Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

“Death Car” Reckoning: Responses to the Automobile Slaughter in Chicago, 1920–1938
by Miller, Matthew S., Ph.D., Northwestern University, 2012, 340; 3499625
Abstract (Summary)

This study examines the dynamic reaction to the surge of automobile accidents and fatalities on the roadways of the Chicago area in the 1920s and1930s. Far from fading into the background as an accepted price to pay for modern convenience, or from being met with resignation, the automobile slaughter elicited vigorous and diverse responses from the public as well as safety advocates, the police and local governments. Utilizing a close reading of accounts of accidents, the letters motorists and pedestrians wrote to newspapers, judges, and politicians, and the iconography of motorized death in the city's press, this project offers a reconstruction of the public narrative of the danger automobiles represented during a time they were more generally thought of as symbolizing progress and modernity. As part of this inquiry, it is necessary to uncover the sensibilities of the public and how their perceptions of this automotive danger were incorporated into shifting views of governmental and social authority. Many people during these decades explicitly linked the need to bring safety to the streets with a need to reform the police, justice and political systems to eliminate corruption and restore legitimacy. Thus, efforts to fight bribery, extortion, jury tampering and even patronage were conceived as part of the fight against motor deaths. Needing to gain the support of the public, safety advocates adopted this imperative as part of their organized efforts. Attempts to eliminate the "fix" from the courtroom, part of the fight against speeding motorists that area officials conducted in the early 1920s, evolved by mid-decade into a campaign against speed traps on the metropolitan fringe. Concurrently, non-governmental institutions, such as the Chicago Motor Club, capitalized on this public distrust to assume greater authority over the creation and administration of public policy. This weakened the dichotomy between the governed and the governing. Such campaigns to restore credibility to public institutions, however, actually unleashed a torrent of popular criticism of those institutions. Alternatives, from automobile inspections in safety lanes to a standardized driver's license, were developed to surmount this persistent crisis of authoritative legitimacy, with limited efficacy.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Barton, Josef J.
Commitee: Binford, Henry C., Sherry, Michael S.
School: Northwestern University
Department: History
School Location: United States -- Illinois
Source: DAI-A 73/07(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: American history
Keywords: Automobile accidents, Chicago, Illinois, Traffic fatalities
Publication Number: 3499625
ISBN: 978-1-267-24254-9
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