If you polled the drivers and riders on the roads today, it would be interesting to see what percentage of them have had at least one speeding ticket, and, for me at least, it is interesting to see the old accounts of speeders when their top speed may have been around 10 mph.

The Victorian and Edwardian term used for one who rode very fast on a bicycle, (motorcycle), or motor car was scorcher.  The term first applied to bicyclists, but with the introduction of the motorcycle, it was quickly applied to speedy motorcyclist and automobile driver as well. 

Bicycles and bicyclists were originally wheels and wheelmen, and motorcycles were for many years referred to as simply motors, distinguishing between cyclists as either the riders of a bicycle or a motorcycle. 

TRACY’S MOTOR CYCLE.  The Inventor Pleads Not Guilty to a Charge of Scorching.  Joseph Tracy, who gave his address as 539 Hudson Street, Manhattan, was arrested yesterday afternoon while riding a motor cycle near the Ocean Parkway entrance to Prospect Park.  He was rounded up by Bicycle Policeman, John J. Jones, who arraigned him to-day before Magistrate Steers in the Flatbush court and charged him with exceeding the speed limit of twelve miles an hour in violation of a city ordinance.  When asked what he had to say, he replied, ‘Not guilty, your honor.  I am an inventor and was experimenting with the machine I was riding when arrested yesterday.  The cycle cannot do better than nine miles an hour.  I only wish it could’.  The magistrate adjourned the case until to-morrow, when he will have the wheel in court.  Three other scorchers were arraigned in the Flatbush court to-day and they were fined $5. each.  [Apr. 1899, note:  Tracy and the other three are among the first in the nation to be arrested for speeding].

French physicians studied the situation and coined a medical phrase for speeders, “locomotor hysteria”, saying the disease manifested itself in an insane hurry to get over the ground.  The same group of physicians proposed taking anyone caught scorching to the hospital to be, “detained for some weeks and treated for his malady precisely like any other monomaniac”.  Physicians in Chicago weren’t fully buying the idea that speeders suffered from a disease, but they were analyzing the French doctors’ report.   

A fellow who has this disease, and has it bad, can’t stand anything slow…he’s at his worst when he mounts his bicycle and proceeds to slay miles and pedestrians.  Then he becomes that modern terror, the scorcher.    

Disease or not, the problem caused a great deal of consternation around the turn of the 20th century prompting editors across the country to print poems dedicated to the scorcher.

A scorcher scorched on a scorching day,

He scorched down the street pell mell;

He scorched right into a trolley-car

And he’s scorching now in__ well,

He isn’t scorching any more in Illinois,

Any-how.  – Chicago Record. 

How do you catch a speeding motorcyclist or automobile driver?  With another motorcycle of course!  By 1910, police departments from Chicago to San Francisco were reporting on the success of employing mounted officers to catch scorchers. 

The work of men on the motorcycles has proven satisfactory.  The motorcycle men have been employed to arrest scorchers—for the purpose of regulating traffic, arresting peddlers, and others violating the city ordinances in regard to vehicle traffic in general.  In addition to this work, many arrests for crimes have been affected by men of this squad. 

Like many other subjects, it is difficult to pinpoint the first traffic ticket for scorching, or speeding as we know it today, but we can discuss some who are serious contenders for the title, and at least one of the first

The earliest I found were New Yorkers Joseph Tracy (motorcycle, April 1899) and three unnamed individuals (see above), and Jacob German (automobile), who was taken to jail in May 1899 for exceeding the speed limit [12 mph] with his electric taxi. 

AUTOMOBILE DRIVER’S ARREST.  Said to Be First One Locked Up for Fast Going.  Jacob German who is said to be the first man arrested for running an automobile too fast, was locked up New York last night.  He runs cab No. 1,565 for the Electric Vehicle Company of 1,683 Broadway.  Bicycle Roundsman Schuessler saw German making twelve miles an hour on Lexington Avenue early last evening and pursuing the man he saw him round the corner of Twenty-third street, an always crowded place at the same break neck speed.  Then he arrested him.  German was surprised.  The company was notified and its members were surprised.  But German was locked in the East Twenty-second street station.  The automobile was left in front of the station house.  – Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  May 21, 1899. 

New York officers also arrested the son of a well-known businessman in 1899.

EXCEEDED SPEED LIMIT.  Cornelius Tangeman Rode Too Fast on Motor Cycle.  Cornelius Tangeman, a neatly dressed young man, a son of George P. Tangeman, the vice president of the Royal Baking Powder Company, was arrested on Seventh avenue this morning by Bicycle Policeman Collins of the Fifty-fifth Precinct.  Young Tangeman was arraigned in the Myrtle avenue court this morning and charged with violating the speed law with a motor cycle.  Officer Collins said that Tangeman was easily riding at a rate of fourteen miles an hour.  He was fined $5.  – Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  Oct. 27, 1899. 

Early citations were issued in Dayton, Ohio [1904] and California [1908]. 

An officer in Cleveland apparently pursued an option other than ticketing an automobile scorcher in 1906, upon which the Cleveland Automobile club took up the matter and demanded such actions be avoided while at the same time pledging to assist officers in stopping those guilty of the offense. 

The other day a park policeman, who had been abused by a particularly obnoxious scorcher, retaliated by firing his revolver after the flying machine in the hope of hitting a tire, thus causing the driver to stop.  It may be that the policeman was only trying to scare the driver and did not fire directly at him, but the incident has caused a storm of protest from automobilists and the public in general.   

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Sources:  American Heritage Dictionary.  Brooklyn Daily Eagle.  March 21, 1899, Aug. 21, 1899, April 1899, & Oct. 27, 1899.  Good Roads.  Vol. XXIX.  Boston.  Jan. 6, 1899.  Bulletin of the Cleveland General Hospital.  Jan. 1899.  Recreation.  Vol. 7.  Oct. 1897.  Chicago Bureau of Public Efficiency.  Publications.  1910.  Ohio History Central.  July 27, 2006.  http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=2599.  Police Motor Units.com.  http://www.policemotorunits.com/index.html  American Motorcyclist.  May 1991.  Automotive Industries.  May 10, 1906.