Accident

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.


In the South Carolina sample, which skews antebellum, the most common accident was a failure to learn how to swim.

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”—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 Springs 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.

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.

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

 

Accident Inquests

Displaying 551 - 600 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

Della Jenkins February 13, 1904 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

negro man negro man August 7, 1853 at or near Wm [?] old Mill, Union County, SC

Can Clude that the Said negro man Came to his Death by drowing

Pauline Abraham child November 19, 1882 at Archey Ramsey's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Pauline Abrham came to her death by some cause to them unknown

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

Elleck free boy December 13, 1866 at Johnathan Gregorys, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a Gun. . .that Elleck free boy in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accident

Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson June 18, 1890 at Laurens Simpsons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant child came to its death by "Accidental Smothering."

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

Edward Norris December 26, 1882 at the residence of Aaron Wells, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That on Friday the 22nd day of December 1882 Bil Norris went to Greenwood, and returned home late in the night, very drunk, and that on Saturday morning the 23rd day of Dec about 9 o'clock am the boy Edward decd. Was kicked by Bill Norris in his right-side the decd. lingered til the 26th day of December and died...

Tom negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at H. L. Maysons in Beach island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Tom came to his death from being accidentally drowned in savanah river

Henry Ethredge June 2, 1899 at the plantation of P.B. Mayson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Henry Ethredge came to his death from foul air in the well

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

R. T. Bailey June 13, 1858 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said R. T. Bailey came to his death by falling into Reedy River newar Greenville CH this day and was accidentally drowned.

Jim Rice on James Jones' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oaths do "say" that Jim Rice in manner and form aforesaid caem to his death by a bucket fallin acidently on his head while walking in a well

John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

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

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

Joe Alexander Ryan October 24, 1912 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death in an accidental fall in the arms of his mother

John McLeod August 23, 1822 at house of Widow McLeod in the fork of Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

have unanimously agreed that the said John McLeod has received his Death by unavoidable accident as he was pouring liquor into a barrel or cask . . . which liquor caught on fire and busted the said cask and as we suppose one of the staves struck the said deceased by which which we think he rec'd his death together with the volume of flame which issued from s'd spirits as on examination we found his face mortally cut and his body much burnt

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

Anthony slave July 2, 1853 at Samuel J. Hannond's plantation, Anderson County, SC

do say the deceased came to his death by causes unknown. We find marks or bruises on the right side of the head and behind the right ear. We find no more marks or bruises on the deceased more than what might have been made by a fall.

Mattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Milton Barter[?] youth August 24, 1849 at Capt. Andrew J Hammonds Mills, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say . . .by accidental drowning in Mr Andrew Hammonds Mill Pond

Emanuel Courtney June 6, 1894 at Junsey Courtney, Chesterfield County, SC

He came to his death by a gun shot wound, accidentally, in his own hands

Charly Washington boy November 22, 1891 at the house of George Washington near Bauknights ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Charley Washington Came to his death by the accidental discharge of a pistol ball from the hands of James Bobo[?]

John Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning . . . near McBees Mills in Reedy River

Rebecca Sherman child January 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the deceased Rebeccas Sherman came to her death . . .from the effects of an accedental burn

O. P. Brown October 27, 1851 at Durbin Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that he died of a wound received by the fauling of an arch of the Bridge near J.W. Meadors across Durbin Creek which did dislocate his neck and bruise his shoulders and body

infant of Sam Coleman at the residence of Sam Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say that they believe the infant of Sam Coleman came to its death by asphyxia

Lodrick Dobson February 18, 1836 at the dwelling house of John Sarratt, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [he] came to his death by misfortune being intoxicated his clothes caught fire & was burned

Daisy Polk May 20, 1889 at Chesterfield CH, Chesterfield County, SC

upon thire oaths do Say That the said Daisy Polk came to her death by the accidental burning of the house

Unknown July 2, 1880 at Samson Campbell, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the deceased came to his death by being accidently smothered by his mrother on the first day of July A D 1880

slave slave January 25, 1836 at the plantation of Daniel L. Desaushore[?], Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being intoxicated, falling in a rut or gully and thereby the storm[?] rain & sleet has drowned or frose [sic] to Death

George Grant January 16, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Geo Grant came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound accidently inflicted by the hands of Edward Martin.

George Gardner January 22, 1935 in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Gardner received . . . mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hand of Rance Cue some being unavoidable accident

Toney Clawson February 16, 1873 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Toney Clawson came to his death by accidental drowning while attempting to cross a small streamunusually swollen from heavy rains

Sis Bonham child February 18, 1894 at M.B. Davenports, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the child came to its death by having a quilt over it face and in our opinion sufficated

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

John Garrett October 22, 1822 at House of John Garrett, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .Came to his death by being accid Draunded

Isaac Oliphant November 9, 1882 at Ritch Thomson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said Isaac Oliphant Came to his death by a Gun Shot Wound unfortunately or accidentally in his own hands

James Jenkins May 30, 1875 at Robert Spence's [?] Mill, Anderson County, SC

It appears that deceased came to his death by mischance or misfortune or accidental drowning in the mill pond at Robert Spences

Thomas Thompson at Capt. Manus' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Thompson came to his death from the affect of a burn caused by falling in the fire[.]

Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Mary Love January 17, 1876 at Mrs. Clovers Spencers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Mary Love came to here Death by being accidently burned

Emma Hunter May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say from the Testimony given that Emma Hunter Died from the Effects of fire; That she died on Tesday the 17th inst having been burnt in a house, that was burnt down on the plantation of M.B. Pool on the night of the 16th inst. All Accidental...

Curry slave March 17, 1856 at Mrs Elizabeth Middletons Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Curry came to his death by accidental drowning

Thomas Davis March 30, 1884 at John Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Davis came to his death by misfortune or accident

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