When Henry H. Bliss stepped down from a trolley car on September 13, 1899, he had the historic misfortune of stepping directly in front of an electric-powered taxicab. In doing so, he became the first motor vehicle fatality in the Western Hemisphere.
A plaque now marks the spot at West 74th Street and Central Park West where Henry Bliss met his end. At the time, this notoriously accident-prone stretch was known by local motorists as the “Dangerous Stretch” on account of the many accidents that had taken place there the previous summer.
The unfortunate Bliss, a real estate dealer, had stepped down from the trolley car and turned to assist his companion, Miss Lee. While doing so, he was run over by an electric taxicab driven by Arthur Smith (electric-powered cars were surprisingly common back then). The New York Times, reporting on the incident, said that “Bliss was knocked to the pavement, and two wheels of the cab passed over his head and body. His skull and chest were crushed.”
Gory details aside, the report also managed to squeeze in some juicy social gossip. The passenger in the cab, Dr. David Orr Edson, was the son of former New York City mayor Franklin Edson. Dr. Edson tried to assist Henry Bliss while waiting for the ambulance to arrive, but ultimately to no avail. Upon arrival at the hospital, Bliss was deemed too severely injured to survive.
He became the first motor car fatality in the Western Hemisphere. He died 30 years after the first ever known automobile fatality, that of Mary Ward, an Anglo-Irish naturalist, astronomer and author. She died in 1869 under the wheels of a steam car built by her cousins.
As for Arthur Smith, the driver of the electric cab, he was arrested and charged with manslaughter. But Bliss’ death was later deemed unintentional, and Smith was acquitted.
Exactly one hundred years later, on September 13, 1999, a safety-awareness organization named Citystreets placed a plaque at the site. It reads:
“Here at West 74th Street and Central Park West, Henry H. Bliss dismounted from a streetcar and was struck and knocked unconscious by an automobile on the evening of September 13, 1899. 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.”
The memorial ceremony was attended by the great-granddaughter of Henry Bliss, who placed flowers at the site.