian Nightingill, his grandfather Benjamin, and a guest. Young Meder, “though only twenty-five, had thoroughly acquired a gentleman’s habit of enjoying a fine cigar after dinner. A new box sat on the sideboard at the table’s end, perfect for offering his father and grandfather.” Llewellen anticipated that first deep draw and wreath of smoke, which, he knew quite well, would be sufficient to allow the men to withdraw for their own conversations of business, hunting, or the recent victory of the Carson Guards riflemen for the Miners’ Union shooting trophy.
As he rounded the table’s end, a loud shot rang out and young Meder fell to the floor saying “My God! I am shot!” The others rushed to his aid and found blood oozing from his side. A bullet had, indeed, entered his left side and exited, just missing the spinal cord. The spent missile was later found on the floor. It matched that of a common Winchester Model 1873 .44 caliber rifle, popular for mid-size game and target shooting with rifle clubs.
A few minutes before Llewellen was shot, James Crawford, Superintendent of the Carson City Mint, had returned to his rooms at the Meder house. He and his teenage niece, Lizzie Crawford, had been tenants for several years and the arrangement was entirely satisfactory for the bachelor.
It was a quiet Wednesday afternoon on the day before Thanksgiving 1880, and Crawford had taken the afternoon off from his United States Mint duties to participate in a turkey shoot at Swift’s Springs near town. He was considered, along with George Thaxter, one of the two most reliable shots on the Carson Rifle Team. It was not noted if he brought home one of the prize turkeys, but it’s likely he did well for himself. Like many, his preferred rifle was a Winchester 1873, a sturdy weapon of proven accuracy. At the shooting range, participants commonly put their unloaded rifles on a table until their next turn. This Crawford did, and, at end of the event, he picked up his rifle and headed home.
At about 5:30 PM, Crawford arrived and went to the sitting room where a warm stove took off the late fall chill. This was next to the dining room and he could hear muffled conversation and laughter from those at dinner. Crawford expected to join them soon.
He took out his weapon and began, as do all conscientious riflemen, to clean it. He pushed a greased rag down the barrel, then turned the gun sideways between his knees, and opened the lock to pull the rag through. At this instant, the gun discharged – a live round had been left in the chamber.
Amid noise and smoke, the bullet traveled almost horizontally through the plaster and wood lathe wall into the dining room where Llewellen Meder had just left his seat. Screams and shouts came from the dining room and Crawford rushed in to find confusion and Meder prone on the floor. Within a few minutes, neighbors came to investigate and the crown carried the poor victim to a bed and tried to stop the bleeding.
Doctors White and Lee were summoned and pronounced the wound “dangerous but not necessarily fatal” provided infection did not set in. Fortunately for Meder, the bullet pierced wall and clothing without dragging bacteria-filled wool and wood into the injury. Oozing blood also helped carry away dirt, making it less likely that inflammation would set in. The doctors cleaned the wound, applied the traditional shot of whiskey – one for the victim to drink and the other to disinfect the injury – packed to reduce blood loss and retired with a $22 fee, possibly in Carson City Mint dollars.
By December, Meder was said to be improving quickly and almost out of danger.
Evidently, Crawford was suffering from deep guilt and remorse. He had violated a rifleman’s basic rule to be sure his gun was unloaded, and he knew the opinion of fellow marksman at so fundamental a lapse. A newspaper report said that “Mr. Crawford is, in reality, suffering much more than his friend, and is utterly dazed over the unfortunate affair.”
As for the loaded Winchester, no one could say what really happened. Crawford claimed the gun was unloaded when he put it on the Turkey Shoot table and he had not used it afterward. Some speculated that, since several shooters had identical rifles, another shooter had mistaken Crawford’s gun for his own and put a bullet in the chamber. Others, likely quietly so as not to impugn the Mint superintendent, might have felt Crawford was mistaken. No one seemed to address how a greased rag could be pushed deep into the barrel without creating an overpressure, or what might have caused the center-fire pin to strike the cartridge. The hammer position, half- or full-cock, is also not mentioned. Possibly, Crawford’s thumb slipped as he was moving the hammer from full to half while depressing the trigger.
Eventually, all concerned recovered from physical and emotional injuries, although we wonder if Crawford’s rifle cleaning was banished to an outbuilding.
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