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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

George Craig January 19, 1825 at the house of Mathew Richmond, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that, according evidence and their own belief a tree which he assisted to cutdown, by misfortune fell on him and broke his scull on the evening of the 18th.

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

Lewis Berry February 20, 1815 Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Lewis Berry come to his death by being in [?] in the Cold

Enoch Adams November 23, 1916 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death by caving in of Cotton Seed upon him at the Cheraw oil mill being smothered.

John Prince July 15, 1856 at Miles[?] Southerns[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by the excessive use of [?] liquors and lying in the hot sun.

John Ronnie February 15, 1898 Kershaw County, SC
Sally Shedd February 19, 1867 at the plantation of James Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

the Jury after hearing the evidence in the cause of the death of Sally Shed and examined the dead Body. Come to the conclusion that the Said Sally came to her death by the discharge of a gun in the hands of the Girl Rachel, by accident.

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jusin Turner. . .came to his death by mischance being exposed during a cold night without doors and from evidence quite intoxicated

Daniel Fountain Unknown, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths [do] say that he was shot accidentally by [a] pistol in the hands of his brother [?] Fountain about seven years old, about three Oclock yesterday evening and died [?] morning near Wallaceville[?].

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

John Dedman March 15, 1806 at Mr Jno Kings, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths that the s. Dedman, (arguably to the Testimony of Jas. Parker E.S. Roland and A. Bishop, persons present when he died) was killed by fall from a Horse at Home of Chas. Simmons in the District aforesaid

Charles slave July 31, 1851 at the house of John M. Norris Esqr in Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that by his head being mashed and and his scull broken at the gin house of John M. Norris . . .by the gin running gear, his head passing between the cogs and trunal[?] head, rounds or Wollower

Amelia A. Alexander May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC

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

W. W. Miller Sr. white man July 10, 1891 at J M. Mays place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Deceased came to his death from Heart failure and Exposure

infant March 20, 1883 at Jerry Frey's House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Jerry Frey's House ... said infant child came to its death by being miscarried at a stage too early for it to possibly survive

Bob May 31, 1831 at Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being accidentally drowned in the Catawba River at Rocky Mount Ferry

Fannie Patton November 18, 1898 at Francis Williams house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that upon examination find that Fannie Patton Came to her death by accidental Drowning

John Findley March 22, 1819 at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

William Hampton July 3, 1877 at T. J. [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm A Hampton came to his death by the accidental discharge of his gun in his own hands

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

George Dillard February 2, 1885 at Taylormill, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Dillard in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accidentally falling into the fire...

Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley August 30, 1890 on the plantation of Capt Alex Henry's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said female child came to its death from "suffocation"

Rachiel 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

Oscar Matthews November 23, 1877 at C.H.[?] Matthews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths say that the aforesaid Oscar Mathews came to his death on the 22nd day of November 1877 at the Mill dam by the accidental falling from the pear[?] trial[?] of the grist mill or from drowning after the fall unknown to the jury[.]

Violet Gray February 25, 1877 at the house of Violet Gray, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Violet Gray came to her death by accidentally falling into the fire and burning to death at her own home

Archie Oliver May 9, 1909 at the home of J. P. Thurman, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, so say: That the said Archie Oliver came to his death by a gun shot wound in the head= said gun being at the time in the hands of Willis Thurman said sun being discharged accidentally = without any effort of the said Willis Thurman = he at the time not knowing that the gun was loaded

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

Elizabeth Belk April 20, 1828 near the Door house, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that in traveling to a neighboring house she fell down and being old & infirm was unable to rise & so perished

Edmond May 5, 1828 on the premises of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

After hearing the evidence we believe the aforesaid negro Edmond did voluntarily go into the water in a State of intoxication and by accident of mischance did drown.

Cornelius Johnson at Samuel Johnson's Residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death [at] his Fathers house, on the 15 [Dec] 1892 from burns frm Accidentaly catching on f[ire][.]

Ephram Chapman February 15, 1885 at Thomson Creek Bridge on Cheraw Road, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to his death by freezing on the night of the 12th of Feb. A D 1885 and the deceased was unknown to us all

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Eva Blocker February 11, 1893 at J. P. Wrights Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eva Blocker. . .came to her death by accidental burning

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

Priner Davis near Simm Davis' Spring, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Priner Davis came to his death from apoplectic Fit-brought on by drinking bad whiskey and exposure near the Public Road in Fairfield Co SC, leading form Winnsboro to Kincades Bridge on or between the night of the 13th and the morning of the 15th of January 1883[.]

William Fortune November 24, 1873 at Jerkens Stabberd, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We find that the deceased Wm Fortune came to his death by excessive use of ardent spirits and exposure to cold, producing Lung congestion of the lungs and other viscera.

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

John Rufus Russell October 10, 1884 at John L Russell House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said John Rufus Russell come to his death by suffocation Caused by accidentally falling with head downward into a hole in a pile of seed Cotton

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

Austin Putnam July 14, 1867 at Spencer Mills, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Austin Putnam came to his death by drowning, by mischance or accident, on said Spencer's Mill - pond about 4 oclock P.M.

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

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