Police Traps and “Infernal Machines”


With recent local news on speed regulation, both in Manchester (with last month’s surgical clarification of the downtown’s 20 mph speed zones) and in Essex (with the Police Department’s uptick in formal warnings for speeding motorists), it seemed a good time to go into the archives.  In the 1990’s, Joe Garland wrote articles for the Historical Society Newsletter.  One of them addressed Manchester’s role in creating the country’s first speed trap.  That’s right.  Read on … 

Meanwhile, here and in other cities and towns around the nation, the number of autos was increasing annually, as was the record of complaints about the “infernal machines.”  whose speed and recklessness was angering citizens and disturbing public peace.  “Scorchers” they were called, and Chief Samuel S. Peabody of the Manchester Police Department undoubtedly frustrated himself by many court experiences similar to the one described above, (a case was deemed undecided because there was a “he said, he said” conflict) decided that something should be done to provide clear evidence that a vehicle was exceeding the town's speed limits.  On the job for just two years, the Chief in 1907 turned to his mechanically-minded son, Allan S. Peabody, then caretaker at the estate of Philip Dexter. Soon Allan had devised an ingenious system.  It consisted of two sentry boxes designed to look like dead tree trunks, located exactly one mile apart. Within each box was a Manchester police officer equipped with a stopwatch and a telephone. (The necessary wires were run underground between boxes.)

When a vehicle which the first officer suspected might be speeding passed his observation point, he started his stopwatch and phoned his partner with a description of the car and its license number.  The second officer immediately synchronized his watch which he then stopped on the second the unsuspecting driver passed his station.  Quickly consulting a rate, time and distance table, he determined whether the law had been broken.  If it had, the "scorcher” was stopped by a third constable also in touch by telephone, posted somewhat further on.  Thus, was the "speed trap," so familiar to us today, born in Manchester, Massachusetts.

"You can get some idea of the work we are obliged to do," said Chief Peabody, "when I tell you [that] during the months of July and August there was not a Sunday afternoon that we did not time more than 1,000 cars."  (Weekend driving was, indeed, a popular pastime!)  Speed traps were so successful that two were established in Manchester.  One was on Bridge Street opposite Winthrop Farm in West Manchester.  The other was in the so-called "cove" section on Summer Street on the Magnolia side of town.  The problem of  “scorchers" was finally under control.

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