I wrote this on the bus and posted this from another bus, so sue me if it goes astray…
I haven’t written here much about my research into history of transportation, but I’d like to recount this week’s achievement. Finding out what happened before Henry Bliss. The official toll of traffic fatalities is fairly yes easy to find. There have been over 3 million since the first one in 1899. Most of these fatalities were walkers, from what I can tell, though national data at that detail does show up until the 1920s, when the federal government got even more actively involved. They’d been putting their snout into Americas; transportation since the National road in 1811, but didn’t get involved in the paving and improvement of roads generally until 1893.
There were only 8,000 motor vehicles registered in the US in 1900, and likely something like 5,000 in 1899. They were just shy of doubling every year then. A difficulty in record keeping is that registration was not universally seen as a good idea at the time. People didn’t register their clocks or their horses, after all. Why should the automobile be any different?
At the time, automobiles were still safer than horses ash d about as safe as streetcars, but exceedingly rare. T/hey were only seen driven by the very wealthiest citizens, so they were the most common in the wealthiest places, however. They were also only drivable on the best roads, so they were more likely to be in the cities in those days or in the square mile or so of manicured valhalla in places like Llewellyn Park or Riverside. These were built soon after the previous innovation in transportation, passenger rail. Enclaves form the hustle of the city that remain exclusive to this day. Honestly, I can’t see Llewellyn Park on Street View, just the front gate.
But I digress.
The question is, who was the first American killed in traffic? A lot of people will tell you it was Henry Bliss, a real estate broker living on the upper west side of Manhattan who helped his date off of a streetcar after a really short* ride and was blindsided by an electric taxi. September 13, 1899. Just two blocks from where John Lennon was killed 81 years later. There is even a plaque.
But he wasn’t the first American killed by traffic. 26 were killed in 1899, and 34 were killed in 1900, a sharp increase then decrease in carnage if traffic was just getting getting started with the carnage in September. It was still front page news, but was it the first?
I knew the first fatality had to be from that year, as papers earlier that year wrote at length and in anguish about the “Harrow Incident” in England
For the last few months, I’ve been searching at different angles to find out more about traffic’s toll in 1899. Then I looked on police memorial sites, not newspaper sites.
The first American (that I can find so far) killed by traffic was patrolman Thomas Meagher, police , at the corner of Chambers and Broadway, struck on April 20, 1899. Reports just say “cars”, so it might have been streetcars. I could not find a contemporary report, so I am not sure. His injuries were not consistent with being rolled over by a flanged steel wheel.
A picture of the same intersection from 1900 doesn’t show a lot of motor traffic, but then again photographers were probably even more wary of standing in the middle of traffic than they are today. Considering the average exposure time was dozens of time longer than today. Even my favorite intersection with Broadway, Herald square only had a couple of motor vehicles in it
Broadway & Chambers c. 1900
So maybe a “car” was a carriage, with wood or pneumatic wheels**. I found another police officer killed before Henry Bliss, Alonzo Bishop, died August 29 when his patrol wagon was hit by another car in Baltimore. I cannot find much more documentation than that, but important as the first fatality collision in American history. Still too late to be the second, and leaving 23 tragedies undocumented.
* 2 blocks from his home address
** Popularized just 11 years before.