The Dangers of the Horse and Buggy Days

The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the January 7th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

If the thought of driving on a snowy day keeps you at home, you’d do well to remember that horse-drawn vehicles weren’t much safer than cars. Yes, carriages and sleighs traveled at much slower speeds than we do, and yes, there were fewer drivers out there, but most of our accidents are caused by driver error and cars have become much safer in recent years. There was never anything safe about an open carriage – being ejected from the vehicle was just as dangerous then as it is today. But the primary reason for carriage accidents wasn’t driver error. It was that killer horse.

On July 2, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary, was riding into Washington when the driver’s seat on the presidential carriage became loose, pitching the driver off. He was fine, but the terrified horses began to run – taking Mary Lincoln with them. Fearing they would crash, Mary jumped from the carriage. Newspapers reported that the president’s wife was merely bruised, but she suffered a head injury that triggered migraines for the remainder of her life.

Even if the passengers managed to escape, an out of control horse could create havoc for miles. At least car usually stop moving. In May of 1898, the Exeter Gazette, reported, “The most exciting runaway which has taken place for many a day, occurred here Saturday, no less than six teams being mixed up in the affair. Only one person was hurt, however, although nearly every wagon was smashed to kindling wood.”

A horse belonging to O.H. Sleeper, but driven by photographer William Hobbs, suddenly took a fright on Franklin Street tossing both Hobbs and a young companion over the side. The driverless wagon then careened up Water Street smashing into J.W. Berry’s milk wagon before hitting Charles Haley’s fully hitched meat wagon. Haley’s horse then reared and smashed through the glass plate window of the billiard parlor before grazing the wheel of Frank Engel’s wagon. He narrowly missed B. Judson’ Perkin’s carriage, overturned John Sanborn’s buggy and raced down Water Street finally being stopped by the gas house at the base of Green Street.

Meanwhile, the horse who had started it all – Sleeper’s horse – crossed String bridge and headed for Jady Hill, where he was finally captured, “but not enough was left to the wagon to bring home.” Such excitement could really liven up a dull afternoon. At least this incident only resulted in minor injury to Mr. Hobbs.
Hannah Brown, who lived on River Street, reported a sad tale in her diary on February 2nd, 1854; “William and his wife, Fanny, and Charles Warren came over to pass the evening. About ten o’clock they started for home. When they got about half a mile, the horse became unmanageable, the harness gave way going down hill, cause the sleigh to come on the horse feets it frighten him so that William could not hold him, the sleigh upset, they were all thrown into the wall. Lydia was mortally wounded, she survived six days after the accident, Fanny had her teeth broken and her face very much bruised. William and Charles escaped unhurt.” The Exeter News-Letter added, “at the foot of the hill, the horse instead of following a turn in the road, passed straight on over a stone wall into the field.” No amount of defensive driving will help when a horse has lost his senses.

So many accidents were caused by horses that the newspapers were full of accounts. “”L.B. Tilton’s horse, attached to his butcher cart, started on a run from the top of Tower hill Thursday went up Spring street and into the academy grounds, where he was caught by students,” reported the News-Letter in May of 1898. Later that same year, the Conner’s horse fell into a culvert at the corner of Center and Water streets, “Luckily the animal escaped with only a few bruises, but the ladies in the carriage were considerably frightened,” commented the editor.

Author Sarah Orne Jewett, of South Berwick, Maine, ended her writing career after a carriage accident in 1902. “The horse stepped on a rolling stone and fell, throwing Miss Jewett, who held the reins, and Miss Rebecca Young, her seat companion, over the horse’s head. Miss Young escaped with a severe shaking up, but Miss Jewett was considerably injured about the head and spine.” She never fully recovered from the accident.

Although quaint and seemingly rather slow and steady, a wagon or carriage could easily turn into more of a death trap than a Ford Pinto if that one uncontrollable element – the horse – decided to take flight.


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