In April 1917, merry college friends were returning after midnight with champagne from a party in Trenton. Senior Harold Vensel, driving the lead car, skidded on a wet curve at 60 mph as they entered Lawrenceville. His snazzy $9,000 Roundabout narrowly missed a row of telephone poles before flipping twice.
Awakened by the crash, Mr. and Mrs. William C. Alloways dashed into their front yard to find Vensel and a fellow student lying injured. Bob Sniffen ’19 was dead in a pool of blood on the driveway, his skull crushed. The couple laid his body on a couch in their parlor.
In the second car that night was young F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17, who turned the horrific episode into an unforgettable scene in his 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise.
Biographers long have speculated about the name “Dick Humbird” that Fitzgerald gave the campus star who dies in the crash. PAW has found a possible derivation: S. Hinman “Birdie” Bird 1906, the first Princeton student to suffer a serious car accident.
Hinman Bird’s chauffeur — a professional racecar driver — swerved to avoid a cow near Hightstown and overturned the roadster. Bird narrowly survived, but the driver died.
Fitzgerald would have known of Hinman Bird: Tiffany heir, athlete, prominent in Ivy, senior class president, later treasurer of the Princeton Club of New York — the consummate College Man, perfect model for Dick Humbird, big man on campus yet subject to cruel fate behind the wheel.