There's no better time than April Fool's Day to remember Santa Rosans loved practical jokes around the turn of the last century, and nothing offered more bang for your buck than tricking some poor dupe into lighting up a 5¢ exploding cigar.
Until states began outlawing the explosive gag in the 1910s, "loaded" cigars and cigarettes could be purchased in probably every town in America. The trick, which had been around for decades, involved
wrapping a tiny amount of gunpowder in tissue cutting the fuse off a small "lady fingers" firecracker and packing it about an inch from the lighted end, which would presumably give the perpetrator a few minutes to anticipate the hilarity that would soon come (or seek a safe distance). After the laughs, however, lawsuits sometimes followed; fingers were blown off, victims were scarred, and a pregnant woman sitting on her husband's lap suffered a miscarriage from the fright. (Curiously, though, I found no accounts of cigar-related fatalities, except for a poor soul who puffed on a stogie packed with black pepper.)
According to an 1886 article from the New York Tribune, the suits forced the novelty cigar industry to switch to a (very slightly) less dangerous product. Gunpowder was substituted with "red fire" - a simple pyrotechnic mixture used today in road flares and sparklers - inside a little shaped cartridge. Now the joke was that the cigar became something like a roman candle. "There is no sudden explosion which shatters the wrappers and sends fragments of burning tobacco in all directions, but from the end of the cigar a stream of fire shoots out to a distance of about three feet in a direct line." Well, that's certainly a safety improvement.
Alas, the jokester's need for explosive humor brought back the old techniques (or similar), as seen here in a couple of panels excerpted from a 1913 "Bunker Blinks" Sunday color comic. Worse, some pranksters were rolling their own hoax Havanas; in 1910 the Oakland police were searching for someone who was handing out cigars laced with dynamite caps.
The injurious era of joke-smokes mostly ended when dribble-glass and joy-buzzer mogul S. S. Adams began mass-producing a cigar containing a spring kept coiled by a bit of twine, which burned and caused the spring to "explode," comically ripping up the end of the cigar as we've seen in so many old cartoons. But in reality, it was far less a heart-stopping BANG than a feeble pop. Oh, if they only had today's NRA to advocate for the right of Americans to bear explosive tobacco products.
BOSWELL HAS AN EXPERIENCEPuffs an "El Stinko" Until It Explodes
Constable James Henry Boswell was the victim of a practical joke Friday afternoon that caused consternation to the officer of the law and merriment tot hose who witnessed the denouement. The constable was entertaining a large crowd of listeners with a good story, and just prior to starting in the narrative, he had been presented with a cigar by Sheriff Jack Smith.
Between sentences the conservator of the peace would puff on the El Stinko, and permit his mind to wander back over the scenes of the particular story he was engaged in telling. After having smoked for about ten minutes, and when his fears had all been allayed as to any suspicion he may have regarding the cigar being loaded, the "thing" went off with a bang.
Boswell turned many shades of color within the successive minutes and wound up with an ashy color foreign to his usual mobile countenance. For several minutes he was speechless and motionless, and then joined in the laughter that his predicament with the El Stinko had created.
It transpired that Sheriff Smith, who had presented the cigar to Boswell, had been the victim of a similar experience the night previous in Ukiah, and he was but playing even on the local constable.
Boswell reflected on the experience of one McNulty, alias Harriman, who had been presented with one of a similar variety and whose hair stood on end when the explosion came.
- Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1908