A History of American Stampedes

After news has gotten around about the recent Black Friday tragedy in Long Island (which I'm sure you heard caused an employee's death and a miscarriage), it's worth it to take a look at the bizarre and sad series of stampedes throughout U.S. history. Stampedes are unique tragedies in the sense that they're awful crimes committed by a group of people that are more-or-less blameless. We can blame the building, and that's it. We'd like to think we'd not have participated, but we weren't there. We'll never know.

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This, unfortunately isn't the first Wal-Mart stampede; though it appears to be the first death. Five years ago, again on Black Friday, a woman who planned on buying a $29 DVD player was trampled by a crowd of fellow Florida Wal-Mart shoppers. Then there was the 2005 stampede spurred by the prospect of $50 iBooks. Two years ago, the release of the PS3 spurred chaos in Northern California, Virginia, and Connecticut.

They get way more tragic than that, too. The first American stampede looks like it dates back to May 31, 1883, also in New York. According to the NY Times, "A woman fell down the wooden steps at the end of the New-York approach to the Brooklyn bridge yesterday afternoon while the pathway was crowded with thousands of men, women, and children walking and passing one another. As she lost her footing another woman screamed, and the throng behind crowded forward so rapidly that those at the top of the steps were pushed over and fell in a heap."

Then there was 1913's Italian Hall Disaster, caused by an erroneous claim that the building was on fire and also subject of Guthrie's "1913 Massacre". The hall disaster served as the legal foundation for the "Shouting 'fire' in a crowded theater" exception to the first amendment and in the end took 73 lives. In 1979, eleven would-be concert goers lost their lives during a The Who concert stampede in Cincinnati. The cause of the accident was attributed to a late opening of the doors and a hoard of impatient and angry fans. 2003 saw a horrific melee in Chicago, at the E2 nightclub. That stampede was—again—totally man-made. Somebody had set off pepper spray in one of the rooms and it sent people running. Of course, The E2 disaster and the Who crush in 1979 pale in comparison to the Rhode Island nightclub stampede where 200+ died, including a member of the performing band, Great White. It happened only three days after the Chicago nightclub disaster, but is unique in that it wasn't at all a false alarm: as many of us know, faulty pyrotechnics set the club ablaze.

Though we thankfully don't lead the world in deadly stampedes (that honor appears to go to India, whose "Temple Crushes" regularly take lives during the bigger Hindu holidays), we're still unique in our preponderance of consumer-driven melees. It seems obvious to say, but I'll say it anyway: let's stay cool this year.

(Image on left is in the public domain, from the aftermath of an 1896 stampede in Khodynka Field in Moscow during the coronation of Nicholas II. The cause was said to be a panic over a lack of beer and gifts. 1,389 people died.)

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