Henry Bliss, America’s First Pedestrian Fatality, Was Hit By an Electric Taxi

The driver was arrested but released after hitting Bliss

An Electric Vehicle Company cab. Wikimedia Commons

He was the first of many.

On this day in 1899, Henry Hale Bliss was hit by a car while getting off a New York streetcar, the first pedestrian in the United States to be killed by the then-newfangled horseless carriages.

“FATALLY HURT BY AUTOMOBILE” read the next day’s headline in The New York Times. As the article detailed, Bliss, a real estate dealer, was struck by a car driver while helping a female companion to get out of the streetcar. Although he was the first fatality in the United States, Bliss was followed by many more: as the CDC reports, an average of one pedestrian was killed in a vehicle crash every 1.6 hours in 2015. Here are the important things to know about Bliss’s experience.

He was hit by an electric taxi

Driver Arthur Smith’s car, like many other early automobiles, was powered by electricity. “In the late 1800s, electric-powered cars were among the highest performing, and most popular, vehicles on the road,” writes David G. Allan for the BBC. “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 Electric Vehicle Company, which operated the taxi that struck and killed Bliss, operated from 1897 to 1907, according to Wikipedia. It demonstrates that early automobile-type contraptions weren’t all the gasoline-powered car people are now familiar with. In fact, the first-ever recorded fatality at the hands of a motor vehicle took place in a steam-powered car in 1869 in Ireland. Then, writes Matt Soniak for Mental Floss, “Irish scientist Mary Ward was riding in a steam-powered automobile built by her cousins. As they rounded a bend in the road, Ward was thrown from her seat and fell in the vehicle’s path. One of the wheels rolled over her and broke her neck, killing her instantly.”     

Henry Bliss, America’s First Pedestrian Fatality, Was Hit By an Electric Taxi
Henry Bliss was America's first recorded pedestrian fatality. Wikimedia Commons

What happened to him was described as an “accident”

The Times used a variety of language in its piece to describe what happened to Bliss. He was “fatally hurt,” “run over,” “struck” and the victim of an “accident.” As Matt Richtel reports for the modern Times, many road safety advocates are now steering away from the word “accident” to refer to car crashes. Cities like New York and San Francisco are also avoiding the language. Historically, Richtel writes, the word was used by automakers in the 1920s who wanted to shift focus away from the car and on to drivers when it came to “accidents.” But in time the term “car accident” gave the driver leeway as well.

However, as Bliss’s “accident” shows, the precedent was already set for 1920s car manufacturers. Smith was “arrested and charged with manslaughter,” writes Tony Long for Wired, but “the charges were dropped after it was determined that Bliss’ death was unintentional.”

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