Friday, July 31, 2020

Driver Strikes and Kills Mrs. Denison during Elks Convention in 1920

The Elks Club held their annual state convention in Salem in 1920, and "thousands" of visitors came to the city. Over the weekend downtown streets were crowded and several drivers crashed into people on foot. On person died, and the case suggests shifting attitudes in normalizing autoism. Streets were for cars.

July 22nd, 1920 focused on Elks convention

July 23rd, 1920
The first stories are clear about the crowded streets and suggest an aggressive driver. From July 23rd, 1920
Right-of-Way Is Taken [on] Crowded Street, One Dead

Mrs. E. K. Denison [E. E. Denison, I believe], age 71, is dead and her husband seriously injured as the aftermath of a convention crowd accident at the corner of State and Commercial streets, Thursday night. Mr. and Mrs. Denison [were] in a group of pedestrians passing along Commercial street and were caught by a car driven by G. W. Wineland, of 1041 South 13th street.

Witnesses of the mishap asserted that Wineland's car had spurted up to about 12 to 15 miles per hour in an attempt to get the right-of-way from Dr. D. X. Beechler, who was approaching from the north on Commercial street. In order to avoid a collision with Wineland's car, Dr. Beechler "killed" his engine and permitted the car to pass. Witnesses stated that Mr. Wineland's attention was drawn to the Beechler car and that he did not see Mr. and Mrs. Denison until his machine was upon them.

That Wineland had absolutely no right to take the right-of-way from Dr. Beechler and to proceed in such a head-long fashion is the opinion of Chief Welsh and others who witnessed the accident. Wineland was not arrested.

In an effort to avert the disaster, Wineland threw on all brakes and stopped within the length of his own car. After the accident, Mr. Wineland left his machine, but according to statements made by him to Chief of Police J. T. Welsh, did not leave the scene as reported but assisted in conveying Mrs. Denison to the hospital, where she died within a short time. The car had passed over the aged woman's head and chest, death being pronounced as due to concussion of the brain.

Mr. Denison. who suffered painful hip injuries [,] was taken to a hospital by Dr. B. F. Pound and Chief Welsh. As usual with large crowds, much thoughtlessness was displayed, the hundreds of curious crowding upon the injured people and interfering with the efforts of those who were administering to the aged couple....
July 31st, 1920
The stories about the trial a week later describe a meaningful tension.

The afternoon paper on the 30th quoted the City Attorney, who prosecuted the case:
"I am very loath to criticise a jury, but in this case the verdict was an outrage on justice and a shame and disgrace..."
By contrast, on the 31st the morning paper leaned with the jury and driver:
It was the opinion by some of the jurymen who served in the Wineland case that as long as an automobile driver is careful, diligently observing the demands of the city ordinance, he cannot be held culpable for any accidents...
It's hard to square descriptions of the crash and the City Attorney's comments with the notion that Wineland was "diligently observing...the city ordinance" or was otherwise careful.

I read this as a minor kind of jury nullification and reframing of driver responsibility. During the convention, the streets were crowded with people on foot and people in cars, and the jury did not see as at all questionable a driver "spurting" out to pass another driver and car. It was the responsibility of people on foot to evade the driver and car, not the responsibility of the driver to avoid people on foot. Those walking are interlopers or guests with a very secondary claim to the street. That is no "war on cars," but a "war on pedestrians."

That is a moment in the new autoism that prevailed in the 20th century.

Dennison building with Cherry City Cleaners
from Court Street
looking north on Liberty Street
(see here for more)
As for Mrs. Denison, I believe she and her husband had owned the building that recently had the Beanery downtown. (Maybe there will be more to say about that later. The papers have several spellings, and the Downtown Historic District one of the variants with a double N, but her headstone says "Denison." I did not find a notice of the building's completion, though.)

Dennison Building in Downtown Historic District

For more on the cultural and legal context of our autoism in which we minimize the responsibility of drivers and shift blame to people on foot, see:

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