Making a Mountain out of a Mole Hill

London, the first Hoover automobile, Mrs. Hoover behind the wheel and Mr. Hoover checking the engine. 1903
London, the first Hoover automobile, Mrs. Hoover behind the wheel and Mr. Hoover checking the engine. 1903

On March 18, 1928, an urgent telegram was received by Lou Henry Hoover from Lady Lister-Kay, wife of Sir John Lister-Kay groom-in-waiting to King Edward VII. Lady Lister-Kay queried: “I was horrified to read in the papers this morning of the very narrow escape you had in your automobile yesterday which most happily and mercifully ended without injury to you. I do hope you are not feeling any shock and would like to hear how you are.” Lou Hoover responded immediately reassuring Lister-Kay: “So many thanks for your wires. A very short skid and bump into a low wall going at very slow speed has been unduly exaggerated. None of us were in any way injured or alarmed or even slightly shaken. Glad to receive such pleasant expression of sympathy from you.” What began as a single inquiry based upon a newspaper report soon mushroomed into many queries over the course of the week, all expressing sympathy for Mrs. Hoover in what was reported to be a terrible car accident. A brief review of some of Mrs. Hoover’s responses to friends and well-wishers provides a better idea of the inaccuracies of some of the newspaper accounts as well as the likely sources for reporters.

Lou Hoover recounted the details of the event to all concerned. While returning back to Washington, D.C., rain had dampened the roads causing Lou to lose control of her car and veer over a stone wall. The accident happened near Winchester, Virginia by the Shenandoah Bridge. Some newspaper accounts had the car skidding through the bridge railing making the car and its occupants hanging over the water. Only by jumping to safety were Mrs. Hoover and friends saved. At least, that is what the owner of Baird Differential Control Company in Detroit, Michigan believes to have been the course of events. Writing to Mrs. Hoover on April 3, Frank C. Baird asserted “we confidently believe that the accident was caused by a defect in the design and construction of the car, a defect that is common to all cars now being manufactured.” Mrs. Hoover’s secretary replied to Baird asserting: “In some way, a very slight skid on the road not far from the Shenandoah Bridge got grossly exaggerated. They were not on the bridge, so did not go through any railing and consequently did not hang over the water and therefore did not have to jump out. They were not even shaken up as one mild report had it! Therefore I am assuming that in view of the false nature of the newspaper account you will not care to continue to use this item when you have further circulars printed.”

How did such a minor incident in a rural area get reported in the first place? Mrs. Hoover surmised in a letter to Mrs. George Scott that “Either the purveyors to the press or some local garage people exaggerated most picturesquely a very short skid and bump which we had while travelling very slowly. We knocked a few stones out of a very loosely constructed stone wall in which we tangled up one of our wheels temporarily and bent a rod and one or two other little things that had to be straightened. But we were not”shaken up” the least bit, either in ourselves, our nerves, or baggage, as the paper said, nor did we hang precipitously over the river, nor break down wire bars or wooden stanchions…”

In spite of the many disclaimers Lou would write over the many days following the news story, she found some solace in the exercise. Writing to her friend Doctor Fairclough, Lou confessed: “This dramatic newspaper story has had one pleasant result—that I am again in touch with many friends who have been kind enough to write me sympathetically and express their concern over my welfare.”

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