The Scorcher Menace

This was originally posted on my old, defunct blog and proved to be one of my most popular pieces of writing. Please enjoy, and feel free to add to the conversation.


Bicycles are a mainstay on most college campuses, and are becoming increasingly prevalent throughout urban areas. As both a cyclist and a pedestrian I have on more than one occasion been 'buzzed' by a biker, they zoom past from behind with no warning. I have even heard (a small minority of) cyclists complain about pedestrians on sidewalks and brag about riding past them closely. Last year while walking to class I was clipped by a bike and dropped a very fragile and expensive project I was to present that morning. It should come as no surprise that when I encounter a fast cyclist in a crowd I will usually tell them to slow down, get a bell, both, or worse. As it turns out, this isn't a new problem: during the american bicycle boom of the late 19th century, fast bicycle riders called 'scorchers' were considered a public menace, they inspired whole new police divisions to be created just to deal with them and even a medical hysteria, all before spandex or ironic mustaches.

The first bicycle craze happened in the 1860s, when 'boneshakers' briefly gained popularity, though their harsh ride quality drove them out of fashion quickly, to be replaced by the equally uncomfortable 'penny farthing', or 'regular' which had an equally short life in the limelight. When the 'safety bicycle' (what would become the modern, diamond frame bicycle standard) was invented, it revolutionized individual transport.



We could easily go off topic talking about the ways that the safety bicycle changed the world (lightweight steel tubing, pneumatic tires, gearing systems) and paved the way for automobiles (literally), but today we're discussing the scorcher fad that came with the bicycle boom of the 1890s.

Bicycling had traditionally been the realm of spry young men, mostly due to the extremely difficult riding conditions of the boneshakers and penny-farthings, but when the safety bicycle came to the world many of those conditions disappeared or were lessened considerably. So not only did a wide new range of people take up cycling for fun and commuting, but they could do so at greater speeds than ever thanks to the chain gearing and the bicycle's new, low center of gravity (which made 'taking a header' practically a non-concern). Young men began challenging themselves to reach ever greater speeds.




Cycling was considered a very feminist activity, giving freedom to women everywhere. Though even most feminists advised against wearing men's clothing.

As early as November 1895 citizens were writing in to their local paper complaining that:

"The number of "hoodlums" scorching along... with heads down, with no regard to the safety of persons crossing, is rapidly increasing"

There were cries for police intervention, and arguments that horses would never be allowed to travel so quickly through a crowd. 




Theodore Roosevelt created a “Scorcher Squad” in December 1895, made up of 29 police officers on bicycles. In his autobiography, Roosevelt praised the squad for having “ not only extraordinary proficiency on the wheel, but extraordinary daring.” The Scorcher Squad, in addition to chasing down and ticketing fast bicycle riders, ran down out of control horses and even automobiles, forcing them to slow and eventually stop; some of these events even sound like action-movie fare, such as one officer who made a habit of catching up to runaway horses and getting “alongside the horse and seize the bit in his left hand, keeping his right on the crossbar of the wheel,” at which point he would either dislodge an irresponsible rider or simply calm the horse until it slowed and stopped. These ‘wheel mounted’ police made 1,366 arrests in their first year (though not all of these were bicycle scorchers). Denver, Colorado and Grand Forks, Minnesota began bicycle squads in the summer of 1896, “to control scorchers and sidewalk cyclists.” In Chicago, apparently, bicycle police were using slingshots to hurl lead balls at the spokes of scorchers, the impact would break the rim and bring a cycle to a sudden halt.



Police bicycles had enormous front sprockets to give them an advantage in catching the fastest scorchers.

Police bicycles had enormous front sprockets to give them an advantage in catching the fastest scorchers.


All the additional attention from the police gave some hope that scorching might soon be eradicated, one New York Times columnist wrote in June, 1896 (under the headline Scorchers WILL Be Suppressed):

"Scorchers are the most dreaded of all evils which terrify the wheeling element. But decided steps have been taken to abate the nuisance, and the consequence will be that shortly the bow-backed fiends will be run to earth and suppressed entirely."

However, two years later scorchers were still considered a menace, and by this time they had automobiles on the road to contend with, “nearly every Sunday the spectacle is presented of reckless wheelmen racing with the cars.”



Many incidences of pedestrians being injured in collisions with cyclists were reported in the last years of the 19th century. In October of 1900 a 55 year old pedestrian died following a collision with a 16 year old scorcher named Harry Morton, who was said to be charged with manslaughter. What became of Morton was not discovered by the time of this writing. 

By the late 1890s, the public had become convinced that not only was scorching dangerous and irresponsible, but that it posed a serious health risk to the riders themselves. The “bicycle heart” was said to come from fast riding, which, according to an army recruiting doctor, had a "tendency to enlarge the heart and thus interfere with its proper action.” The French Army also rejected potential recruits for fast bicycle riding, saying that riders had heart trouble. In July of 1899 the New York Times reported that a fast ride had killed a scorcher, the scorcher also happened to be 64 years old and suffered of heart disease.



The second bicycle boom is considered to have ended by 1903, and the golden age of the scorcher along with it. No single event caused the end of the scorching fad, but the rise in automobile use along with social pressure probably contributed. In The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Bicycle Police Ross Petty claims that police motorcycles were being used as early as 1908, and that “closed cars became more popular not only for  patrol work, but for pursuing criminals who frequently attempted to escape in cars that could travel at increasingly faster speeds.” So most of the young men and women likely either grew out of the scorching practice or graduated to internal combustion speeding. Bicycles have seen at least two major revivals since then, and more than likely the scorcher has been encountered in each one.

You can peruse my research page for more information, or if you have anything to add please do so.