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A Loaded Weapon

On October 21, 2021, at the Bonanza Creek Ranch in New Mexico, both cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and director Joel Souza were accidentally shot when actor Alec Baldwin fired a revolver loaded with a live round, which had been provided to him as a prop. Hutchins died from her wounds. A subsequent investigation showed that the weapon had not been thoroughly checked for safety in advance of having been handed to Baldwin, with reports indicating that a crew member yelled "cold gun" as the revolver was given to the actor, incorrectly informing him that the weapon wasn't dangerous. In the days that followed the incident, criticism was leveled against Baldwin, the movie's producers, and the film industry for its seemingly cavalier attitude towards on-set firearms in contrast to the gun control advocacy of many actors, writers, and producers in Hollywood.

Sadly, on-set tragedy stemming from prop firearms is nothing new. Brandon Lee, son of martial artist and actor Bruce Lee, was famously killed when an improperly checked .44-caliber revolver was fired in a scene from the film The Crow in 1993. In 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum was killed on the set of the TV series Cover Up. Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head with a gun loaded with blanks.

It's easy to blame these tragedies on poor planning, freak accidents, and even on the relative inexperience with firearms by the actors who end up wielding these weapons on set. But the truth is that horrific accidents happen even when the man holding and firing the gun is incredibly familiar with his weapon.

By 1878, Buffalo Bill Cody and Texas Jack Omohundro had amicably split their dramatic venture, then called the Buffalo Bill and Texas Jack Combination, into individual touring companies. On September 9th, 1878, Buffalo Bill was in the closing moments of his show May Cody, Lost or Won when tragedy struck. From the following day's issue of the Baltimore Sun.

Shot by Accident—About twenty minutes past eleven o'clock last evening Michael Gardner, aged 18 years, son of Bernard Gardner, No, 136 West Street, was accidentally shot at Ford's Opera House at the close of the performance, when Buffalo Bill, in riding up a run constructed at the rear of the stage, discharges his revolver for stage effect.
One of the barrels of the revolver was loaded last evening, and the ball, instead of passing harmlessly upward, as was intended, ricocheted from the veiling and struck Gardner, who was leaning forward over the railing in the highest tier in the theatre, in the shoulder. The curtain went down and the audience dispersed, however, without anyone suspecting that an accident had occurred, and it only became known when in company with a friend he entered a drug store at the corner of Eutaw and Baltimore streets.
There, Dr. W. H. Crim was sent for and probed for the ball, but without success. Gardner was then placed in a carriage and removed to his home. He appeared to suffer little pain and was able to walk upstairs to his room. Buffalo Bill (W. F. Cody) called at his home soon after the accident to see that he had all the attention necessary, and young Gardner chatted with him as cheerfully as if nothing had happened. At an early hour this morning his condition was very favorable.

The ball had entered Michael's shoulder and lodged in his lumbar region, near the ninth rib, between four and five inches left of his spine. Though Michael had been strong enough to walk upstairs to his room that evening and to talk to Buffalo Bill the next day, he quickly took a turn for the worse. The Baltimore American newspaper soon reported that:

The boy (Michael Gardner) who was shot in Ford's Opera House on Monday night by Mr. William F. Cody, more generally known as "Buffalo Bill," remained in the same critical condition yesterday, and the chances of his recovery are yet very direction of Mr. Cody he has been given every attention that money can provide. His father, Bernard Gardner, is a cooper by trade and is a very industrious man. Michael, like all the rest of the grown children, worked for his living. He was very fond of reading dime novels and Indian stories in boys' periodicals and worshipped Buffalo Bill as a great hero.
From his front seat in the gallery, secured by going early and waiting until the doors opened, as there was a great rush of boys on opening night, he watched the performance of the exciting drama with the deepest interest, and when the accident occurred was leaning far over the railing. Near the close of the last act there was a trial of skill between Buffalo Bill and other scouts in the troupe at shooting glass balls sprung from a trap. The rifles used in shooting at the glass balls were loaded with bullets, but the charge of powder was supposed to be so small as not to give the bullets any penetrating power, except at such a short distance as the width of the stage.
For some reason, Buffalo Bill was not fortunate in his aim on the opening night. Owing to want of practice, short-range, or the way in which the rifles were loaded, he did not strike the balls as often as was expected, and the circumstance seemed to disturb him. During the shooting, he missed six balls in succession, and misses appeared to be the rule and hits the exception. The contest was then stopped, and Buffalo Bill, mounting his pony, waved adieu to the gathered Indians and scouts and rode up an ascent representing a mountain, taking his victorious leave, as it were, accompanied by the plaudits of the encampment. As he rode up the mountain he fired two shots from the rifle with which he had been shooting at the glass balls. The two shots were fired upward. One of them did no damage, the bullet probably going into flies above the scenery, but the second one struck the boy in the gallery, entering near the shoulder and passing backward, doing through the lung and lodging somewhere in the back. The ball is so far inward that the doctors have no hope of finding it. Whenever the wound is exposed, the air from the lungs can be seen passing through it. The boy is kept under the influence of opiates, and during yesterday weakened very much.

When Cody's show moved on from Baltimore to Wilmington, North Carolina, on October 5th, Buffalo Bill wrote the boy a letter to ask about his condition.

My Dear Boy Michael,
I know you are anxious to hear from me. I would have wrote you before, but have been so undecided to know what I am going to do myself. The yellow fever is so bad I may yet come back to Baltimore and if I do then I wall arrange to send you away. If not, I will write you in a few days what to do.
I hope you are all O.K. Write me to Charleston, S.C. on receipt of this. Give my kind regards to your father, mother, and the family.
And believe me your friend,

On October 13th, Buffalo Bill wrote a follow-up letter from Savannah, Georgia.

My Dear Boy,
I will be in Baltimore on the morning of Oct. 19th, next Saturday morning. I arrive by boat from Norfolk, Virginia. Meet me when the boat arrives. You can find out where the boat lands and what time it will be early in the morning. I will not remain in Baltimore over an hour, and want to see you. I hope you are getting along nicely. Kind regards to your family.
Yours in health,

During their brief hour on the dock in Baltimore, Buffalo Bill invited Michael to join him at his North Platte ranch the next month. Gardner, now firmly on the mend, happily accepted. Michael spent the next several months at Eagle's Nest, the Cody home, where he and Buffalo Bill's daughter Arta became fast friends. Michael remained over the holiday season and The Codys and Gardners exchanged letters, with Arta telling Mary (Michael's sister) that "Michael is getting very fat out here. He teaches me German and I am getting to be German too! How did you spend a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year? I had a very pleasant one indeed!"

Michael remained with the Cody family for nearly a year before returning to Baltimore to see friends and family. When the Buffalo Bill troupe returned the following year, Buffalo Bill made a point of stopping by to visit Michael and his parents. Michael then joined Buffalo Bill's show for a few seasons, now a part of the very spectacle that had caused such a grievous injury a few years earlier. Eighteen years after the bullet fired by Buffalo Bill lodged itself near his spine, Michael Gardner stopped in his local doctor's office where an x-ray revealed he still carried it. Michael lived until 1930, when he passed away at the age of 67.

The Baltimore Sun, May 31 1897

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