Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Third Street Carriage Crash in September 1898 (Part I)

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On September 16, 1898 at about 8:30 p.m., August Reiss and Charles Weber were traveling in a horse-drawn carriage on Third Street in the Village of Pelham. The pair approached a small bridge that crossed the Hutchinson River at that time. The pair approached from the Village of Pelham side of the bridge.

The pair seems to have been traveling at a fairly quick clip when the horse ran dead-on into the side railing of the bridge killing the poor beast and severely injuring the two occupants of the carriage. According to one account, the road on the Pelham side of the bridge "was formerly the same width as the bridge, as it is yet on the town [of Pelham] side; but the village widened the road so that the end of the bridge stood against the middle of the road. In this way the horse of the plaintiffs going along the right-hand side of the road ran against the end of the right-hand side of the road, ran against the end of the right-hand guard rail of the bridge in the darkness." It turned out that in March 1898, the Village of Pelham had begun widening Third Street leading up to the bridge. That process was not completed until October 1898. In the meantime, the carriage smashed into a guard rail that had been placed at the direction of the Commissioner of Highways of the Town of Pelham. The guard rail had not yet been moved while the road was being widened.

What followed was a lengthy litigation that resulted in twelve reported judicial opinions as the courts tried to allocate responsibility for the crash between the Village of Pelham and the Town of Pelham. Today's Blog posting will discuss the first of these decisions.

The plaintiffs sued only the Town of Pelham for the accident. Following a jury trial, a verdict was announced in favor of the Town of Pelham. Plaintiffs made a motion seeking a new trial and submitted the affidavits of members of the jury who indicated that they ruled in favor of the Town of Pelham because "they believed that the town of Pelham and the village of Pelham were jointly liable for the obstruction complained of, and that both village and town should have been sued, and that the entire damage should not be borne by said town" and that the "jury believed that under the law the plaintiffs could maintain an action against both said municipalities hereafter, or they would not have brought in a verdict for the defendant". Reiss v. Town of Pelham, 30 Misc. 545, 62 N.Y.S. 607, 608 (Sup. Ct. Westchester Co., 1900).

In deciding the motion the Court, as might be expected, excoriated the jury saying that the affidavits were a "scandalous revelation" that the jury made "no scruple of swearing that in disregard of their duty to decide the facts submitted to them, and nothing else, leaving the law to the court, they entered into consideration of a point of law in the jury room, and decided the case in accordance with their decision of such point of law". According to the Court, the conduct of the members of the jury was "outrageous". It seems that there was a good reason for not including the Village of Pelham as a defendant in the case. According to the Court, "it may be incidentally mentioned that under a statutory requirement that such claims for damage be presented to village officials within a given time after the accident happens, the plaintiffs by failing to so present their claims had lost their right of action against the village." Id.

The Court, however, was bound by the law. It noted that under the law "the affidavits of these jurymen besmirching their conduct and thereby impeaching their verdict cannot be entertained . . . [v]erdicts would otherwise have no stability". It seemed that the Court would have to deny the motion by lawyers for Messrs. Reiss and Weber seeking a new trial.

The Court noted, however, that there was one ground on which the matter might be reopened and a new trial granted: newly-discovered evidence. This, the Court found, stating:

"The ground of newly-discovered evidence seems to be substantial. The defense of no funds was interposed. The highway commissioner testified that he had only one cent which he got from his predecessor. But it is now made to appear that the course of business was for the town meeting not to raise funds for highway expenses in advance, but for needed funds to be obtained from a bank which advanced it during the year, and then for the bills to be audited and put in the next tax levy. If the jury had had this evidence before them I do not think they would have found the commissioner was without funds; that is if any guess can be given as to what such a jury would do." Id. at 609. Thus, the Court granted the motion for a new trial.

Tomorrow: how the litigation over the Third Street Carriage Crash of 1898 was resolved.

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