By Daniel T. Weaver
Around 11:50 a.m. July 26, 1912 City of Amsterdam police officer, Charles A. Davis, spotted a touring car tearing down East Main Street at nearly 30 mph. He pursued the vehicle on his Indian motorcycle, overtook it on Guy Park Avenue and notified the driver he was under arrest for speeding. In 1912 speed limits were so low that driving in excess of 30 mph for more than a quarter mile was presumptive evidence of reckless driving. The speed limit within the city at the time was 15 mph.
The driver told Davis he was Governor John Alden Dix, that he was late for an appointment and was going on. With the governor were his wife, his military secretary, Lt. Commander Eckford C. DeKay, and another man. Dix continued on to Sangerfield where he spoke at the third annual meeting of the Sangerfield Country Club the next day. Davis went back to police headquarters and reported the incident to Commissioner of Public Safety Van Valkenburg, thinking he may have done something wrong by attempting to arrest the governor. Van Valkenburg assured him he had done the right thing, and later in the day stated he saw no reason why the governor should not be arrested like anyone who broke the law.
In the television series, “Andy Griffith,” Deputy Barney Fife unwittingly tickets the governor’s car for illegal parking. Like Amsterdam’s Officer Davis, he was aghast when he found out whose car he had ticketed. In the fantasy world of television, the governor of North Carolina drove to Mayberry to honor Fife for doing the right thing by ticketing his car. Not so in the real world of New York State.
When asked about the incident, the governor commented, “I am always careful to drive slowly through cities and incorporated villages, and on my recent trip through Amsterdam I was driving at the rate of 16 miles an hour. The officer who stopped me was none too courteous. I came back through the city and stopped to inquire about the road to Schenectady. If there is a charge against me on the police docket I have not been informed of it by the officials.” DeKay, however, told the press Davis had been courteous.
In a short editorial on July 27 titled “The Law is for All,” the Amsterdam Recorder said of Dix, “It is the duty of the authorities of Amsterdam to insist that he appear here and answer to the charges against him. The law is for all. There should be no discrimination, whether the accused be a governor or a scavenger.”
Unfortunately, city officials did not do that, even though earlier they had said they would. On July 30, Govenor Dix, his wife and a chauffeur deliberately drove into Amsterdam from his summer home in Thomson, driving down Market Street and stopping in front of the Barnes Hotel, which was located on lower Market near East Main, to give police officials every opportunity to arrest him if they desired. Chief of Police Fred W. Packwood told the Amsterdam Recorder he saw the car parked in front of the Barnes but had no authority or warrant to arrest the governor. Officer Davis who had stopped Dix four days earlier had left the city for a vacation shortly after his attempt to arrest the governor.
It wasn’t the first time the governor had been stopped for speeding. On August 19, 1911, a police officer in Lake George stopped him for exceeding the village’s speed limit. When the governor told the officer who he was, he let him go. But it was the Amsterdam speeding incident that made the newspapers all over the state.
The Albany Journal wrote a satirical piece based on Dix’s accusation that Davis was discourteous, suggesting cops address speeders as follows: “Pardon me sir: but I have been observing your progress for some little time, and it seems to me that it is more rapid than the law allows. I am therefore unfortunately in duty bound to request you to cause the wheels of your vehicle to cease from revolution, to consider yourself under arrest, and to accompany me to a magistrate…”
Dix’s first two-year term ended on December 31, 1912. He ran again but lost the Democratic nomination. He then moved to California.
At age 26 Officer Davis died unexpectedly of heart problems while shoveling snow on January 25, 1915. His funeral was held at his 211 West Main Street house and was attended by police officers from Amsterdam and Schenectady.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.