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Column: How a gun accident affected one of Illinois' greatest sons
Always assume the gun is loaded.
Those words were bored into my brain by my father and older brother when I was only 8- or 9-years-old and learning how to handle firearms on the farm.
One time, we were leaving the field and my brother ordered me to unload my rifle. I popped out the clip and handed it to him.
He said, "Are you sure the gun is unloaded?"
I said it was.
"Are you certain?"
"Yes," I said rather indignantly.
He took the rifle from me and jacked a round from the chamber. I looked down at my Keds, embarrassed.
I thought about that incident this past week when I read about Alec Baldwin accidentally killing someone on a movie set. Someone apparently handed him a firearm and told him it wasn’t loaded with live ammunition.
He believed what he was told and inadvertently killed one person and wounded another.
I can’t imagine the remorse someone must feel in such a situation. But there is a lesson from Illinois’ history that shows such a mistake need not stand in the way of a person's future.
In 1912, a 12-year-old was playing with a rifle during a party at his central Illinois home when he shot a 15-year-old girl in the head. That boy grew up to be governor, twice was his party’s nominee for president and served as ambassador to the United Nations.
He was Adlai Stevenson II, one of Illinois’ greatest sons.
Ruth Merwin was shot when a rifle Stevenson was handling unexpectedly discharged.
A 1952 biography, "Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois," said the future politician’s sister was holding a party when a military-academy student in attendance was urged to perform the military manual of arms. Adlai Stevenson fetched a rifle, which the student examined for safety before performing the drill. Unfortunately, the student wasn’t thorough in his examination, and one shell remained in the rifle. A few minutes later, when Stevenson took the gun and attempted to mimic the older boy’s performance, the gun suddenly discharged.
The bullet entered Ruth Merwin’s forehead and she fell dead onto the carpet.
But in his 1976 biography, "Adlai Stevenson of Illinois," John Bartlow Martin tells a different story. An anonymous eyewitness whom Martin interviewed claims that "Adlai took the gun from the other boy, pointed it at one of the girls, Ruth Merwin, and pulled the trigger."
No one has ever contended that the shooting was intentional. The gun was supposed to be unloaded, after all.
Having covered many shootings during my newspaper career, I find the second story more believable. Guns rarely discharge on their own and 12-year-old boys are prone to horseplay with firearms — especially when girls are present.
What’s more interesting is how the accident may have influenced the rest of Stevenson’s life.
Unlike many politicians, Stevenson was self-depreciating and lacked the swagger common of those who have risen to high political office.
Perhaps the accident made him all too aware of his own human frailties.
Forty years after the accident, William Glascow of Time magazine, was doing research for a cover story on the presidential candidate when he found a report of the event in The (Bloomington) Pantagraph’s archives. He asked Stevenson about it and after a long silence, he said: "You know, you are the first person who has ever asked me about that since it happened-and this is the first time I have ever spoken of it to anyone."
Not even his wife or children were aware of what had occurred at the party Dec. 30, 1912, in his Bloomington home.
But there were hints in his life that indicated that childhood tragedy influenced his career in public service.
In 1955, Stevenson wrote a letter to a woman he had not met, whose son had unintentionally killed another child. His advice was brief: "Tell him that he must live for two."
Scott Reeder, a longtime statehouse reporter who lives in the Springfield area, can be reached at [email protected]
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