Right from the beginning of the auto age, it was difficult to know what to do with drivers who killed people. Who was negligent — a careless pedestrian, a slow-moving horse-drawn carriage or an autoist who thought his shiny new vehicle ruled the road? A century ago, a Bangor accident helped establish a basic rule: Autoists did not have the right to run over people who didn’t get out of their way.
Bangor’s first auto fatality occurred in 1908, when a small boy jumped into the path of a car on State Street. The driver, a chauffeur for a wealthy merchant, was exonerated at a trial despite testimony that he might have been speeding and driving after dark without headlights.
The chauffeur wept in the courtroom. The crowd of spectators wept. Then they cheered when he was found not guilty. It was a resounding victory for the new technological wonder commonly called the machine. Pedestrians beware.
Five years later, such events had become common. Justice Albert M. Spear of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine was fed up. It was time to do something about the speed demons terrorizing the state’s roads. The courts needed to make it clear when a driver was negligent and needed to be punished.
The case chosen by Justice Spear was Savoy v. McLeod, involving two from Bangor who were familiar to the public. The plaintiff, Mrs. Alice Savoy, was the wife of Alex Savoy, a bootlegger who had caused a recent scandal when he charged Bangor’s police chief with threatening him if he didn’t pay a bill to a Boston liquor wholesaler. The defendant was a prominent businessman, James McLeod, state manager of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company.
Mrs. Savoy had been riding in a horse-drawn carriage on Center Street. McLeod was coming the other way in his automobile. Both parties claimed the other was too far over on their side of the road, but witnesses testified there was plenty of room for McLeod to get around the wagon in which Mrs. Savoy was riding without hitting it.
Mrs. McLeod testified that her husband “gave two blasts of the horn, hollered to them to get out of the way, and they didn’t pay any attention to it.” The horses kept coming slowly but surely, the driver, Mrs. Josephine Dean, thinking there was plenty of room for McLeod to pass. Instead, he smashed into them, even though “he could have stopped … several times, if need be, in the distance of 35 feet,” according to Justice Spear.
McLeod’s failure to exercise “due diligence” ended in upsetting the wagon and badly injuring Mrs. Savoy. She alleged she was confined to her bed for six weeks, had to undergo an operation and wouldn’t be able to work for a year.
Undoubtedly, the fact the street lacked modern pavement, a painted center line and other safety features contributed to the accident, but people in 1913 had yet to demand or expect such amenities. Instead, they relied on very low speed limits of 8 or 10 miles an hour in the city. These speed limits were seldom enforced, however, local police not having automobiles to chase offenders, who were frequently wealthy and influential.
The jury ruled in Mrs. Savoy’s favor, awarding damages of $979, according to the Bangor Daily News. In his review of the case, handed down Nov. 5, 1913, Justice Spear upheld the award and dismissed McLeod’s motion for a new trial.
He “flayed” autoists in general in what the newspaper called a few days later “one of the most sweeping, vigorous and sensational rescripts ever handed down in the law court of Maine.” Spear “mercilessly arraigned many of the automobile owners and drivers of the present day — owners who he said are controlled by a ‘mania for speed.’”
“It is a … matter of common knowledge that death and injury are of daily occurrence due to the inefficiency, negligence, or reckless conduct of those who are permitted to engage in the operation of these powerful machines,” wrote Spear. “A mania for speed seems to have seized the minds and dominated the action of many of the automobile operators, whether owners or chauffeurs. This class of drivers apparently assume that the foot passenger or team will, upon their approach, so hastily change its course as to relieve the operator from any diminution of speed.”
Drivers had to exercise a high degree of diligence when approaching a pedestrian or a team of horses. If this rule of diligence made the operation of automobiles impractical, then “let the business stop,” charged the judge.
In making such statements, Spear said he was merely adopting well-known principles of law applied to the operation of steam railroads and electric trolleys, which also killed people on a regular basis. In all human actions involving danger, the law imposed the duty of using diligence commensurate with the danger involved.
A few weeks later, on Nov. 20, a Bangor Daily News editorial writer tried to put things into perspective. All Judge Spear was trying to do was to put a lid on an old evil – “joy-riding.”
The editorial writer’s folksy take on the matter defined joy riding as “the spirit which is manifested in the impromptu horse trots, which one sees every winter afternoon upon the ice above the waterworks dam or even upon the East Eddington road on agreeable Sabbath afternoons, when a baked-bean-and-brownbread dinner nicely warmed by a cheerful sermon from the pastor impels Christian citizens to make greater bursts of speed than the law authorizes.”
The judge, however, had found it necessary to react to “an increasing chain of disasters, serious accidents and non-premeditated murders … seemingly all the way from Eastport and Kittery to Fort Kent.”
Now it was time for the Legislature to act to make sure all laws were enforced just as it had with liquor selling and game law enforcement, two other controversial areas of the day. Now was the time to do something about joy riding.
Wayne E. Reilly’s column on Bangor a century ago appears in the newspaper every other Monday. His new book, “Hidden History of Bangor: From Lumbering Days to the Progressive Era,” is available where books are sold. Comments can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.