Ah, 1913, the year Californians demonstrated how easy it was for untrained drivers to get behind the wheel, drive really fast and run people down.
On just one December day in San Francisco, a man named Caseilli was arrested for a hit and run of three children (“I didn’t think they were badly hurt and they were picked up, so I went on”). A man named Roy Burton was charged with hitting a pedestrian (at least he gave the victim a ride part of the way home, dropping him off within two blocks). Louis Kantor was arrested as the suspect of a joy ride that killed a bank teller and the driver of an “auto hearse” ran down a four year-old. The child was not seriously hurt but that fellow should be cheered for stopping at all, although it may have been to check whether he had a new customer to ride in the back.
Those numbers weren’t unusual; the Santa Rosa Republican offered an editorial that June, noting five were killed on a single day in Oakland. On the same day the Santa Rosa paper spotted a car racing down King street (“where police officers seldom come”) at unsafe speeds. “Wherever it is believed the police officers are not plentiful or are too busy to see everything, some auto drivers will take advantage of the situation,” the editor complained. “There seems no way to check the habit. The daily auto death toll grows larger.”
It was a serious issue not being treated very seriously by the state, which still regarded a car as horse-and-buggy version 2.0. At the time the entire section of California law related to automobiles was only 19 short paragraphs and could easily fit on a pocket-sized card. All auto accidents were classified misdemeanors and as for hitting someone, the law stated: “In case of accident or injury to person or property car must stop and if requested, give name of owner” (emphasis mine). There was no requirement to help the victim or mention of what was required if the person was unconscious – or dead.
At least the law did say the driver and/or owner of the car could be sued for injuries or property damage, but a couple of earlier high-profile local accidents demonstrated how well that worked out – or didn’t.
In late 1910 a Sebastopol farmer named Walter Elphick was driving a car at night on the road from Santa Rosa to Penngrove. (Before you ask, Elphick Road in Sebastopol is apparently named after his father Henry.) He hit the buggy of David Batchelor, who had a real estate and insurance office in Penngrove. Batchelor was thrown 25 feet from the buggy. His horse broke free as the car shoved the buggy 50 feet back. Elphick lied about his identity (he said his name was Jones and he was headed to Cloverdale) but Batchelor noted the license number on the car. Bachelor sued for $3,000 damages.
At the jury trial Bachelor testified that the car was on the wrong side of the road and going over 40 MPH (this was 1910 and country roads were not paved). Elphick said he tried to stop but his tires skidded. As for the fake name, he claimed he didn’t really remember that clearly, but he lied to “avoid publicity.” The jury awarded Bachelor $700, which was about what the average family earned for a year.
But the matter still wasn’t settled because: Lawyers.
Five months later, Elphick asked for a new trial. His lawyer was this journal’s anti-hero James Wyatt Oates who built (what would become known as) Comstock House. A young apple farmer wouldn’t normally be able to hire the top lawyer around, but Oates was a fanatical car nut who had just ended two terms as president of the Sonoma County Automobile Association, and likely took on the case gratis. Elphick now claimed “the accident was unavoidable and that Batchelor was not thrown from his buggy at the time of the impact, but was thrown later when his horse became unmanageable,” according to the Press Democrat. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury knocked the award down to $125.
The other notable accident happened in 1911 when Sloan Boyd, a young man who lived in Rincon Valley, was hit while riding his bicycle home from work at night. This time the victim’s injuries were quite serious; he was hospitalized for six weeks and “for several days he was delirious and it was not thought he would live,” reported the Republican. The PD showed great interest in the case and offered regular updates on Boyd’s improving condition but curiously, never mentioned who was responsible except for the initial story declaring it was “a San Francisco man.” But even that was wrong; he was Samuel Stitt, the manager of a significant Los Angeles bank and the car belonged to his fiancée Hazel Farmer, a member of Santa Rosa’s elite society.
The daughter of Dorothy Farmer (think Farmers Lane), Hazel and her mother were as crazy about cars as Wyatt Oates and both were part of the Oates’ small circle of friends. In 1909 Dorothy had purchased a Packard in Los Angeles and she and Hazel drove all the way back to Santa Rosa – no easy feat since those primitive automobiles broke down regularly and most roads between towns were horse trails. Both were often featured in the Press Democrat for their motoring adventures around the state.
The badly injured bicyclist sued for $21,720 – an amount so specific that it had to be itemized – and the suit was quickly settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Hazel married Stitt shortly thereafter and her name again regularly adorned the PD social pages. (As a little Believe-it-or-Not! aside, mother Dorothy lived to 100 and died in 1964, enjoying good health all of her life except for 1947, when she fell and broke her hip on the corner of Fifth and Humboldt streets – struck by a bicycle.)
Sloan Boyd was well compensated for having been hit by an heiress, while David Batchelor probably didn’t have enough left over after paying his attorney to buy a new buggy wheel. But the bigger picture is that both were totally on their own after being run over; there was no requirement for car insurance (the first ads for it didn’t appear in the Press Democrat until 1916) and no expectation the police would investigate whether or not the driver was driving dangerously.
Meanwhile, every year the new cars were bigger, heavier and faster – and there were lots more of them; by the spring of 1913, California had over 100,000 registered cars. That worked out to about one per every 25 residents, and you can bet more people than just car owners were driving them. Few had any kind of insurance and none were expected to pass even the most minimal driving test, as there was no license required to drive. What would you expect the outcome to be?
Always a good reflection of popular culture, nearly every Sunday the funnies found in city papers would have at least one cartoon showing some hapless soul losing control of a car and crashing. There was also “Motorcycle Mike,” a popular comic strip where the whole gag was a reckless guy riding around accidentally causing random destruction and sending people flying.
By 1913 there was also a new disturbing trend: Hit and run accidents.
“Hit and run” was not yet a common term in 1913, but Google offers an “Ngram Viewer” that scans all 30 million items in Google Books (which includes many magazines and journals) for words or phrases, and for the first two decades of the 20th century it shows a spike nationally around that year for accident-related terms such as, “hit by an automobile,” run over by an automobile” and yes, “hit and run.” From then onward, phrases like these climb sharply in use.
Locally there were at least three serious hit and run incidents in 1913. In Santa Rosa a man on a motorcycle was run down on Mendocino avenue near Cherry street and a bicyclist was knocked unconscious on Santa Rosa avenue. Those drivers apparently were not caught, but a Napa man named Oscar Godwin was arrested for rear-ending at high speed a buggy on the road to St. Helena, where two young women were thrown to the ground. Godwin’s excuse for not stopping was that his passengers forced him to keep going.
Clearly, something had to be done. Lacking a workable set of rules of the road from the state, local jurisdictions were stepping in to set their own basic laws, such as Santa Rosa requiring tail lights and drivers to keep to the right side of the street (see “DRIVING LIKE A SANTA ROSAN“). Finally, the legislature revamped the entire section of code with the Vehicle Act of 1913.
The new state code was comprehensive – far too comprehensive to the likes of many. Drivers had chafed even under the old laws and griped they were being picked upon; the great cartoonist Rube Goldberg earlier had produced a cartoon for the San Francisco Call satirizing a tortuous visit to police court for a speeding ticket (the harassed driver looks suspiciously like Rube himself, BTW).
|Rube Goldberg/San Francisco Call, May 7, 1911|
Little, if anything, in the 1913 law seems controversial today. No street racing was allowed without a permit, no drunk driving, joyriding was illegal without the owner’s permission and no one under the age of 16 could drive, for ex. Addressing hit and run, §367c of the new law finally required the driver to not only stop but provide help, while making it a felony to flee the scene.
But there were loud complaints that even those changes were overreach and an affront to liberty itself. A superior court judge in San Bernardino had declared all these rules were “discrimination” against drivers because similar restrictions weren’t placed on people using horses. Even providing your name at the scene of an accident was unconstitutional, that judge said, because it could be self-incriminating – and again, not at all required if you were behind a horse. Because of this absurdly strict interpretation, hit and run was knocked down from a felony back to being a misdemeanor.
The rollicking statewide fight over the California Vehicle Act of 1913 would be a fun article to write (my god, the passion!) but not for here. I’ll close by adding there was even a squabble over the new requirement for an “automobile warning signal.” Every vehicle had to have a signaling device “capable of emitting an abrupt sound, adequate in quality and volume to give warning of the approach of such vehicle.” Further, it was illegal to use the signals “for any purpose except as warnings of danger.” In other words: A horn.
SUES FOR INJURIES IN AUTO COLLISIOND. W. Batchelor Brings Action for $3,000 from W. R. Elphick Whom He Says Was Careless
For alleged carelessness and negligence on the part of W. R. Elphick, in driving his automobile into the vehicle in which D. W. Batchelor was riding on the night of December 11, 1910, Mr. Batchelor, through his attorney, Judge Samuel K. Dougherty, commenced a suit to recover $3,000 damages from Elphick in the Superior Court on Saturday. Mr. Batchelor cites in his complaint that he sustained painful injuries and that his vehicle was damaged. He was required to have medical attention and medicines and his business as a real estate man was interfered with. The collision occurred on the road from Santa Rosa to Penngrove.– Press Democrat, January 1 1911
Will Contest the Case
Attorney J. W. Oates has been retained by W. R. Elphick to defend the action filed against him by D. W. Batchelor, to recover damages for injuries received in a collision on the county road on the night of December 11, when it is alleged Elphick ran into the buggy occupied by the plaintiff. Mr. Elphick denies any responsibility for the accident.– Press Democrat, January 5 1911
DAMAGES ASKED IN AUTO SUITD. W. Batchelor Sues W. R. Elphick For Injuries Sustained in Automobile Collision
Before Superior Judge A. J. Buckles of Solano county, sitting in Judge Denny’s court, the trial was commenced of the suit for $3,000 damages brought by W. W. Batchelor against W. R. Elphick for injuries sustained and damage done near Penngrove, when Elphlck’s automobile crashed Into the buggy In which he was riding.
It was a Jury trial…
Surveyor Newton V. V. Smyth was called to explain a chart he had made of the scene of the accident. He also computed the speed at which the auto was going.
Batchelor testified that at the time of the crash he was hurled twenty-five feet and that the buggy was carried or dragged for fifty feet on the front of the automobile, the horse having broke loose.
Batchelor testified that at the time of the colllson he was on the right side of the road and the automobile driven by the defendant was on the wrong side of the road. He testified that the machine was being driven at a rate of not less than forty miles an hour. He testified that Elphick gave his name as “Jones,” and said he was going to Cloverdale. Batchelor said he took the number of the machine and by this means learned the identity of the owner of the automobile. He testified that he was injured on the arm and shoulder and also suffered from shock.
Mrs. Batchelor testified as to her husband’s injury and Dr. Bogle was called to the stand and said he found Mr. Batchelor suffering from a contused arm and complaining of pain in the region of the kidneys.
J. D. Cook and son testified as to the manner in which the buggy had been dragged by the automobile and the indentations it had made on the side of the road.
Chief Deputy Assessor J. C. Smith testified as to the assessed value of Mr. Elphlck’s property in this county.
H. A. Atkinson testified as to Batchelor’s having come to his office two weeks after the accident, nursing his arm and in a nervous condition. Geo. Vogt was another witness.
At a few minutes to five o’clock an adjournment was taken until nine o’clock Friday morning. Judge S, K. Dougherty, counsel for Mr. Batchelor, stated that he had one more witness he expected to call before resting the case. Colonel James W. Oates represents Mr. Elphick, and he will call some witnesses. The case will probably go to the jury today.– Press Democrat, July 7 1911
VERDICT GIVES PLAINTIFF $700D. W. Batchelor Wins His Suit Against W. R. Elphick in the Superior Court
D. W. Batchelor was yesterday afternoon awarded a verdict of $700 by a jury in Judge Denny’s department of the Superior Court, against W. R. Elphick. Judge A. J. Buckles presided at the trial.
Batchelor asked for $1,400 for injuries and damages sustained on account of a collision between Elphlck’s automobile and his horse and buggy. The alleged details of the case have already been stated.
Elphick, Tony Veir and D. H. McReynolds were the witnesses called for the defense yesterday. Mr. Elphick testified that he only saw Batchelor’s rig when he was only a short distance away, and that he did his best to swerve to his side of the road. He said he did not remember fully that he did at first give his name as “Jones.” He did so as to avoid the publicity. He testified that his machine skidded at the time of the collision, and he could not avoid the impact.
Judge Samuel K. Dougherty, who represented the plaintiff, made the opening argument to the jury. Colonel James W. Oates, who represented Mr. Elphick, followed, and Judge Dougherty closed. The jury returned its verdict after a short deliberation. Judge Buckles granted a stay of execution.– Press Democrat, July 8 1911
NEW TRIAL IS GRANTED IN DAMAGE SUIT
In an opinion received yesterday from Judge A. J. Buckles of Solano county, a new trial is granted in the case of D. W. Bachelor against W. R. Elphlck. This sets aside a judgment for $700 granted the plaintiff in the first trial, which was heard by Judge Buckles, sitting in this county. The action was for $3,000 damages for a collision between Batchelor’s buggy and Elphick’s automobile. It was alleged in the complaint that Elphick’s automobile ran up behind the buggy and collided with it, injuring both the vehicle and the plaintiff. The plaintiff is represented by Attorney S. K. Dougherty, and the defendant by Attorney James W. Oates.– Press Democrat, December 20 1911
ALL THE EVIDENCE IN ARGUMENTS TODAY
…Elphick took the stand in his own behalf at the trial on Wednesday and he alleged that the accident was unavoidable and that Batchelor was not thrown from his buggy at the time of the impact, but was thrown later when his horse became unmanageable. He went pretty thoroughly into his contention before he left the stand on direct and cross-examination.– Press Democrat, March 14, 1912JURY GIVES HIM $125
After being out for almost seven hours and casting many ballots, the jury in the suit of D. W. Batchelor against W. R. Elphlck brought a verdict into Judge Seawell’s department of the Superior Court on Thursday night shortly before ten o’clock awarding the plaintiff a judgement in the sum of $125. covering all phases of the damages he sustained. Batchelor sued for over $3,000 damages for for alleged personal injuries received and damage done his horse and buggy when Elphlck’s automobile collided with him as he was driving along the country road some distance from this city…– Press Democrat, March 15, 1912SLOAN BOYD IS SERIOUSLY HURTRun Down by an Automobile on Saturday Night Out on the Sonoma Road Near Town
Sloan Boyd, a well known resident of Rincon Valley, while riding home on his blcycle from his employment at the National Ice Company’s establishment in this city on Saturday night, met with a serious accident. He came into a collision head-on with a touring car coming to Santa Rosa in the opposite direction. He was thrown with terrific force from his wheel and suffered serious cuts about the face and head and a bad contusion of the shoulder. A San Francisco man was at the wheel in the automobile.
The machine stopped and Mr. Boyd was hurried to the Mary Jesse Hospital in this city where his injuries were attended to by Dr. Jesse. It Is feared that he may be internally hurt also. He was detained at the hospital. Mrs. Boyd was also brought to the hospital to see her husband as soon as possible after the accident in the automobile which ran him down. The accident happened on a dangerous turn out on the Sonoma road not far from the city limits.– Press Democrat, October 15 1911AUTOIST RAN INTO FRANK KURLANDER
Frank Kurlander, a son of Mrs. Maurice Kurlander, was run down by an automobile driver Saturday evening on Mendocino avenue, near Cherry street. The Kurlander boy was riding a motorcycle at the time. Fortunately he was injured but slightly, but his motorcycle was badly damaged. The automobile driver put himself in a serious position by running off without stopping to ascertain what damage he had done and for not rendering assistance. The law is very severe on the auto driver who runs off in hope of not being recognized after he has run into a person. The authorities have the number of the machine which struck young Kurlander, and it will be an easy matter for them to locate the machine.– Santa Rosa Republican, April 1, 1912AUTO HITS MAN AND LEAVES HIM UNCONSCIOUS IN ROADDashes Away Into the Darkness After the Collision
While riding a bicycle on Santa Rosa avenue Saturday night about half past seven o’clock, Fred Kruse, who lives at Fifth and Riley streets, was run down by an automobile and badly hurt.
The auto did not stop after striking Kruse, but the driver threw on more power and sped away into the darkness. The machine was running at a high rate of speed and had only the small lights burning and did not light up the roadway at all.
Kruse had been working on a ranch belonging to his sister, in Bennett Valley. He was returning to this city and his uncle, mother and brother were following in a buggy. When they turned from Bennett avenue to Santa Rosa avenue they came upon the unconscious form of their relative lying in the road. They picked him up and hurried him to the family home, where Dr. S. I. Wyland was hastily summoned.
The young man was found to have suffered a severe wrenching of the back and his right side and shoulder were badly bruised. There may be internal injuries, though this cannot be determined as yet.
When found Kruse was lying at one side of the road about ten feet ahead of his wheel, which was badly smashed. He was unconscious but was talking incoherently and kept asking why the auto did not stop. When he regained consciousness he could throw but little light on the accident. He said that he thought he had been struck by the fender of the machine. He heard the auto coming Just before it hit him and looked back over his shoulder. He says he instantly realized that he was about to be hit and swerved sharply to one side in an attempt to get out of the way The machine struck him and he called to the occupants of the car as he was hurled to the ground. He says there can be no doubt but that they knew they had hit him. He can give no description of the car. There is not the slightest clew to the Identity of the perpetrators of the outrage. It is about time such business as this was stopped.– Press Democrat, March 2 1913NEW AUTOMOBILE LAW SIGNED BY GOVERNOROwners and Drivers Will Be Affected by Its TermsStringent Regulations Provided for Auto and Motorcycles and New Rate of Licenses Is Provided While County Gets Half the Money Collected
Sacramento, June 14.—Among the bills signed by Governor Johnson today was Assembly bill No. 2095, the automobile registration bill, which transfers the department from the office of the Secretary of Stale and places it in the hands of the State Engineer and the State Treasurer, and provides a new schedule of automobile licenses.
This measure sets forth rules of the road; makes joy-riding, where the consent of the owner has not been obtained, a felony; provides that minors under 16 years shall not be licensed; fixes the speed limit at thirty-five miles an hour; prohibits intoxicated persons from driving an automobile or a motorcycle, and provides that “muffler cutouts” shall not be used within any incorporated city or city and county.
No races or contests for speed shall be permitted without first securing a permit from the proper authorities of the city or county. Motor vehicles must always be driven on the right-hand side of the highway and be under control of the driver, and in case of collision in which a person is hurt ths driver must stop and lend assistance and upon request of the person injured or whose property has been damaged the driver shall give his name and address and the number of his auto license.
Here is the schedule of licenses to bp charged: Motorcycle. $2 a year: automobile, less than 20 horsepower, $5; 20 and less than 30, $10; 30 and less than 40. $16; 40 and less than 50, $20; 50 and less than 60, $25; 60 and above, $30; dealers, for five or less autos. $50, $10, for every automobile In excess of five; dealers in motorcycles, $5 for five seals; every original chauffeur’s license, $2; renewal, $2, and additional seal of registration or license, 50 cents.
All fees or other moneys collected by the State Treasurer shall be placed in a fund known as “the “motor vehicle fund,” and one-half of the receipts shall be returned to the Counties from which they were received, and these funds shall be paid into the road funds of the counties receiving them. San Francisco shall, under the provisions of the act, be deemed a county.
Fines collected in the counties shall be paid into the county treasury, and placed in the “county good roads fund.” Applications for licenses shall be made to the State Engineer, and the licenses shall be issued by him, the money for the same to be paid to the State Treasurer, thus providing a double check on the business.– Press Democrat, June 15, 1913HURRY AWAY IN THE DARKAuto Joyriders Leave Their Victims in the Road
Oscar Godwin, an auto proprietor and driver of Napa, is alleged to have collided with another vehicle near St. Helena last week–also with the new law which makes a crime of the neglect to stop and render assistance in the case of an automobile accident.
Godwin late Tuesday night at a high speed ran his automobile into the rear of a buggy driven by William Bradley. The buggy was wrecked and Misses Beth and Grace Nottage of Oakland were thrown out and severely injured. Godwin hurried on without stopping, though he heard the screams of the frightened and injured girls. In his car were E. Bailey of Napa and two women. The two men have been arrested. Godwin makes the lame excuse that his passengers forced him to drive on, and so to escape bodily injury he left his injured victims lying in the road. The offense is a serious one, as the maximum penalty is five years in the penitentiary, or a fine of $5000, or both. Both men have been released on bail of $1000.– Santa Rosa Republican, June 16, 1913