Accidents were the leading cause of death in the CSI:D sample, and drowning was the leading cause of death among mortal accidents. There are myriad reasons why. Broad swaths of the American public did not know how to swim. Primary modes of transportation, especially early in the century, involved river routes. Mill ponds were prevalent. Children played outside -- generally a good thing but occasionally a sad one. Perhaps the saddest of these incidents involved a mass May Day drowning at Boykin Mill Pond in 1860. Twenty-eight teenagers set off on a raft that hit a snag and more than twenty-five drowned, including all five children from one family. Sadder still may be the case of Noah Wesley Dawkins. In mid-June 1888, Dawkins and his friends, all African Americans, set off for a local watering hole where they ran into three white boys, one of whom offered Dawkins fifty cents if he would walk into a particular area in the creek, assuring him it wasn't deep. It was deep, and Dawkins drowned. It is tempting to classify this as a homicide, but it is clear from testimony that the white children thought they were playing a cruel trick, not a deadly one.
Alcohol was such a critical indirect cause in so many of the accidental drownings, shootings, fires, and falls in CSI:D that it really ought to be regarded the deadliest force in nineteenth century South Carolina. In addition to these indirect roles, alcohol was the direct cause of accidental death in more than sixty cases. It was probably also a direct cause in many of the 'exposure' cases -- bodies that were discovered outside and were thought to have died from exposure to the elements.
Nineteenth century law enforcement had no recourse to blood-alcohol tests. Even today, determining precise BACs postmortem, and working back from those to levels of inebriation at time of death, is fraught with difficulty. This meant that nineteenth-century coroners had to rely exclusively on witness testimony and the known habits of the deceased to determine alcohol's role in producing death. Standing around a dead man, jurors found themselves passing judgment on just how drunk he had been the night before. According to witnesses, John Goodlett "seemed to be drunk." John Agner was "sorry he was drunk." Abe Waganan was "very funny & lively" -- but also "very drunk." And Gabe Wilky "was very drunk as [was] his custom." Is 'very drunk' drop-dead drunk? It is hard to know. On the night of January 15, 1816, Angus McQueen drank more than half a gallon of spirits. "The dec'd was very much intoxicated," noted one witness, "and fell down four times during which time he vomited upon the carpet." Because McQueen kept getting up and falling down, the jurors determined that the falls (and the winter cold) contributed to his demise, though it is equally possible that McQueen died of alcohol poisoning. Juries were more likely to fix upon 'intemperance' as a clear cause of death if the deceased was a notorious addict. In December 1842, H.P. Church was discovered by his land-lady sprawled half on and half off of his bed. A "habitual drunkard" who had been continuously drinking for two weeks, she did not even bother to try and shake him awake. The inquest did not hesitate in finding that Church had died of intoxication.
The third leading cause of accidental deaths were 'vehicular' accidents, a catch-all category that includes drunken falls from a train and sober buckings from a horse. Further complicating this picture is the fact that many of the drownings probably belong in this category. There is little difference between falling unwitnessed off of a train and off of a boat, except that in one case you land on tracks and are quickly found where in the other you wash downstream, far from the site of the accident.
Bartholomew Darby was thrown from the saddle and hit his head on a stump, his wagon then "running over his head ... & breaking his neck & deeply cutting him under the right ear." Steve Yeldell fell out of his cart and broke his neck.
All such accidents pale in comparison to the staggering mortality brought to South Carolina by train. Richard Spring was "run over by a train." Fannie Ford was "run over by a train." A slave named Sam was "Run over by [a] train." Almost as soon as trains arrived in these counties, there were sots to fall off of them, laborers to be crushed by them, and depressives to jump in front of them. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a technological innovation responsible for a sharper uptick in the per capita death rate. It is also clear that coroners and inquest juries were unprepared for the level of bodily violence meted out by train. The body of a slave named Berry was "very much mashed and limbs and bones severed." William Abbott's body was "mangled, bruised, cut and crushed." Even so coroners and their juries were often at pains to absolve the railroad itself of any wrong-doing. Hosea Jackson "came to his death by his own carelessness and from no carelessness whatever on the part of the engineer." The crushing of William Roberts was likewise "not caused by any dereliction of duty on the part of the rail-road employees." With train accidents we see for the first time the question of corporate responsibility, and potential corporate liability, creeping into the inquest process.
The larger point, however, is a physical one. Moving the body at a faster speed than the body was designed to go is an enormous convenience that has to be paid for. Today vehicular accidents (car, motorcycle, and all-terrain-vehicle) are the fourth-leading cause of death among Americans after heart disease, cancer, and stroke. The nineteenth century was not particularly different, except that families moved by horse, wagon, and train -- and died less often of cancer.
The fourth leading cause of accidental death in the CSI:D sample involved the discharge of firearms. Some were simple cases of men who were cleaning or handling weapons that suddenly went off. The vast majority of cases, however, involve an unfortunate bystander. In 1849, Tilman Attaway was mistaken for a turkey by his hunting buddy. In 1808, James Spradley was leaning in to watch two dogs fight over a dead deer. Fourteen-year old George Nettles sought to break up the dogs by bashing one of them with the butt of his gun. Instead the gun discharged into Spradley's face. As this case attests, guns and children made as disastrous a pairing then as they do now. In 1820 ten-year old Mancel King accidentally shot and killed his brother. In 1899 ten-year old John McManus shot and killed his friend. "I was fooling with the pistol and it went off," he told the inquest.
Undoubtedly some of these gun-related 'accidents' were not accidents at all. A dead man alone in a room might have been cleaning his gun, or he might have harbored hidden miseries. Similarly some of the accidental misfires on bystanders were probably intentional homicides. Unless new evidence emerges at this late date, however, such cases will have to remain categorized as accidents.
The fifth leading cause of death by accident in the CSI:D sample was death by suffocation -- another category that speaks more to what a coroner was called to investigate than to what people actually died from. A majority of the 'smothering' deaths were probably SIDS victims. In white households such cases would not have been investigated -- infant mortality was relatively high in the period and a white family's 'dear pledges' were often 'recalled to God.' But in a society where every slave child was as potentially valuable as a Lexus, infant death in the quarter was more rigorously investigated. Coupled with deep prejudices against slaves as mothers, inquests typically found that an unnamed "negro Child" was "negligently Smothered" by its mother, or that the slave child Lora was "accidentally smothered" in the family bed, or that the slave children Henry and Alcy were crushed in the night, having being "overlaid" by their parents. It is possible that such 'negligence' did occur among overworked and overtired slaves, and such findings were far preferable to those cases where enslaved parents were charged with infanticide.
The sixth leading cause of death by accident in the CSI:D sample was death by fire. Most homes in the period were made of wood. Most had fireplaces. None had a fire extinguisher. Fire was light and life, but it was also occasionally death. In 1866 a freedman named Sloan was burnt to death in a gin house. In 1890 a child named Julia Hightower wandered too close to the family fireplace. Her younger sister tried to dowse her with water to no avail.
These six types of accidental death -- drowning, alcohol abuse, transportation mishaps, gun miscues, suffocations, and fires -- account for 75% of the accidental deaths in the CSI:D sample. Other relatively common accidents involved falling trees and limbs, industrial accidents, and poisonings and overdoses. Rounding out the sample were accidents that were more unique. Home alone, Medora Williams had an epileptic seizure and fell into her own fireplace. Traveling with the Bailey & Company circus, George West was gored by his own elephant. (Some might not consider this an 'accident' since the elephant had 'cause' and acted with 'intent.')
NEXT: Natural Causes
|Name||Deceased Description||Date||Inquest Location||Death Method||Inquest Finding|
|A. G. Howard||February 28, 1860||at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC||pine tree||
upon their oaths do say that … he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it
|A. G. Leek||February 23, 1859||at A. G. Leeks Residence, Edgefield County, SC||alcohol||
upon there oaths do say … he came to his Death by Excessive hard Drink
|A. J. Means||March 1, 1875||at Sam'l Means, Spartanburg County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths … do say that the aforesaid Means came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in the hands of Pinkney Brewton [?]
|A. L. Lattimore||July 2, 1883||at Pacolet Cotton Factory, Spartanburg County, SC||
upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid A. L. Lattimore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident
|A. R. Steel||girl child||August 28, 1869||at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC||drowning||
the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep
|Aaron Hardin||June 24, 1845||at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC||exposure||
do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.
|Abraham Bever Van Waganan||February 2, 1824||Union County, SC||alcohol/exposure||
do say on our Oaths, that the Sd Waganan not Standing in the fear of god and not having a deep consideration of his immortal soul, did drink Spirit[?] Liquors … that it cuased him to come to his untimely death
|Abram||man slave||August 17, 1860||at the Residence of Gen[?] Jas B. Griffin, Edgefield County, SC||animal||
upon there oaths do say that the deceased Abram came to his death by being bitten twice by a snake
|Abram||negro man Slave||August 21, 1850||at Henry L Maysons, Edgefield County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say that the negro man Abram came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the savanah river
|Abram Clement||October 6, 1868||at Martin Williamston's residence, Anderson County, SC||tree fall||
do say that the said deceased was killed by the falling of a limb from a tree which he had cut down near the old school house.
|Abram McJunkin||March 14, 1867||at the [??], Greenville County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say … by drowning came to his death by accident
|Absalom McAbee||January 6, 1883||at Almarine Willis, Spartanburg County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say he came to his death by mischange by being partially paralised and falling into water and strangled or drowned being a man of 80 years or more and very feeble
|Adam||negro man Slave, boy||August 3, 1850||at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC||drowning||
Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned
|Adam Davis||February 5, 1841||at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC||alcohol, fire||
uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated
|Adam Hempley||February 1, 1853||near Wilson Wingo's, Spartanburg County, SC||tree||
upon their oaths do say that they believe it … was caused by the falling of a limb from a tree he cut down himself
|Adam Wood||December 5, 1880||at Cowpens Station on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC||train||
upon their oaths do say that said deceased came to his death ... by being run over or struck by the train on said road, receiving thereby such wounds as to cause his death
|Adolphus Littlejohn||May 31, 1888||at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC||train||
upon their oaths do say that Adolphus Littlejohn came to his death by being run over by the Ballast Train of the Richmond and Danville Roilroad about the incorporate limits of Gaffney City
|Albert Brunson||at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC||train||
upon their oaths do say. That Albert Brunson came to his death by wreck of Enjine no. 6 … caused by rail road spikes being placed on rails … by parties unknown
|Alcy||negro child||July 22, 1851||at B. J. Gregory's, Union County, SC||suffocation||
upon their oaths do say that the dieast came to its death by being overlaid by its mother
|Alexander Martin||September 8, 1867||at the residence fo B.W. Knight, Spartanburg County, SC||tree||
upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander L. Martin came to his death by the falloing of a tree some of the limbs striking dec'd on the back of the head neck and shoulders
|Alexander McKee||January 4, 1817||in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC||exposure||
do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.
|Alfred Sowell||December 1, 1816||Kershaw County, SC||gun||
do say upon their oaths that the said Alfred Sowell came to his death by misfortune, that is to say, but accidental firing of a smooth bored gun, being at the same time charged, which drove her charge of shot into the breast of the said Alfred Sowell
|Alice Robinson||May 5, 1860||at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC||drowning|
|Alick Croker||boy||September 29, 1878||at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC||drowning||
Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding
|Allen Bauknight||freedman||June 11, 1866||at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Bauknight came to his death by a discharge of a Gun in the hands of Suson Bauknight freeman his wife by the Gun going of axcidentally
|Allen Johnson||June 17, 1876||at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC||train, railroad engine and car fell from trestle||
do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek
|Ally Pollard||February 5, 1868||on the farm of J.G. Mabury, Spartanburg County, SC||alcohol||
upon their oaths do say that he froze to death while intoxicated in the public road near J.G. Mabury's
|Amelia A. Alexander||May 5, 1860||at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin … by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons
|Anderson B. Branham||January 6, 1892||at the plantation of M. C. Parker, Edgefield County, SC||disease/fall||
upon their oaths do say That the said AB Branham died from Heart failure
|Andrew||negro man||October 6, 1855||on the track of the South Carolina Rail Road , Edgefield County, SC||train||
upon their Oaths do say … that Andrew came to his death by being run over by the engine and passenger train
|Andrew Hunter||August 26, 1827||Kershaw County, SC||cart||
do say upon their oaths that he was going from mill and his cart wheel struck on a shim and overset and caught him under the cart … on his right shoulder and across his neck and the fore gate across his right arm about the elbow
|Angus Jefferson Smith||June 4, 1874||at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say that the said Angus Jefferson Smith came to his death by accidental drowning in a water course known as Lawson's Fork 1 /12 miles distant from Spartangburg C.H.
|Angus McQueen||January 17, 1816||at home of Kelly McDermit, Kershaw County, SC||alcohol||
do say upon their oaths that the deceased came to his Death by the combined effects of Cold, Intoxication, and the falls he had therefrom.
|Anna G. Goodrich||November 10, 1881||at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC||train||
do say that…near Pelzer Depot…Goodrich was then and there killed by the Greenville and Columbia train having accidentally run over her.
|App Chapman||July 31, 1883||at the residence of J. D.[?] Chastern[?], Greenville County, SC||
upon their oaths do say that the said App Chapman came to his death by misfortune.
|Asa Lipscomb||freedman||December 24, 1866||at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy … by accident
|Augustus Barton||December 9, 1884||Spartanburg County, SC||train||
upon their oaths do say that ... on said rail road ... the said Augustus [?] came to his death by accident falling from the top of a moving car and being crushed under the wheels of the said car
|Auson Peeler||July 25, 1868||near Kalmia[?] Mills, Edgefield County, SC||horse, fall||
upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse
|Avery||slave||November 14, 1831||at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC||drowning, alcohol||
do say upon their oaths that … the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated
|Bailey Redman||June 28, 1817||at Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC||drowning||
do say upon there [sic] oaths … that his death was caused by [swimming] over the dam
|Balus Harrison||November 14, 1893||at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC||fall||
upon their oaths do say that the said Balus Harris aforesaid came to his death by an accident by being kicked by a horse from a cart in which he was sitting there by breaking his neck
|Bartholomew Darby||October 11, 1867||near Emanuel Allen's on the road between Willis Layton's & said Allen's, Spartanburg County, SC||wagon||
upon their oaths do say that his death was caused by his horses running with his waggon & throwing him from his saddle against a stump & the wheel of the waggon running over his head or neck & breaking his neck & deeply cutting him under the right ear
|Belaus[Velaus?]||slave, boy||March 30, 1863||at Robert Smiths, Edgefield County, SC||drowning||
upon there oath do say-that he came to his death … by going in to the Mill Pond of B W Hatchers … and was by Misfortune of accidently drowned
|Ben Culbreath||July 24, 1895||at Jno A Corleys plantation, Edgefield County, SC||horse||
Upon their oaths do say, That he died from the rupture of the left auricle of the heart … caused from a tussel with a young horse
|Benjamin Cockroft||March 18, 1847||in the woods near the house of Beryman[?] Bledsoe, Edgefield County, SC||alcohol/exposure||
upon their oats do say that the said Benjamin Cockroft came to his death from the effects of being dissipation and lying on the cold ground
|Benjamin Dixon||November 4, 1836||Kershaw County, SC||alcohol||
believe that the deceased Mr. Benj. Dixon came to his death by intemperance
|Benjamin Franklin Hocott||May 5, 1860||at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC||drowning|
|Benjamin Freeman||June 24, 1833||at the home of Isaac Hill, Spartanburg County, SC||drowning||
upon their oaths do say that … the sd. Benj. Freeman went into Tyger River a swimming or by some cause became drowned
|Berry||slave||October 8, 1859||near the Residence of Richard Hay on the Greenville & Columbia Railroad, Greenville County, SC||train||
upon their oaths say, that the boy Berry a slave … came to his death from injuries received from the cart[?] of the down train … the cart[?] in their opinion having passed over his body
|Berry Butler||October 9, 1892||at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon their Oaths do Say that he Bearry Butler Came to his death by a pistol in the hands of John Gamillion