Here’s a recipe for trouble: Take a farmer in a slow vehicle on a narrow country road and add an impatient driver trying to pass. Mix in lots of horn honking and simmer until tempers are hot. What do you get? A large serving of road rage, and an incident all the more remarkable because we apparently* have a first-hand account of the events by 9 year-old Helen Finley, who would marry Hilliard Comstock almost exactly a decade later.

Reports of horses spooked by inconsiderate auto drivers were not uncommon in that era, but this incident seemed to be outright malicious. Combining the newspaper version with details provided by Mrs. Comstock, what happened was something like this:

The Finley family was traveling by horse-drawn wagon to Calistoga for a week’s visit with in-laws. As they climbed the grade on Mark West Springs road, an auto approached from behind, the driver honking for the wagon to pull over. The Finleys yielded at the first safe turnout, and the car passed.

Then without warning, the auto slowed and began moving backwards. It crashed into the wagon.

The horses panicked, and the Finley men struggled to calm them as their wives clutched the sides of the wagon in fear. The children jumped to the ground. The car driver shouted that the Finleys should cut the horses loose, apparently because the rig might tip over the embankment.

The crisis was averted, but Harrison Finley, Mrs. Comstock’s grandfather, was so angered that he immediately swore out a complaint against the driver, a San Francisco lawyer named Jacobs, charging that he “deliberately backed down” the grade to crash into them. Jacobs’ defense was that his “automobile became uncontrollable” after he passed the wagon. The judge accepted his version of the accident’s cause.

Gentle Reader might now be thinking, “hey, that’s not right; cars don’t roll backwards unless they’re in neutral or reverse gear – and besides, Jacobs could have used his brake.” So I also believed – until reading about another runaway reverse incident that happened just two weeks later. The engine of that car stalled when the driver shifted into low gear to climb a hill, and the vehicle likewise rolled backwards, unable to be stopped by the brake. Jacobs may have had the same problem, or simply lacked the horsepower to reach the top of the hill. Still, it certainly should have been possible for him to steer his car away from the wagon and not endanger others. Not owning an auto, Harrison Finley may not have understood the foibles of the machines, but he was justified in his anger towards the driver, who acted in all ways irresponsibly.

* It should be noted that it’s possible that Helen Finley Comstock was describing another incident in her oral history account. She says her father was driving the buggy, not her grandfather, and the newspaper accounts do not mention the presence of a family in the wagon. Still, the basic details, including the time of year, make it highly likely that this is the same event. As Mrs. Comstock does not mention her grandfather at all in the story, one possibility is that he did not complete the family trip to Calistoga, instead riding one of the horses back to Santa Rosa so he could quickly file a complaint against Jacobs.

Constable J. H. Boswell arrested Attorney H. A. Jacobs of San Francisco at Burke on Sunday morning on a complaint sworn out by Harrison Finley, charging him with disturbing the peace. Mr. Finley alleges that the San Francisco lawyer backed his auto down a steep hill on the Mark West Springs road and crashed into his buggy and nearly threw him, the horse, and the rig down the embankment. Just before this incident Jacobs drove his machine up behind the Finley buggy and sounded his horn a number of times to get Mr. Finley out of the way. The latter says he allowed the autoist to pass just as soon as he could. The lawyer’s temper is said to have been a bit ruffled. He put up twenty-five dollars in cash and a hearing will be given him on Friday before Judge A. J. Atchinson.

– Press Democrat, June 30, 1908
Backed His Auto Into Buggy Near Burke’s

Henry A. Jacobs, an attorney from San Francisco, was arrested at Burke’s sanitarium Sunday morning by Constable James H. Boswell. The attorney was charged with disturbing the peace and put up twenty-five dollars cash bail to insure his appearance before Judge A. J. Atchinson when wanted on the charge. His examination will take place the latter part of the week.

The arrest of Jacobs was made on complaint of Harrison Finley, the hop grower, who resides on the road to Burke’s. Mr. Finley was driving along the road toward his home, when he alleges that Jacobs came up behind him in an auto. Jacobs blew several blasts from his horn, and Finley found a convenient place to turn aside and let the auto pass. He charges that after Jacobs had gotten past his vehicle the autoist deliberately backed down a hill and crashed into his buggy, almost upsetting the vehicle on the grade.

After consultation with officials here regarding the matter, Mr. Jacobs [sic] decided to bring Jacobs into court and prosecute him and may bring a civil action against the attorney for damages.

– Santa Rosa Republican, June 29, 1908


Henry Jacobs, the attorney who was arrested on complaint of Harrison Finley for backing his automobile into the latter’s buggy and damaging it, was not held to answer for the offense when he came up before Justice Atchinson on Friday. Mr. Jacobs showed that he did not have any intention of backing against the buggy of Mr. Finley, but that his automobile became uncontrollable and in trying to get up the hill the machine ran back down the hill and into the buggy. He offered to pay for any damage and the judge felt that he was not to blame for the accident, so dismissed the case.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 6, 1908

While driving her automobile on the grade near Alder Glen Springs last Wednesday, Mrs. E. Irving Kincaid, of Cloverdale, had a very narrow escape from being seriously hurt. The Revellie gives the following particulars of the occurrence, and Mrs. Kincaid’s many Santa Rosa friends are very glad the accident was no worse than it was:

“While ascending the hill in her automobile at the entrance to Alder Glen Springs Wednesday, Mrs. E. I. Kincaid had a narrow escape from death. She had changed the speed from high to low, killing the engine, and it seems [the auto] was unable to hold the brake and the auto backed down the steep road into the county road at a rapid rate. She was unable to steer the machine and it turned completely over at the bottom of the hill, throwing Mrs. Kincaid out, but fortunately not injuring her and doing but little injury to the car. Prior to the time the machine commenced to back, the other occupants had gotten out. Mrs. Kendall and three children, friends of Mrs. Kincaid, were in the car before the accident occurred. One of the little girls walked to “The Old Homestead” and phoned Mr. Kincaid, who went to the Glen and soon had the machine righted and drove it into town. Fortunately the top was not up or else Mrs. Kincaid surely would have been severely injured, if not killed.”

– Press Democrat, July 12, 1908

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