A tragic death that made history

Senator’s wife was the first auto-crash fatality in Northern California in 1902

Steve Cottrell

Last month’s history column explaining how former Nevada City lawyer Bill Stewart became author of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution triggered an email asking if Stewart’s wife, Annie, influenced his political career the way Ellen Clark Sargent influenced Aaron’s political career. 

No, Annie wasn’t politically active, but she did become a historic figure of sorts in California –– albeit in a very tragic way.

In 1854 with his tenure as California attorney general drawing to a close, 27-year-old Bill Stewart entered into a private law practice in San Francisco with 51-year-old Henry Foote, an attorney from Mississippi. Foote represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate for five years and then in 1852 defeated Jefferson Davis to become the Magnolia State’s governor. 

He was, however, a Unionist who opposed Southern secession and expanded slavery. So, in January 1854, five days before his term as governor was due to end, Foote resigned and moved his family to San Francisco, where he and Stewart met and formed their partnership.

Fortunately for the former Nevada County district attorney, his new law partner had a daughter –– 19-year-old Annie –– who, on May 31, 1855, became Mrs. William Morris Stewart. 

In 1856, however, the law partnership dissolved when Foote began considering a return to Mississippi politics. Although he returned to Vicksburg a couple years later, the former senator and governor felt unwelcome and soon moved to Tennessee. There, as a two-term member of the Confederate Congress, he vigorously argued against the war policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

When the San Francisco law partnership ended, Stewart decided to return to Nevada City. And to show his appreciation to Annie for marrying the son of a small-time farmer from rural Upstate New York rather than a Southern gentleman with a big plantation, (as Henry Foote no doubt envisioned for his daughter prior to the move from Vicksburg to San Francisco in 1854), Stewart built as a wedding present for his bride the impressive house at 410 Zion Street –– recognized as the only true Southern Colonial antebellum home in California.

Throughout their marriage, Bill was the politician while Annie was the genial hostess, organizing parties and dinners at every stop in her husband’s career. But on September 12, 1902, with her husband at The Hague in the Netherlands arguing a case brought by the United States on behalf of the Catholic Church against Mexico, Annie became the victim of a horrific accident.

While visiting relatives in Oakland, she was offered something she couldn’t resist: An afternoon automobile ride to Alameda to visit a nephew. 

Seated in front next to Ben Taylor, the driver, 67-year-old Annie Stewart was having an exhilarating ride in Taylor’s 1902 Winton Touring Car. Shortly after arriving in Alameda, however, Taylor swerved to avoid a horse-drawn grocery wagon and crashed into a fire-box telegraph pole at the intersection of Santa Clara Avenue and Bay Street.

Annie was catapulted from the open Winton and thrown with tremendous force against the fire-box pole, then fell to the concrete curb. Taylor was injured, but not seriously.

An ambulance was summoned and Annie was rushed to the Alameda Sanitarium. Unfortunately, there was no hope for survival –– making Annie Foote Stewart the first recorded automobile fatality in Northern California. 

A transatlantic telegram advised Bill Stewart of his wife’s sudden death. He responded from The Hague, asking that Annie’s body be held for burial until he could return to California.

On October 18, 1902, with Senator Stewart back in California, Annie was interned at the Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco. Seven years later, 81-year-old Bill Stewart died and was buried next to Annie.

Then, in 1940, after the Laurel Hill Cemetery was sold and the land was being developed, their remains were exhumed and reinterned at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, near the southern edge of San Francisco.

Steve Cottrell is a historian, former city councilman and mayor and a longtime Nevada City resident. He now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. He can be reached by emailing exnevadacitymayor@gmail.com.

About the photo: 

This page: Nineteen-year-old Annie Foote Stewart, (1835-1902) came West with her family in 1854 and married Nevada City pioneer attorney William Morris Stewart a year later.

Previous page: 

A magazine ad for the 1902 Winton Touring Car that was manufactured in Cleveland. It is the same model Annie Stewart was riding in when she was killed in an one-car crash in Alameda.

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