Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/February 1883/Correspondence

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CORRESPONDENCE.
 

THE BICYCLE CONTROVERSY IN STOCKBRIDGE.

Messrs. Editors:

ALTHOUGH the writer belongs to those inhabitants of the village of Stockbridge who are editorially stigmatized in the December number of your magazine as destitute of "moral backbone," as "openly immoral," and "barbarians," yet cowards and criminals have their rights at the bar of editorial as of other justice, and he asks you to permit him to file a plea to your indictment—in other words, to publish this answer to your strictures.

Sound criticism, quite as much as sound philosophy, you will agree, depends on a correct and complete statement of the facts. The following version of the bicycle controversy can be maintained by many witnesses. The writer asserts it to be in every material part substantially true.

The professor, whom you justly call distinguished, fresh from a victory in the Central Park of this city over the ladies, invalids, and children who had been accustomed to be pushed about the skating-rink on the sliding-chairs, which doubtless interfered with his essays in skating, and perhaps on abstruser matters, came to his country retreat in Stockbridge naturally confident of equal success in clearing out all bicycles from his path. He was accustomed to walk with his eyes downcast, medians nescio quid nugarum philosophicarum totus in ilis, and the necessity of keeping wide awake with his bodily eyes was annoying. There was no Park Commissioner and no "Century" or other social club where officials can be button-holed, and petitions granted inter pocula; but there were three selectmen, chosen to guard the interests of the town in the old fashioned New England way. He drew a petition, procured eighteen signatures, and presented it to them. Taking it as a fair indication of the sentiment of the town, the selectmen were on the point of granting it, when the application chanced to become known to one or two inhabitants who took a different view. A remonstrance was drawn, based on the facts that accidents more commonly occurred from bicycles frightening horses in the roadway than from permitting them on sidewalks; on the hardship of practically depriving children of all use of the bicycles; on the impolicy and injustice of subjecting summer fugitives from the cities to the same kind of restrictions they had fled from; and denying the existence or seriousness of the so-called accidents alleged in the petition. This remonstrance was signed by thirty-six persons. The signers were generally heads of families, and up to the moment of this act of turpitude were (with the exception of the present writer) persons of recognized standing and character. In consequence of this remonstrance, the selectmen decided to ignore the petition. The shrewd professor, then perceiving that though, by dint of that persistent persuasiveness in which he is unexcelled, he might collect signatures, yet that all the names remaining in the town could not outweigh the remonstrance, called on the person who prepared that paper and urged his assent to a second petition, which had already been signed by a considerable number of visitors and residents. This was a remarkable document. It began by renewing the prayer of the original petition; but the various signers had been permitted to incorporate in it their different views and prejudices, which gave it so motley an aspect that it was hard to determine what was the net application. It asked in one place that all bicycles be excluded from the sidewalks; in another, that they be so excluded excepting children's; in another, that bicycles exceeding thirty-six inches in diameter be so excluded; in another, that bells be required to be attached to all bicycles; and, in another, that no bicycle be allowed to go anywhere in the village faster than five miles an hour. The person of whom the request was made, though reiterating his opinion that the real and only serious danger of accidents in the village was from the frightening of horses in the road, yet being fond of peace, something of a "moral coward," and willing to see how a compromise would work, yielded to the professor's strenuous demand, and reluctantly signed a memorandum to the effect that he considered that the chief objection to an order excluding bicycles from the sidewalks would be removed by permitting children to ride them there. The multiform document, thus re-enforced, was thereupon taken to the other signers of the remonstrance, who, seeing the memorandum of their representative, signed also.

The wheels of the opposition being thus scotched, other signatures were then obtained, to the number no doubt correctly stated by your informant as a hundred and sixty-eight. Meantime, a moment's cool reflection out of the range of the professor's battery having convinced the first compromiser that he had made a mistake, he sent a note to the professor, requesting that his name might be removed. When the note was received at the professor's house, he was out, busily engaged in getting signatures. The next day he called on the repentant signer and informed him that, before the note was received, the document had been already presented to the selectmen.

These selectmen, though I maintain just and well selected, were puzzled. After discussing in open session the question whether a thirty-eight-inch bicycle ridden by a small boy should be compelled to take to the road, while big boys on thirty-six-inch bicycles were allowed to patrol the sidewalks, and the difficulties of enforcing regulations depending on the exact size of the bicycle, they decided, as the wisest practical course, to exclude all bicycles, in accordance with the original, principal, and most definite purpose of the petition. This decision, we believe, was a perfectly honest one. There was, at any rate, enough to justify it as such, and the burden is on those who charge dishonesty to prove it. It is true, as alleged, that this order necessarily "caused irritation." Why? Because it was unjust, or appeared so to the village. Yet this indiscriminate exclusion was the real object at which the professor aimed, and which he partly gave up only in order to make sure of as much restriction as he could get.

But the order was not generally satisfactory, and a counter-petition (which your informant seems to have forgotten) was drawn up and at once signed by about two hundred of those who favored the cause of the bicycles. The list included a great majority of the substantial names of the village, and was handed in long before anything like a complete canvass could be made, because the chairman of the Board of Selectmen was to leave town the next morning for a considerable absence, and immediate action was necessary. The selectmen held another session. Horses were frightened daily under the eyes of all by bicycles on the road. No accidents known to the community at large had resulted from the bicycles on the sidewalks. The decision of the magistrates was a responsible one in a pecuniary sense, as they might entail on the town heavy damages as the result of forcing the bicycles into the road, to the distress and dismay of the riding and driving public, Still, prompted by the desire which they throughout showed to act cautiously and fairly on a controverted point with which they professed no personal acquaintance, they made, in accordance with the general sentiment, a modified and, as the event seemed to prove, a judicious order. They excluded the bicycles within certain designated limits from the central and business part of the village, where alone they thought accidents likely to occur, but permitted them elsewhere on the sidewalk. From extreme caution they proceeded tentatively, however. The order was made about the middle of August, to remain in force till the 1st of September. This was for the purpose of testing its practical operation before establishing a rule at the expiration of the time limited. No accident happened. Nothing happened which the lenses of the learned professor could magnify into an "accident"; and on the 1st of September the order was indefinitely continued, with the like beneficent result.

Now, the selectmen are charged with "playing into the hands of an active party in favor of the boys." We will not stop to inquire who was this active part} 7 which overawed the selectmen and commanded a majority of the votes. But is not it hard on the selectmen, who did what they conceived their duty in the manner described above, to charge them with knavery, without, so far as appears, other grounds than that the order they finally made, in view of all the facts, was unsatisfactory to the professor? This is not Spencerian doctrine. If it is what the editor of this magazine calls a "vigorous canon of scientific method," it is rather too vigorous.

In the article in the "Springfield Republican," the accusations (according to the writer's recollection) are more bitter, and one of the magistrates is attacked by name. We shall come presently to the charge of Stockbridge special amenableness to Mr. Spencer's indictment against the American people. But here we may inquire whether there is no other fault found by him with our people, to which those are amenable who publish accusations against official persons for which there is no scintilla of proof. Mr. Spencer's ethics prohibit slander and personalities.

Now let us glance at the more general facts:

It will be admitted that bicyclists, like other domestic animals, have some rights which, once defined, are as much entitled to protection as the wider liberty allowed pedestrians. The question to decide is, at what point the exercise of these rights begins to turn into a trespass. It will hardly be denied that in the open country bicyclists may leave the rough road for the more traversable path which runs by it, and when the road and the path lead into a small, straggling village, where pedestrians are rare, the practice is still clearly permissible. When the road and path lead into a larger village, the road becomes paved or macadamized, and the path becomes a sidewalk, the question changes its aspect. In villages like Stockbridge, where there is plenty of space, and the broad, graveled sidewalks are never crowded, it is not a simple one. A good bicyclist can guide his machine almost around a blade of grass, and the great preponderance of accidents have resulted from bicycles encountering horses in the road. In large towns with thronged sidewalks, it is obvious that, whether bicycles are to be allowed in the road or not, they are in the way on the sidewalk, and ought not to be permitted there. A rule adapted to the compact English villages is not necessarily the best guide for ours. But it is not true that bicycles are not permitted on their sidewalks by any such general rule as the professor states. There, as here, the rule depends on the size of the village, and on the question whether such permission would or not be practically inconvenient. When the controversy in Stockbridge was going on, and rival posters were daily going up, considerable evidence was collected to this effect. In some villages, as in "Henley on-Thames," the postmen travel altogether on bicycles, going freely on the sidewalks. In Massachusetts towns of about the size of Stockbridge, such as the neighboring villages of Lee and Barrington (which, by-the-way, are considerably larger than Stockbridge), and where there are no college professors, or, if there are, they reserve their perambulatory meditations for their return to their Poccile, bicycles are generally permitted on the sidewalks. In much more populous towns, like Pittsfield and Springfield, they arc doubtless excluded. Now, who is to decide when the permission to go on the sidewalk becomes a nuisance? Certainly, in this country, the people themselves, through their authorities. In New England these are the selectmen. New England almost if not quite alone retains the system of town self-government which for so many centuries preserved liberty and fostered civilization in Europe. The selectmen of a Berkshire village, charged with the supervision of the lives and property of the inhabitants, certainly have better means of judging and a stronger motive to judge rightly in what parts and places bicycles should be permitted within their jurisdiction, than a newspaper in Hampden County, or a magazine in New York City, acting on the ex parte statements of even a distinguished individual, who, having undertaken to have the question settled to suit himself, is indignant because the selectmen, in accordance with the expressed wish of a majority of those interested, have decided differently.

The writer is one of the professor's many admirers, and would be the last to impugn his good faith; but, once enlisted in a campaign, whether in behalf of science, charity, or some idiosyncrasy, he goes on with a persistency which is always indomitable and sometimes headlong; and he is apt to assume that his cause has but one side, which, in cases coming under the third of the above categories, at least, is not invariably true. In this instance, he threw aside the sketch-book with which it had been his wont to exercise his charming artistic talent during his vacation, and devoted his time to scouring and ransacking the by-ways and corners of the village for rumors and reports of accidents from bicycles, the existence of which, before they were seen or heard of by any one else, he was as satisfied of as Leverrier was of the existence of the planet Neptune before he saw it. He posted up from day to day notices of incidents more or less founded on fact, which he apotheosized into catastrophes. He went back over a period of four years, to the first introduction of the bicycle into the neighborhood, and the only genuine "accident" worth mentioning, it is believed, if his collection were dispassionately interpreted, was the result of the fall, on a baby carriage, of a bicycle unskillfully mounted by a learner at this early day. People saw with wonder lists of tragedies posted in front of the post-office which no one had heard of, and which were the more mysterious as they were generally without date, and the sufferers were commonly designated as Mr., Mrs., or Miss Blank, or the infant child of Mr. and Mrs. Blank. Why had no one heard of these terrible things? Why were not half of us in mourning or in tears? What right had we to walk erect on unbroken legs while so many were mangled? It seemed as if a wholesale slaughter had been going on in the midst of us without our knowledge. Fortunately, a little inquiry into the facts soon dissipated our apprehensions.

Let me illustrate: the writer, while looking at the list of casualties with feelings fortunately for him not quite akin to those with which we used to devour the returns from the Chickahominy, read somewhat as follows (the number and the precise words are not remembered, but the substance of the bulletins is correctly given): "No. 16. The infant child of Mrs. Blank run over and badly injured by a bicycle. For particulars refer to J. 0. R., Esq." Looking further the writer read as follows: "No. 21, J. O. R., Esq., run into and hurt by a bicycle." (J. O. R. was the same person referred to in No. 16.) It so happened that the writer observed at the moment in the post-office J. O. R., Esq., himself, and improved this opportunity by inquiring of him the particulars of the two calamities, calling his attention to the alarming record before us. "Well," said he at last, "that isn't exactly right. I didn't see anything happen to any child, and I haven't been run into myself, but I understood that old Mr. J. G. had been run into and hurt." Soon after this conversation, the writer chanced to meet the wife of the old gentleman in question, and said to her he was very sorry to hear that her husband had been run into by a bicycle, and hoped it was nothing serious. "Why, no," said she, "he was not actually run into, but you know he is quite infirm, and a bicycle came very near him and he was a good deal alarmed lest it might hit him." This was the residuum from the analysis of the two accidents. A list of burlesque "escapes" was posted from day to day by the side of that of the so-called "accidents" and about equal credence was given to each. Both were worthy of "Patience," or the "Belle Hélène." To the annoyance of both parties, the selectmen at last impartially took down both sets of notices, not because of any improper motives as charged, but because of the crowd which gathered daily in front of the post-office so thickly as to become a nuisance. The professor was laughed out of court; and we villagers, while all conceding his excellence and genius, think him daft on the bicycle question. The real bullying was all done by him, though unconsciously; and the real "cowards" were those who, like the writer, under the glare of those wonderful eyes, had not dared to refuse to sign his pieced and patched compromise petition.

In sooth, this particular charge of moral cowardice in the Stockbridge people is unfounded and ridiculous. Not only were there no accidents deserving the name, but none were likely to occur on the sidewalk, which might not be avoided by that reasonable circumspection which the law expects from every one, and the want of which would precipitate a misfortune from a post or a wheelbarrow equally with a bicycle. The names attached to the bicycle-petition were signed because of the deliberate conviction that the danger from frightened horses was greater than from bicycles on the sidewalks. Horses in the country do not all get accustomed to these Centaur-like appearances, as those in the city do to corresponding monsters, such as the elevated trains, because different horses come into the village daily from the surrounding region. These animals standing on their hind legs, or rushing and shying, were frequent occurrences, whereas an unskilled bicycle-rider on the sidewalk can be avoided, and a skilled one can always avoid the pedestrian.

It is now, we hope, made apparent that Stockbridge barbarism has been prematurely assumed on ex parte testimony. Until a law should be passed to the contrary, the wide sidewalks away from the crowded part of the town were rightfully free to baby-carriages, children's wagons, wheelbarrows, and bicycles, and in the present state of the population there seem to have been good reasons why there should be no such law. At least, enough has been said to show that "the community" does not "acknowledge the outrage," and that the reason why the gentleman in question was "not supported but was condemned for his action" was, that it was reasonably regarded as an un-wise and unnecessary attempt to curtail those rural privileges which citizens commorant in the country as well as the villagers themselves regard as a great charm of their summer.

Inaccurate "data" and the proposal of unnecessary legislation come strangely from the disciples of Herbert Spencer. Strange, too, would it be if they were nearer the "barbarism" of their master's code than the orderly lovers of freedom whom they denounce. "Infinite presumption is discernible in this attempt at regulating the doings of men by law. . . . The desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire" (Spencer's "Social Statics," pp. 321, 80).

The length of this communication may seem monstrous. But the writer has been long-suffering. As a lover of peace, he had allowed the printed circular distributed throughout the village, which contained the same one-sided version of facts on which your article is based, as well as the impertinent and libelous attack in the "Springfield Republican," to go unanswered. For the good fame of Stockbridge, at which the professor, while leaving it for some years, it is understood, as a residence, aims through the editor of "The Popular Science Monthly" this Parthian shot, I could hardly say less. But, unless some astonishing twisting or suppression of material facts compel a further statement, I shall not again ask permission to trespass on your interesting columns.

Vermiculus Obtritus.
New York, December 22, 1882.