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 101 - 150 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Rachal McKinstry December 2, 1873 at the plantation of Thomas Sloan, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death bye accidental burning

Angus Jefferson Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

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.

Siller female slave November 12, 1842 at an oald wast house in the plantation of Mrs Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that . . .the said Siller axcidently caught fire in her beding whilst a sleep, and from inability to help her Self ware burned to death

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

Willie Dawkins at the old Ashford place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Willie, Dawkins came to his death at the house of Edward Rodgers the 12 of Feb 1891 from Accidental Burning

Henry Castleberry January 7, 1815 at the house of James Hannah, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths, that the Deceased came to his Death by misfortune upon the fall of a horse on the Public road near the house of James Hannah.

Thomas Rosseter[?] August 30, 1852 at Hamburg SC, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he, said Thos Rosseter came to his death by drowning . . .in the street in the town of Hamburg, during the high water Backed[?] out from the Savannah River

Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lesthia Ridlehouse[Ridlehover?] January 5, 1892 at the Residence of Mrs Edny Mary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by being accidenttly burned to death

Rachel McBurney October 21, 1833 in the house of Major James Barkley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced, they believe that on the morning of the 20th this instant, or some time in the night of the 19th, a small house adjoining the dwelling of the said Major James Barkley, occupied by said Rachel McBurney as a Bed Room, caught fire, how, not known, was consumed with the contents, and her, the said Rachel.

Margret Douglass March 10, 1892 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Margaret Doublass came to her death by drowning while attempting to cross Thompson Creek near Craigs mill

Gabriel Gibson April 18, 1819 at Elbethel Meeting house, Union County, SC

Doe say upon their oaths that . . .Gabriel Gibson Came to his End By Mischance & Say that he was Spliting Roling Down A Decent

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

Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

Milly Thomas October 8, 1878 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Milly Thomas came to her death from being crushed under the shafting in W.B. Creights gin room on the afternoon of the 7th October 1878 at Winnsboro.

John Hudson December 3, 1889 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the said John Hudson came to his death, by Accident while drunk in a Scuffle with John Ray.

Loucille Pate Cassidy June 19, 1939 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Loucille Pate Cassidy received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol

Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings July 8, 1883 at J.C. Rason's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said child came to its death on Friday 6th day of July in its mothers house from Suffocation, And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid child came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Lindy Jones March 15, 1882 at George Holingsworth House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say that Lindy Jones Came to her death from accidental Burning

Elizabeth Tillatson January 17, 1878 at Frances Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said P. Elizabeth Tillatson came to her death at the house of Frances Turner ... from fire, occurring in the house where she lived

Peggy McLeod December 25, 1870 at George Rorie's dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peggy McLeod, in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by being accidently burnt

female infant Slave female infant Slave May 15, 1847 at A. S. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon oaths do say that . . .they do believe the child must have been Smothered by its mother in bed

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

Thomas Moore August 8, 1837 at Tumbling Shoals, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that he came to his death by accidental drowning in Reedy River, being in a State of Intoxication.

Viola Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

Thomas child of Thomas M Chandler September 11, 1850 at Thos M. Chandler's house, and at the old Pottery, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death on the 8th ist by accidental drowning

John Benjamin October 16, 1893 at a mill in Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Benjamin did come to his death by misfortune or accident.

Richard J. Barton December 28, 1866 at Mrs Lucinda Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the aforesaid R.J. Barton came to his death by the accidental discharg of a Gun in his own hands

Francis Sanders April 27, 1848 at Sakin's[?] Mill, Fairfield County, SC

we the Jurors do find and [?] that the said Francis Sanders; came to his death by drowning in the Broad River on the 26th[?] April 1848.

John Harrington February 25, 1896 at Dr. J. W. McKay's Plantation on the Pee Dee River, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That John Harrington came to his death by accidental drowning

Koon female child April 23, 1836 at the house of Davin M[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said child . . .died by the visitation of God by accidentally Getting Droud in the Spring

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 November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

Furman Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

Evans Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Evans Campbell came to his death by Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

Mike negro man September 13, 1844 at Dr John D. Nicholsons Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death at the said Mill the tenth instant when the said Mill broke and washed away, and at the falling in of the mill the deceased received a wound over his right eye which stuned him and caused him to drown

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

Ora Weaver February 21, 1891 at the plantation of D B. H Holfarth[illegible - ink blot], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ara Weaver came to her death from accidental Burning

Eddie Summer August 6, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths ... do say that the said Eddie Summer came to his death ... from gun shot wounds received in the right side discharged accidentally

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

Unknown at the House of Frank Stephanie, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceasd came to his death from Accidental Smothering in bed at its Fathers house[.]

James Perry December 27, 1894 at Mt Enon Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon oaths do say that the said Jim Perry aforesaid came to his death from the firing of his own Gun. . .by first fireing of his gun at a Rabbit Broke his gun stock threw up the Barrel and discharged the other load which caused his death

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.

Harry negro boy September 9, 1858 at the residence of the Rev. J. L. Brooks, Edgefield County, SC

say upon their oaths, that. . .the said boy name Harry. . .while in the business of driving the mules to work the machinery of the Cotton gin by some careless action of his own he was caught by wheel or wheels of the machinery and crushed to death

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

Willie Chappell June 18, 1882 at Badgetts quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Chappell came to his death at Badgetts quarter place in Laurens County on Sunday the 20th day of June AD 1882 That Lucinda Bradford the said Willie Chappell by misfortune and contrary to her will in manner and form aforesaid did kill...

unknown negro unknown negro April 24, 1855 at Savannah Bluff, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say tha the Said engro (to them unknown) came to his Death by Drowning

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