The Devil Wagon and a Bet Between Gentlemen – History (and the US) in the Making

Wow, I’ve always told folks they should buckle up in cabs, and voila! history provides me with a lovely tale for the wary. It turns out that the first automobile fatality in the United States was caused (no surprise) by a New York City cab:

The public’s perception of this newfangled conveyance took a deep public relations dive on Sept. 13, 1899, when Henry H. Bliss stepped off a streetcar in Manhattan and was flattened by an electric-powered taxicab, becoming the first automobile fatality in the country.

Poor Bliss.  This freaked people out. The “devil wagon” was much maligned and feared, to the extent that the state of Vermont made it mandatory for drivers to have someone go ahead of the car and wave a red flag wherever they went.

In the early 1900s in the US the car was still considered a novelty with no practical value.  It cost oodles and put to the test:

The first effort to cross the country in 1899 ended inauspiciously for the car. The trip had to be called off after a one-armed bicyclist made up a 10- day head start from New York and passed the hapless car before it reached Syracuse.

These quotes come from a hilarious, fascinating and also I daresay, awesome article about the first San Francisco to New York journey by car.  Until then, people thought the US had been “done”–that the frontier was closed. Now people started thinking about highways.  Long distance drives at speeds hurtling up to 30 miles an hour became possible.  Incredible!

The first trip took only 63 days, and was made after a bet between gentlemen.  Our first driver:  Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, apparently also known as The Mad Doctor.  What a way to go down in history!

Later in his life, Horatio would be stopped by the police for violating the speed limit in town.  The speed limit was 6 miles an hour.  (You read that right. Six.)  In the first decade of the century in the US, there were only 10 miles of paved road in the country. But times, they were a’changin’!  By the 1920s, the US had 387,000 miles of paved road, and the California-New York drive took only 13 days–and of course car accidents were causing more and more deaths.

Enjoy the San Fran Chronicle article! And buckle up!  🙂

Horatio Jackson Nelson in his Winton

New York City yellow cab by Rockefeller Center


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. I've worked in international development, social justice and democracy work, and inclusivity training both domestically and overseas. I have served in Peace Corps, where I experienced my first Russian invasion, after which I volunteered with refugees and mentored youth. I vacation climbing minarets and mountains, as well as exploring theaters, museums and parks. Here in New York, I produce short films, direct short plays, and write.
This entry was posted in frontiers, history, Horatio, imagination, New York and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Devil Wagon and a Bet Between Gentlemen – History (and the US) in the Making

  1. ralfast says:

    The first fatality belonged to the electric car but it would go dormant for more than a century before it came back to the streets of the world, except for golf greens.

  2. Geez. That sucks. You live your life and then are remembered for being the first person killed by a taxi.

  3. Excellent. Thanks for the link to the article. It certainly gives some perspective on a vehicle we all take for granted today. I love the bit about the one-armed cyclist. Because it couldn’t just be a bicyclist, it had to be a One-Armed bicyclist. I love history.

  4. Kasia says:

    Oi! Where are you? You’ve not updated for months! Are you that deep into ze book? 🙂 Great, however, let us all know that you are okie dokie! x

  5. ralfast says:

    Same here, no word, no nothing. Hope everything is okay.

  6. sputnitsa says:

    Eek! Has it been that long??! I am remiss. 🙂 Apologies and I shall return to the saddle. 🙂 Thanks for checking in–all has been well; I’ve merely been distracted by writing 🙂 🙂

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