Speeding in 1904 set off international spat

Thursday October 4, 2012

STOCKBRIDGE -- Special Justice Henry Clay Phelps (1845-1913) didn't appreciate the sarcastic, de manding defendant who ap peared before him in Lee District Court on Sept. 26, 1904. The charge was driving at excessive speed through the Main Street of Stockbridge on a Sunday. Deputy Sheriff Sereno Albert Noble said the man's vehicle was going more than 20 mph.

Hugh Gurney (1878-1968), tall, lanky and wearing a plaid suit -- "from ‘Hingerland,' third secretary to the British embassy," as reporter Edward F. Strong wrote in the Lee Gleaner -- "opened with a broadside of cockney English on the justice in a manner that showed contempt.

"He tried to tell Judge Phelps there was no law in this country that could interfere with him, as he was in the service of the royal court of his majesty, King Edward the 7th."

Phelps, a part-time judge who was also manager of the National Wire Cloth Co. in Lee, didn't know international law. He only knew he was appalled by the lack of diplomacy on the part of the alleged diplomat. He directed Gurney to sit down. When Gurney wouldn't immediately do that, the deputy sheriff showed him how.

Phelps fined the defendant $25 for contempt of court and, telling Gurney he didn't recognize international law in this court, charged him another $25 for speeding.

"Pay, appeal, or go to jail," the judge said.

Gurney didn't have the funds with him, so the ticketing officer accompanied him to his Lenox domicile for the cash.

Still fuming, Gurney wired the British embassy, demanding due respect. Arthur S. Raikes, first secretary of the British Embassy, wired U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, who wired the acting Massachusetts governor, Curtis Guild Jr., who called the acting Massachusetts secretary of state, Alvey A. Adee. The federal Attorney General Henry P. Moulton heard about it, too.

It became an international incident, reported far and wide in North America and in the United Kingdom. Some newspapers decried Phelps' action; some praised his fortitude.

The Gleaner said Lee "was the center of the earth, diplomatically speaking, and got a million dollars' worth of summer resort advertising" from the incident.

Ultimately, Phelps got a phone call from Massachusetts Gov. John L. Bates, who came home to the fiery situation. Apologize, Bates said. Phelps did. And he dropped the fines.

Phelps said the statements made by Gurney before the court appeared "to be a manifest and intentional defiance of judicial authority." Neverthe less, Phelps admitted, he acted "in ignorance of international law and of the provisions of the federal statues."

The matter wasn't quite ended. The State Department chided Gov. Bates for revealing too much of the affair, specifically that the directive for an apology came as the result of a complaint by the British em bassy official. That wasn't to have been broadcast.

It emerged that Gurney wasn't actually operating the automobile, a 1904 Oldsmobile curved-dash runabout, at the time. A young man, Amos Scher mer horn, 18, son of Gurney's hostess, Lenox cottager Katie Tuckerman Cotting (Mrs. J. Egmont) Scher mer horn, was at the tiller.

"It is generally said in Lenox that Mr. Gurney has never been seen to operate his car at a high rate of speed, and that he knows very little about handling it. He employs no chauffeur and has always been fearful of making long trips for that reason," The New York Times said.

The Springfield Republican said Deputy Noble had previously warned the young driver to slow down.

On the other hand, the Olds mobile, a one-cylinder model, apparently "was not capable of a greater speed than 17 miles an hour, unless taken to the top of a steep hill and given a push," the Republican reported.

British Ambassador Sir Mort imer Durand, apprised of the affair, was of the opinion Gurney should have quietly acquiesced to the fine and let things go.

Gurney not long after was reassigned to The Hague.

Phelps continued his duties.

But the die was cast. Stock bridge was to be increasingly blessed with motor vehicles but, as we know, in summer it is impossible to travel at greater than 20 mph on Main Street.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions