This was then: Speed

Keep it down to 5 mph on Circuit Ave.

An automobile careens south down Main Street, Vineyard Haven, about 1905-10. — Courtesy Chris Baer

In 1902, Edward Mulligan of Quincy, a wealthy Boston broker and Cottage City summer resident, was charged with manslaughter after his speeding automobile caused the death of 72-year-old farmer Ariel Scott of West Tisbury. Mr. Mulligan was traveling along State Road near Tashmoo, allegedly at more than 15 miles per hour, and passed Scott’s laden team. It was alleged that the farmer’s horse was frightened by the auto, or alternately that the speeding vehicle struck his wagon. Scott was thrown to the ground, and was found lying in the road a few minutes later. He died the next day of his injuries. Mulligan claimed to have been traveling at no more than 12 miles an hour, and said he was unaware of the accident until much later.

Tisbury selectmen quickly passed an ordinance forbidding automobiles, motor bicycles, or “vehicles propelled by other than animal power” from speeds over 6 miles per hour on public roads. Three years later, Edgartown followed suit, and proposed regulation limiting the speed of automobiles to 4 mph on village streets and 10 mph elsewhere. In 1906, the Boston Globe reported that some Cottage City residents were similarly debating their own regulations: “Much adverse criticism is being made by automobilists over the ordinance adopted by the board of selectmen, limiting the speed of autos on Circuit Ave. between the soldier’s memorial fountain and the Sacred Heart church to 5 miles an hour. A number of chauffeurs assert that it is almost impossible to run the big cars at such a low rate of speed, and that it will force them to keep off that thoroughfare.”

In 1938, West Tisbury officials — and many others across the commonwealth — were notified that the speed limit signs they had posted had no legal standing. “The law provides for no speed limits,” noted the Boston Globe, “it merely prohibits unreasonable speeds … That is up to the court or jury.”


Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.