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Surprising details about first American killed by a car

About the author

David G Allan is the Managing Editor of Features sections for BBC.com. He has managed to survive getting hit by two different cars while riding a bike, being run off a snowy highway in Poland by a texting driver and falling asleep at the wheel, twice.

Hansom Cab

A circa-1900 electric Hansom Cab similar to the one that struck Mr Bliss. (George Eastman House/Getty)

On this day in history we are offered a cautionary tale.

It was the evening of September 13, 1899, when 69-year-old Henry H Bliss stepped from a trolley car along New York’s Central Park, was hit by a taxi cab and died the next morning from injuries. He was gentlemanly helping a lady friend off the trolley when he was run down.

“Fatally hurt by automobile”, The New York Times story read, seizing on gruesome details such as “crushed” skull and chest, and gossipy ones such as the fact that the taxi’s passenger was David Edson, the son of a former mayor. Edson also happened to be a doctor, returning from a sick call, and tended to Bliss on the scene. The driver was arrested and jailed but later acquitted.

The story makes the history books because Bliss was the first fatal car accident victim, pedestrian or otherwise, in North America. (A woman died 30 years and two weeks earlier in Ireland when she was thrown from a steam-powered conveyance built by her cousins.)  But the most surprising detail, in hindsight, was not even noteworthy enough to make the newspaper account: the car was electric.

No, Henry Bliss wasn't killed by a time-travelling, retro-fitted DeLorean. In the late 1800s, electric-powered cars were among the highest performing, and most popular, vehicles on the road. In 1900, there were more electric cars in New York City than gasoline-powered ones, and for good reason. They were less smelly and quieter than their fuel-burning counterparts, didn't require a hand-crank start and they eliminated the hardest part of early driving: shifting gears. The fleet of taxis that ultimately were the death of Bliss were built by the Electric Vehicle Company, an enterprise that was eventually done in by the difficulty of maintaining infrastructure for charging the batteries – talk about back to the future.

For years the Electric Vehicle Company cleverly swapped out old batteries for fresh ones at the end of a taxi’s shift, but as the fleet grew, it became harder to maintain and organise the battery facilities. Mainly because the company failed to properly scale its success, it went bankrupt in 1907, a 100-plus year setback for electric passenger vehicles. A different cautionary tale.

At the corner of 74th Street and Central Park West, inside an area once known to trolley drivers as the “Dangerous Stretch” for the many non-fatal accidents that had occurred there in the summer months before Bliss was killed, a plaque was erected that read, in part: “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.”

So next time you are helping a lady exit a trolley, watch out for cars. If it’s electric, you may not hear it coming.

But the most surprising detail was not even noteworthy enough to make the newspaper: the car was electric.

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