People love stories of near-fatal accidents. And back in the 1920s — when home electricity was really starting to become mainstream — there were more than enough death defying electric shock stories to go around.
The August 1923 issue of Practical Electrics magazine published the winners of a summer contest for the best electric shock story — accidental or otherwise.
The winning stories included idiot fishermen who nearly died from some overhead lines, a repairman who survived 4,000 volts coursing through his body, a carpenter who got a nasty surprise when sawing through a pipe, and a racist street car conductor who intentionally shocked a passenger.
The 1923 stories appear below in their entirety, along with the illustrations that accompanied them.
"What 4,000 Volts Feel Like"
C.R. Mullins of Watertown, South Dakota — won $20 (about $270 adjusted for inflation)
Having read various articles on subject of electrical shocks, generally written by those who never felt the sensation, and having had the pleasure of getting across a 4,000-volt 60-cycle line, my experience may prove of interest to both the experienced and the layman.
While running pot-head jumpers to an oil switch on the bottom of a switchboard, those I was working on were dead, but next to them was a live one. I had rubber gloves on and was putting the last jumper into place, when — zip! There was a snapping crackle of high voltage. I gripped the jumper tighter and became powerless to release my hand; the current flowed through me, growing more violent as my body tissue vibrated in unison with the 60 cycles.
While not afraid of death, I began to wonder if and how I would get loose, and the position I was sitting in caused my body to vibrate rapidly, creating a tickling sensation caused by a small coil of wire- solder hung on my overalls. I was seated on a box in front of the grounded switch- board frame, and finally the power of the current became so intense that I straightened out and fell backwards off the box to the floor. Half dazed I crawled into an adjoining room, where I managed to get upon my feet.
My left knee and right wrist pained and I discovered a black hole the size of a dime, burned about a quarter inch deep in each. I found out later that I had over-reached the limit of the rubber glove and had laid my bare forearm on the top of the pot-head, while my knee had been pressed against the grounded switch frame. Four thousand volts had been connected across my body, leaving the two burned spots and badly shattered nerves as testimony of the power of the current.
The accident happened at noon when I was alone, and I found afterwards that I had no desire to eat. Later in the day I saw a doctor and then worked the rest of the afternoon near the disconnects. The next day my nerves were very jumpy. I seemed afraid to touch anything and was weak and listless.
I had previously experienced 440 volts, but I think the 4,000 volts is the lesser evil. The 440 volts seize and contract the muscles into knots, while 4,000 volts cause squirming and, on account of the high voltage, affect the muscles and tissue quite differently. In my opinion electrocution must be a most painful death and not so speedy a one as is imagined.
"A Protective Shock"
D.S. Yount of Greenville, Ohio — won $10 (about $135 adjusted for inflation)
The following incident occurred about a year ago in the course of my duty as conductor for a street car company.
One evening four negroes, two women and two men, all drunk, entered the car. They took seats in the center of the car, and in a few minutes the largest man of the party said: "Well, I's a gwine to put the conductor off dis car!" He arose and came in my direction to do so.
But he was so stupefied that he had to grasp the railing on the side to keep from falling. There was also a railing in the center of the car at the back, grounded to the rails, and I had a premonition that he would catch hold of this rail also.
I had a wire about six feet in length and connected with the trolley pole; I reached up and pulled the wire down; by that time he had hold of both rails. So I put the wire on the rail on the side of the car. In an instant he turned a complete somersault and landed in the corner, where he remained for a few minutes. In a little while he got up, looked around and said: "Say, mistah, will youse tell me what done put me in dat corner so quick?" Receiving no reply, he went back to his seat, and gave me no further trouble.
"Shock Through Steel Fishing Rod"
J. Fetters of Steubenville, Ohio — won $5 (about $65 adjusted for inflation)
A friend and I went fishing at our favorite spot, in a pool at the bend of a small creek, over which a coal trestle was in operation. The fishing was fine and we soon had a few bass to show.
My friend, while my head was turned, threw his silk line over the trolley used by the electric power line; making certain that he held the cork butt of the steel rod, he said: "Use my pole a while. I am tired of fishing."
Having always admired his outfit, without looking up from the water, I reached for the pole and got it, as well as all the power from the power wire. Without a moment's hesitation I jumped into about 12 feet of water and was making a good attempt at drowning when a farmer nearby came to the rescue and pulled me out.
After I had sufficiently recovered my breath, and my friend had recovered his, he started to explain the joke. Still somewhat nervous, he picked up his rod and started to wind in the line, still having a couple of yards on the other side of the wire, when the train of coal passed by. As you know, the reel has an ivory or composition handle, and in his haste to get his line in he touched the brass. I pulled him out of the creek and after a while we were ready to go home. We have not yet figured out whom the joke was on.
"Cutting a Live Conduit"
J. Federocka of New York City — won $2.50 (about $30 adjusted for inflation)
While working in an old establishment I came across a few carpenters putting in a new stairway.
About an hour later I heard a scream from the floor above, and upon going up found that one of the carpenters had been cutting a pipe, not knowing what it contained, nor finding out whether he could cut it or not. So he had cut into a two-inch conduit with a hacksaw, which conduit contained a pair of large-sized feeders.
It is needless to say where that carpenter is now, but he promises not to cut any more pipes.
Images: Scanned from the August 1923 issue of Practical Electrics magazine