Blame it on Willis

by Ed Youngblood


The next time you get pulled over by a smiling Ponch or Jon aboard a motorcycle with red and blue flashing lights, blame it on Willis Seaman, a fellow from Nassau County, New York who is credited with issuing America’s first speeding ticket by a motorcycle-mounted officer of the law. This claim is made in an article that appeared in the January 26, 1959 edition of The Daily News, which states, “The motorcycle roared and bounced along a rough dirt road in Nassau County, engulfed in a cloud of dust. The cop peered through the dust at the rear of the auto he was chasing. He quickly overtook his prey, pulled alongside, and ordered the motorist to stop. The cop wiped streaks of dust from his face, dismounted and stood for a moment beside the auto, scribbling on a pad. He tore off the sheet and handed it to the motorist. The cop was Willie Seaman and the paper was the first traffic summons ever issued in the U.S. The year was 1908.” With this story was a photo of Seaman astride an Indian twin that appears to be a 1907 or 1908 model, as shown here. The fellow with the dubious honor of earning America’s first speeding ticket from a motorcycle cop was Charles R. Jones, a resident of Cold Spring Harbor, New York. He was traveling at the breakneck speed of 39 mph! Below is another picture of Willis Seaman (on the right) with a motorcycling friend and his Harley-Davidson, circa 1914.

The article goes on to explain that no one knew the exact date of this historic event, but it credits an earlier article from The New York Daily World supporting the claim that it was Seaman who originated a traffic ticketing system that was later adopted by New York City Police Commissioner Frank S. Waldo, a friend of Seaman. It reports that before Seaman retired from his duties as Nassau’s first traffic cop, he was credited with issuing more than 10,000 citations, including speeding tickets to noted racing drivers Louis Chevrolet, Ralph DePalma, and Ralph Mulford. The hapless scofflaws apprehended by Seaman had the pleasure of appearing before Mineola, New York Magistrate Franklin P. Seaman, his uncle.

Clearly, the Seamans were prominent in the region. In fact, their lineage can be traced back to Captain John Seaman, who was deeded Jones Beach by the English Crown in the 17th century. He later sold it to the State of New York for $500, which was a considerably higher price than the State had paid for Manhattan Island. Willis was born in 1891, and by his teenage years had become a dedicated motorcycle enthusiast. Future speeders would have no chance against him, because it was rumored his Indian could achieve 90 mph. He spent 16 years serving as Nassau County’s motorcycle cop, and was generally regarded a colorful character. He even received national notoriety when he eloped with his wife, Helen, aboard a motorcycle. The Daily News story states, “It was probably the first motorcycle elopement in history.” Seaman died in Hempstead in 1957, survived by his son Anson, of Mineola, and his daughter Joan, of Levittown.

“American Police Motorcycles,” by Buck Lovell (Wolfgang Publications, 2002) does not confirm that Seaman was America’s first motorcycle cop, yet there is nothing in the book that would deny the claim. Its first chapter, “In the Beginning: Motorcycle Cops Take to the Streets,” is a general treatment of the subject without specific dates or footnoted sources. It includes photos of “a local Constable” aboard an Indian that looks to be a 1908 model, and of a policeman aboard a belt-drive Excelsior single, which may be a 1908 as well. These photos are not dated, so we are unable to link their currency with the model years of the motorcycles. They may have been taken later. There is also a photograph of San Diego policemen posing with a Thor, which may be as early as a 1907 model, but, again, the photograph is undated. A second photo of San Diego motorcycle cops is reported to be from 1910 or 1911. So, lacking additional evidence to the contrary, the next time you are pulled over by a motorcycle cop, you may as well blame your misfortune on Willis Seaman.

Our thanks to Bruce Seaman (grandson) and Melissa Seaman Atkinson (great granddaughter) for providing the source material for this story.

Willis Seaman (Photo provided by Ed Youngblood)
Willis Seaman (Photo provided by Ed Youngblood)

Information and Photos provided by Ed Youngblood