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 201 - 250 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
George Fisher March 14, 1826 on the bank of the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

[upon their oaths] do say that the said George Fisher going into a certain River] called Broad River to fish traps for fish of his own will at a late hour of the night it happened that accidentally, casually, and misfortunate [he] was in the water of the said river then suffocated and drowned...and there instantly died

Lidia Watson January 26, 1894 at J E Macks, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid Lidia Watson came to her death from accidental burning

Glasco Ferly at the house of Glasco Ferly, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said colored Ferly came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentily inflicted upon himself

Betsy femail slave July 3, 1862 at William Eller's house, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say dec'd came to her death by an accidental shot from a horsemans[?] Pistole Loaded with buckshot 5 in number openly[?] hitting the Decsd just above the hip passing through inflicting one mortal wound causing her death in the hands of Wm Ellis he shooting at a dog in his yard & Decsd was sitting in the kichin of sd Wm Ellis ... the said Wm Ellis did the said Decsd by accident and Contrary to his will

Lucy Ellen Jane Rivers November 9, 1882 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Lucy Ellen Jane Rivers came to her death by accidental burning Nov 9th 1882

Tom Waldrum colored man (Free) January 20, 1857 in the woods near Mr Avory Franklins, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Tom Waldrum in manner and form aforesaid he was frozen to death in the woods. . .some time during the snow storm

Bailey Redman June 28, 1817 at Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon there [sic] oaths. . .that his death was caused by [swimming] over the dam

Jane Forgy March 10, 1896 on the plantation of Mattie McPherson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she the said Jane Forgy came to her death from the Effects of a gun shot wound from the hands of Tom Forgy by Accident on the 9th day of March inst.

Elmer Brookfield March 17, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Elmer Brookfield received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun in the hands of Woodroe McQunn

Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

Green Kerley December 31, 1869 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the said Green Kerley came to his death by a fall from a third story window in the Hotel to the pavemen, while laboring under a fit of delerum [?].

London Byard October 8, 1870 at [?] Byers[?], Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hand of Providence by the falling of the earth on him in a ore[?] bank

James A. Hugans November 20, 1903 at J. A. Hugans, Chesterfield County, SC

AND so the said Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid James A. Hoagan Came to his death By Accidential Burning.

Peter slave November 23, 1862 at Mrs Colemans, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Decsd Came to his by the hand of the Almighty he was Suppond[?] as he was subject to having fits & Falling at any place where he might be. We Conclude that the Decsd fell in the Branch in a Fit on his face & Drownd

Angus McQueen January 17, 1816 at home of Kelly McDermit, Kershaw County, SC

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.

Lizzie May Crosby at Feasterville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions from the evidence brought before them the infant came to its death from causes unknown to the Jury

Wilson Campbell December 26, 1880 at Henry Sorrels, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say it appears that the deceased came to his death by mischance by freezing to death the finding shall conclude That that Wilson Campbell, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Sarah Robison June 30, 1806 at Abraham Maddens Mill, Laurens County, SC

Do say on there oaths that fore said Sarah Robison came to her Death by Misfortune.

William Prince July 9, 1851 at the house of John W Garrett, Edgefield County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Prince . . .come to his death by accidentally drowning himself

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

Mary Jenkins May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
infant child infant child November 23, 1891 at the plantation of Willis Owdom[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it died from strangulation

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

William White December 10, 1898 at Savanah River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That the deceased William White came to his death by accidental drowning

H. L.[?] Davis Fairfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
Dick Keith January 6, 1877 at George Lound's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Dick Keith came to his death by freezing to his death from exposure to the cold

slave slave March 10, 1835 at the house of W.W. Dickies, Spartanburg County, SC

are of the opinion that she came to her death by taking a fit or spazm and falling into the fire and not being able to extricate herself burnt to death

Georgiana Fowler July 28, 1885 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Georgiana Fowler came to her death by a dislocation of the cervical vertebra from a fall in a fainting fit

Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody May 13, 1889 on the plantation of M.B. Pool, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child died by strangulation accidental.

George Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths. . .by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

Emma Beser November 24, 1877 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emma Beser[?] came to her death by accidental drowning

Earl Rivers October 14, 1909 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

Upon hearing the above evidence I decided that it was accidental and it was not necessary to have a formal inquiry Saul H. Reid

infant negro child infant negro child October 18, 1845 at the plantation of John Gregory, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they do belive that the child was Smothered to death accidently by its mother in her Sleap

infant June 8, 1828 house of Jessee Husk, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that after carefully examining the dead body of the s'd male child of the s'd Martha Gibson ... are all agreed that the s'd child died by the visitation of God but by the blood being [?]led in large spots to be seen through the skin all on his left side from his face to his foot they thought it was probable s'd child might have eat some poisonous herbs or berries of the woods as s'd Husk had settled in the woods

John Pope August 29, 1828 at the house of James Watson, Laurens County, SC

do say upon there oathes (after hearing all the testimony and Examining the body of the afore Said John Pope) all are of opinion that the afore said John Pope were intoxicated by spirituous liquors and received a fall from his horse which occasioned his death...

John T. Parker November 23, 1945 at Chesterfield, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John T. Parker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns suffered in House fire, Origins Unknown

Joe Coleman near Buck Head, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Joe Coleman in manner and form aforsaid, came to his death 'from old age and freezing[.]"

Dora Woods May 3, 1885 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "By accident or mishap by a fall from the banister or shelf of the piazza while playing there."

Charles negro man February 27, 1850 at Scotts Shoals on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he was drowned by accident, and that the body was too much decayed to admit of examination.

Major Crawford July 21, 1880 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that Major Crawford came to his death by accidentally falling from the trestle at Rocky River while in a state of intoxication

Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Cap Bryan February 25, 1893 at the plantation of Mrs Doziers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say That the aforesaid Cap Bryan came to his death from a lick with a rock thrown by a blast from the Quary which we consider purely accidental

Polly December 25, 1866 at Darlings Lake, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that She came to her death by accident or mischance

Eva Tucker May 29, 1894 at R. P. Tucker's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Eva Tucker came to her death from an accidental pistol shot wound in the hands of Wm M Chappell, inflicted on or about the 27th of April 1894

Jane infant negro December 31, 1840 at E. M. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child was accidently overlayed by its mother

Allen Bauknight freedman June 11, 1866 at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC

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

Dorcas Crossly December 4, 1857 at the house of John Wofford, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say by falling the ifre and burning to death there being no person present at the time we suppose she had a fit as she was subject to having fits

Sarah Ratcliff January 3, 1873 at Mr. Isaac Smith's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to her death by accedental burning on the plantation of Mr Isaac Smith on Tusday the 31t day of December 1872

Georgianna Watts October 11, 1891 at R.O. Hairstons, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say, that she came to her death, By being burnt in the house, it being burnt on her By Accident.

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