“Scarcely a day passes but some serious automobile accident is recorded, and nearly all the disasters are directly attributable to the folly of the owners.
“It would be interesting to know what is the essential connection between an automobile and a fool. Do automobiles make fools of their owners or do only fools buy automobiles?
“Anyway the two together make a most dangerous and offensive combination. A man who would never dream of driving a horse at full speed along a public highway no sooner becomes the owner of an automobile than he is afflicted with a mania to show how fast he can drive the infernal machine. He dashes along public roads as though they were his private property; frightening horses, raising tornadoes of dust, and imperiling the lives of men, women and children.”
So wrote the Montreal Star editorially on August 29, 1902.
The commentary went on to lament the fact that the newly-arrived automobile was responsible for deaths of both drivers and pedestrians alike. No pedestrian, however, as of 1902, had ever been killed in the streets of Montreal by a ‘machine’. For that ill-fated moment, the city waited another four years.
On August 11, 1906, a scarcely-known individual by the name of Antoine Toutant unwittingly made Montreal history. As the unfortunate labourer was crossing the intersection of St. Catherine Street East and Maisonneuve (today, Alexandre-de-Sève), he was struck by a speeding automobile. While his wife and son escaped with their lives, Toutant died shortly afterwards. He was the first pedestrian ever killed by a motorized vehicle in the City of Montreal.
The tragic story took place the evening of August 11, 1906. The automobile in question was driven by Hernold Thomas Atkinson, a chauffeur with the Dominion Park Company. Quebec law at the time decreed a maximum speed of six miles an hour (10 kph) within cities, towns, and villages. When approaching intersections, ‘machines’ were expected to reduce further their speed to an astonishing (at least by today’s standards) four miles an hour (6.4 kph). Nonetheless, when a newspaper reporter of the day, installed himself for about an hour at an intersection on Dorchester Street, he counted a total of seventeen vehicles passing in front of him at an average velocity of 15 miles an hour (25 kph).
By all accounts, Atkinson was also travelling considerably faster than the legal stipulation. Regardless, then, as now, not all provincial road regulations were attentively enforced by the municipal authorities. It also seems that the accident occurred as Atkinson overtook a tramway which had come to a halt to take on passengers. However, ordinances from the period prescribed that drivers wait until that process was completed before continuing. In a sense, the streetcar was like a stopped school bus – not to be passed under any circumstances.
Instead, Atkinson pulled ahead on the left of the trolley, striking Toutant outright as he stepped unknowingly in front of the offending vehicle. Mrs. Toutant’s dress was torn by the automobile as she nimbly saved herself by stepping quickly onto the sidewalk on the north side of St. Catherine Street. Her husband, however, was declared dead twenty minutes later at Notre Dame Hospital.
Needless to say, Montrealers were particularly horrified by the event, perhaps especially because the victim’s body was very badly mangled in the incident. Moreover, many in the general public were still not totally comfortable with these new ‘machines’ which were suddenly and stealthily prowling the streets of the city.
Below, car accident in bygone times (article continues beneath) –
Not surprisingly, Toutant’s death became the subject of much controversy. Even the Automobile Club (the forerunner to the CAA) weighed in with their opinion that the speed directives, although unwarrantedly strict, had to be obeyed by all drivers. In fact, all regulations as they applied to automobiles had to be observed, they argued.
That same evening, Atkinson was charged with manslaughter and, exactly a month after the accident, he was sentenced to six months in prison for his part in this Montreal first.
There exists an interesting irony to this whole unhappy affair. it was on the very same day of Toutant’s death that Pope Pius X promulgated St. Christopher the patron saint of automobile drivers throughout the world. But then again, it wasn’t Atkinson who was killed!
Published in March of 2008, in Connections, the journal of the Quebec Family History Society.