1899 One Hundred Years Ago

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On September 14 Henry H. Bliss, a sixty-eight-year-old New York City real estate broker, became the first person in America to die in an automobile accident. The fatal encounter had taken place the evening before as Bliss was helping his companion, a Miss Lee, to alight from a streetcar at Seventy-fourth Street and Central Park West. At that same moment a taxicab identified as Automobile No. 43 swerved to avoid a truck. Bliss, who was somewhat hard of hearing, evidently did not hear the cab —which, being electric, would have been rather quiet in any case- and was run over. The occupant of the cab was David Orr Edson, who happened to be a doctor as well as the son of Franklin Edson, a former mayor of New York. He did what he could to help Bliss until an ambulance arrived, but since (according to a news report) “his brain substance [was] escaping from the compound fracture of his skull,” it was too late. The victim died in a hospital early the next morning.

It was not the first time tragedy had struck Bliss’s family. Three years earlier his second wife had been poisoned; her daughter was acquitted of the crime after a sensational trial. The circumstances of Bliss’s own death were also somewhat mysterious: Bliss and Miss Lee, who both lived near the site of the accident, were returning home from a brief trip earlier that evening to an undisclosed location in Harlem. Arthur Smith, the driver of the cab, was arrested and charged with manslaughter but was later released when he convinced a judge that the accident had been unintentional.

In the hundred years since, most of the circumstances surrounding the accident have passed into history. Bliss roomed in what reporters described as an “old-fashioned frame house,” a species that is now virtually extinct on the Upper West Side. Streetcars are long gone as well. Today, as in Duke Ellington’s time, the underground A train is the quickest way to get to Harlem. Still, a century of uneasy cohabitation between New York City’s drivers and walkers has resulted in thirty thousand pedestrian deaths- as well as enormous amounts of rude gestures and multilingual profanity.