Henry H. Bliss & Mary Ward: The Unlucky Automotive Firsts


Vehicle Carrying the Son of ex-Mayor Edson Ran Over H. H. Bliss, Who Was Alighting from a Trolley Car

The New York Times, September 14th 1899

Grand Theft Auto: 1899

So blazed the headlines of The New York Times 115 years ago today in their report that marked a grisly first in American automotive history. On September 14th 1899 68-year-old Henry Hale Bliss, a real estate dealer living in New York City (234 West Seventy Firth Street to be precise, but his original residence no longer exists) became the first man in the Americas to die from his injuries caused by being struck down by an automobile. By the end of the 19th century the automobile was becoming an increasingly common sight on the streets of Cities in the western world, and patents for steam, combustion and electric vehicles were being registered since the early to mid-1800s.  State of Wisconsin in 1875 had offered a $10,000 award to the first individual that could produce a practical substitute for the use of horses and other animals (incidentally leading in 1878 to the first automotive race in America, in which five of the seven entries failed to start and the winner completed the 200 mile course in a time of 33 hours after the only other completer also broke down. More successful than perhaps the first automotive race, in which only one vehicle competed.)

"Eat our collective dusts, no one in particular!"

“Eat our collective dusts, no one in particular!”

Passing vehicles were rare enough, however, for Bliss to not look both ways before crossing a road at Central Park West and Seventy-Forth as he jumped off an “electric trolley” (a tram, or streetcar) with a lady friend on the 13th of September. Turning back to assist his friend Miss Lee, he was knocked down by an electric taxi, the two front wheels rolling over his chest and head, crushing them. The passenger of the Taxi, “Ex-mayors son Dr David Orr Edson” as the paper identifies him as, aided him and called for ambulance. Taken to the Roosevelt Hospital, he was declared dead the following day. As an interesting aside “Ex-Mayors son Dr. David Orr Edson”, that The Times was so keen to point out was riding in the taxi, published a book in 1921 by the catchy title of Getting What We Want, How to Apply Psychoanalysis to Your Own Problems. The book (available for free in its entirety right here!), of what appears to assembled collections of stories and self-help advice, contains an interestingly large amount of references to automobile accidents, with at least five stories about people involving themselves in various automotive wrecks.

“She dreamed that while crossing the street she was knocked down by a large, red automobile which ran over her, crushing both her legs.”

-Getting What We Want, How to Apply Psychoanalysis to Your Own Problems (p121)

Dr. Dave making good use of his first-hand experience, it seems.

Now, pinning down what car exactly killed Henry H. Bliss is something harder to do. The New York Times article fails to mention a make or model, only the name of the driver Arthur Smith (who was arrested on manslaughter but was acquitted on the grounds that the accident was unintentional). A Wikipedia article on Bliss lists the taxi being “Automobile no. 43”, but I can’t find any source on this. However, if this is correct and the Taxi was No. 43 in a  series of electric taxis, we can possibly pin down what kind of vehicle this was. The first run of electric taxi cabs in new York was Samuel’s Electric Carriage and Wagon Company, which ran 12 “hansom cabs” starting summer 1897. In 1898, the company had reformed into the Electric Vehicle Company, and had begun building the Electrobat Electric Car, the first successful electric automobile. Running up to 100 of these cabs by 1899, It’s quite possible that one of these much larger four-wheeled taxicabs was the offending vehicle that struck down Henry Bliss 115 years ago today.

“The Electric Taxi Company Electrobat”. Large, heavy and with poor driver visibility, could these be the cabs that ran Henry Bliss down?

So folks as you cross the road, take a second to check both ways and not to become one of the thousands that followed poor Mr Henry Hale Bliss. As his plaque at the spot where he died reads:

“When Mr. Bliss, a New York real estate man, died the next morning from his injuries, he became the first recorded motor vehicle fatality in the Western Hemisphere. This sign was erected to remember Mr. Bliss on the centennial of his untimely death and to promote safety on our streets and highways”

-Historic Site Plaque, West 74th Street and Central Park West, 1999

Wait a minute Mr. New York City Plaque, the first recorded motor vehicle fatality in the Western Hemisphere?



 King’s County Chronicle, 1st of September 1869

Uh oh.

Yes, unfortunately the first known automotive accident in the Western Hemisphere and history goes to the Honorable Mrs Mary Ward, who was thrown from the seat of an early steam carriage. A tragic death certainly, however fortunately Mrs. Ward will never go down in history as simply ‘the first known automotive fatality’, but as an inspiring trailblazer to women in the fields of science and study who led an incredible life as a renowned artists, naturalists, astronomer and microscopist in her homeland of Ireland.

Born Mary King in 1827, she did not attend school or university, but  was educated from home. She was a cousin and frequent visitor of William 3rd Earl of Rosse, a famous astronomer whose residence was the grand Birr Castle in County Offaly, Ireland. Both William and his castle are famous for “The Leviathan of Parsonstown“, a gigantic telescope built on the grounds of the estate in 1845 that was the largest telescope (in terms of aperture size) in the world, until the construction of the Hooker Telescope in 1917. Mary observed and chronicled the building of the incredible Leviathan, and met many eminent scientists through her famed cousin William.


This seems more like the kind of superweapon a Victorian James Bond would have to deal with

However, despite being a renowned and capable scientist, Mary’s gender ultimately denied her any formal distinction or recognition from the scientific community at the time, it being impossible for women to become members of societies or institutions or obtain degrees or diplomas during their lifetime.  None of this stopped Mary however, who published several books in her lifetime, as well as illustrating all her own books and papers and those of others. I’ve actually found some of Mary’s illustrations and details of her microscopic research with Sir David Brewster in the book Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1864 (Vol XXIII part I), below.


Also the concept designer for Cloverfield, it seems.

Having achieved more than most of us ever will at age 42, it seems Mary’s friendship with inventors and scientists was ultimately what led to her tragic accident. On the 31st of August 1869, Mary took a ride with her husband Henry (not Henry Bliss, that is, in what would be the most tragic coincidence in history), and the two sons of William Rosse in an early steam carriage invented by William himself. The steam carriage jolted, and Mary was thrown forwards and killed instantly  under the heavy front wheels. Her body was taken to Birr Castle to await a coroner, and the full inquest of her death, which it was ultimately ruled as accidental, can be read here. The article on her death in The King’s County Chronicle makes it clear of the high regard she was held in:

“The unfortunate lady was taken into the house of Dr. Woods which is nearly opposite the scene of the unhappy occurrence, and as that gentleman was on the spot everything that could be done was done, but it was impossible to save her life. The utmost gloom prevades the town, and on every hand sympathy is expressed with the husband and family of the accomplished and talented lady who has been so prematurely hurried into eternity […] The Hon. Mrs. Ward was a lady of great talent, and accomplished in literary and scientific pursuits. A very interesting book of hers, “Sketches with the Microscope,” was published at this office [Shields of Parsonstown] some years ago. The work displays persevering research, and set forth in an attractive dress.”

 King’s County Chronicle, 1st of September 1869

Could the papers or the people reading about these awful accidents at the hands of this new technology ever guess how horribly prevalent these kinds of deaths and accidents get as the number of vehicles increased? It’s a sad fact that as deaths to road accidents account for around 1.2 million people per year worldwide, vehicles from their slow, trundling and earliest introduction proved deadly to not just those driving, but the pedestrians around them.

14 Nov

The traditional London automotive child hunt, carried out each year to sacrifice a child to the Old Road Gods.

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