Robert was 12. He was a newsboy, one of hundreds who hawked papers on the downtown streets. The money he earned helped his mother, with whom he lived in Foggy Bottom.
On that autumn day, a peanut vendor had parked his wagon on the sidewalk near the Treasury building. Robert bought a bag of peanuts and was crossing 15th Street at the same instant a truck from the Washington Electric Transportation and Vehicle Co. turned from New York Avenue. Witnesses said that the driver sounded his horn but that Robert didn’t hear it.
According to The Washington Post, Robert “did not once turn his head in that direction, but ran directly into the front wheel on the near side. The shock threw him to the ground, and in an instant both wheels passed over his head.”
The police called an ambulance from Emergency Hospital, but by the time it arrived, Robert was dead.
Since that day, hundreds upon hundreds of people have been killed by cars in Washington. It’s likely that Robert was the very first.
For years, many people believed that a little girl named Marion Kahlert had that dubious distinction. She’s buried under a handsome statue at Congressional Cemetery. As I recounted Wednesday, Marion really died of kidney failure.
Sandy Schmidt, historian for Congressional Cemetery, consulted the District’s commissioners’ reports from around the turn of the century and found that the first time “Run over by automobile” appears as a cause of death was in 1904. There was one death. It must be Robert’s.
I would have thought an auto-related fatality would have occurred sooner, given that autos had been on D.C. streets for about five years. But maybe 1904 was when people — drivers and pedestrians — started becoming complacent about what had until then been a noteworthy novelty.
I also wondered why Robert’s accident didn’t make more news. Where were the stories that said, “For the first time ever, the automobile has shown itself as dangerous as a runaway horse cart or derailed steam locomotive, claiming as its first victim an innocent child”?
Of course, maybe that’s just my 21st-century way of thinking. It’s only after the passage of years that we can properly discern what is “historic.”
Or maybe the lack of mainstream media fanfare had something to do with Robert.
“Negro Newsboy Instantly Killed on Busy Street Corner” was the subhead to the news story in The Post. In the Washington Times, the headline was “Negro Chauffeur Runs Down Negro Newsboy.”
At the time, newspapers always mentioned if a person was black. Many stories were outright racist. Would the death of a little white girl have occasioned more coverage?
We do know a little more about Robert’s death. The man driving the truck that hit him, Jacob Thomas, reportedly stopped his vehicle, got out, saw Robert on the pavement, then got back in and drove the truck to his employer’s garage before going home. He was arrested that night and held in jail for a few days until a jury ruled that Robert’s death was accidental.
So not only was this Washington’s first recorded automobile-related fatal traffic accident, but it was also the first fatal hit-and-run.
Two months later, Robert’s mother — Lettie in some news stories, Nettie in others — sued the electric vehicle company for $10,000, alleging that the driver of the car that killed her son was unlicensed. After that, Robert’s story disappears from the newspapers.
The automobile, of course, didn’t disappear. It was seen as a great boon but also an occasional terror.
When a heat wave gripped the city in 1901, Emergency Hospital pleaded for an automobile. (The heat was harming the ambulance horses.) No sooner had it procured one than there were complaints that it was going too fast. “Lives Must Be Saved More Slowly Hereafter,” read one headline in The Post.
The police cracked down on speeders, outfitting some officers’ bicycles with speed indicators. Just imagine if that’s how things worked today: a cop madly pedaling behind you.
Some things haven’t changed. In 2011, 27 people were killed in car accidents in Washington.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.