The Detroit Police Department (originally called the Metropolitan Police) were among the first to put officers on bicycles.
In 1893, Officer Charles J. Stewart was appointed to the department and began his assignment on the Elmwood Precinct bicycle patrol. The Elmwood station was on Elmwood Avenue between Lafayette and E. Fort Street.
An 1895 Detroit News photo of Officers Charles J Stewart and Joe Whitty at the Elmwood Station. Both are wearing their distinctive bicycle police uniforms, which included knickers to prevent their pant legs from getting caught in their front sprocket, caps and long coats. Their bikes were fixed gears with dropped bars and designed to go fast. It doesn’t appear they had brakes. Unlike today, bells and lights were not required on bicycles.
There were very few automobiles on the roads, but Whitty and Stewart had to be able to catch the fast cyclists of the day who might be scorching (i.e. speeding) on Detroit’s streets. The speed limit was 8 MPH in the downtown area and 12 MPH outside of it. Apart from that, there were no stop signs, traffic lights, one way streets, or expressways. I’m still not sure they could tell how fast cyclists were speeding.
On September 16th 1899, Whitty and Stewart made plans to meet at the corner of E. Jefferson and Orleans. This is where E. Jefferson crosses over the Dequindre Cut today. F. Baulch Cycle Manufacturing and store was in the southwest corner where they’d planned to meet. Baulch made a number of different bikes, including the Defender, Fairy, Junior, Matchless, Queen, and Scorcher. It’s possible that Whitty and Stewart rode Baulch’s, perhaps even the Defender model.
On this evening at 8:25pm, the Detroit Free Press reported:
Very few persons took particular notice of the figure in blue as it sped across Jefferson Avenue at Orleans Street astride a wheel. Cycles were passing to and fro in droves and the usual crowd of wheelmen stood in front of the F. Baulch Manufacturing Company’s store…
Suddenly there was a despairing shriek and all heads turned in the direction of an east-bound Jefferson [street] car, Number 704, that had barely reached the corner. A form was seen to disappear beneath the wheels, the car made a few convulsive movements, and there was a sudden rush to the spot. Witnesses state that the car went at least seventy-five yards after the collision
When the crowd struggled to get closer to the car beneath which was the twisted and bleeding form of a man, some person asked who had been killed.
“Why, it’s Joe Whitty, the bike cop,” remarked one man. Iron jacks were soon employed in lifting the heavy car. Slowly it parted from the human form beneath and finally, after fully half an hour, the body was free and was carried to the side of the road.
“Life was then extinct” according to the Free Press. An ambulance then took the body to the Elmwood police station.
A moment after [the] ambulance had rolled away from the station with what everybody supposed was the dead body of Joseph Whitty, the door of the Elmwood station was thrown open and a man as pale as death entered. He look about as if in a dream.
“My God,” cried an officer, “here’s Joe Whitty. He ain’t dead.”
“Where’s Stewart?” cried Captain [William] Nolan.
“I don’t know,” said Whitty, “he must be dead.”
Tears were falling from Whitty’s eyes and he was trembling. Captain Nolan rushed to the telephone and, in husky tones, notified the undertaker of the error in identifying the dead man. It was a scene of confusion, but the heart of every man in the station was touched and many wept. Whitty could hardly realize the condition of affairs.
There was speculation that Stewart had been pursuing a speeding cyclist, but Whitty concluded his partner was “simply endeavoring to pass in front of a swiftly moving [street] car.” In 1899, the Jefferson Avenue streetcars were electric. The 704 was a big 50-seat model with a weight over 10 tons — no match for a bicycle.
Stewart was 30 years old, married with a 2-year old daughter Leona. The Detroit City Council provided a pension to his widow of $25 per month for the rest of her life or until she was remarried. Every month, Lillian Stewart had to provide the City Clerk with certificates from two reputable people stating that she had not remarried. It appears she never did. We found a gravesite for a Lillian Thomas Stewart at Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Southwest Detroit. However we did not find one for Officer Stewart.
Leona also received a pension of $5 a month until she turned 16.
So why wasn’t Whitty riding with Stewart to the bike shop? Whitty had a tire puncture and had to fix it, wrote Isaiah “Ike” McKinnon in his book In the Line of Duty.
According to the International Police Mountain Bike Association, Officer Stewart was the second public safety cyclist killed in the U.S. The first was Patrolman Frederick H. Lincoln of the New York City Police Department who crashed after hitting pedestrian and striking his head against a curb.
Originally posted as “Detroit Patrolman Charles Stewart’s “Horrible Death”, m-bike.org blog, November 2, 2014.