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 1 - 50 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
James Sims August 23, 1877 at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC wagon

upon their oath do say that in their opinion James Sims came to his death by wounds received in a run away accident near Buck Head[.]

Jean Young December 6, 1816 Union County, SC wagon

Came to his death by the act of God a Waggon Whel running [?]

Henry Langley April 2, 1848 at Wm Vances, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say upon their Oaths, that the said Henry Langley came to his death by a fall from his wagon. . .we believe by accident

Henry Tucker January 16, 1893 at Robert Tucker's place, Chesterfield County, SC wagon

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Tucker came to his death by accident, in being thrown from a wagon.

Charles June 17, 1865 at Dr. M.M. Hunters, Laurens County, SC wagon

by their oaths do say on the 16th June 1865. The slave Charles was thrown from a wagon loaded with wheat - by a large limb causing accidental death instantly by the face.

Humphrey Fletcher April 24, 1876 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that Humphrey Fletcher in manner and form of the foresaid came to his death by misfotune or accident of being thrown from a waggon and draged [sic] some district causing the dislocation of his neck.

John Radford April 12, 1860 at the residence of John Radford, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say and upon our oaths do find and declare that the said dead boy being that of John Radford. . .did come to his death by accident or mischance in that it was by the accidental runing the waggon of J L Miller over the body of chest of said Radford

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

Edward Lawrence March 29, 1856 at Pendleton village, Anderson County, SC wagon

do say that he came to his death by accidentally falling from a wagon heavily loaded with stone, and one of the wheels running over him inflicted severe injuries, which caused his death in a few minutes

Obediah Martin July 21, 1853 in the road near Hugh Caldwell's, Spartanburg County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental turning over of a waggon and a saw log rolling on him

James Rivan November 3, 1856 at the forks of the Rutherfordton[?] Road, Greenville County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by a loaded wagon accidentally running over him

Uriah Koon October 16, 1847 at the house of Col John Hunt, Edgefield County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by a wagon wheel runing over the breast of decd breaking the 6th-7th & 8th ribs of the left side and the probible rupture of some important blood vessels-on the Columbia Road

Nelson Pettifoot free black February 11, 1848 at the edge of the town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say the deceased came t his death by the wagon running over him

Billy November 28, 1857 at the South Carolina Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC wagon

came to his death by being thrown from a two horse waggon

Hary January 10, 1857 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say Hary was helping lead a waggon with Cotton and the boy fell from the waggon[.] he was taken to[?] a[?] house[?] not[?] fifty yards before he died but was dead in a few minutes

William L. Stubbs Sr. August 4, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that W. L. Stubbs, Sr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by mortal wound by being stuck in the hands of by Truck in the hands of Paul Adams

M. G. Knight May 15, 1933 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: An automobile accident at the hands of James Tillie

Ben Baker September 15, 1934 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: by being hit by truck driver by Q Faulkner same being unavoidable

Marion Tolson July 28, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Marion Tolson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by truck in the hands of Will Crawford - accidently

Virginia Fletcher September 15, 1934 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: by being hit by truck driver by Q Faulkner same being unavoidable

James Warren Blackmon November 2, 1942 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that James Warren Blackmon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Steam Shovel bed & Tract of Trailer in the hands of Operated by W. E. McDaniel

Robert Harold Mills January 29, 1936 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Robert Harold Mills received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Truck in the hands of Keith Kirkley

Redmer A. Burch June 20, 1947 at Mt Croghan, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Redmer A. Burch received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Car Chrysler, License #D34072

Albert W. Wilkins November 22, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Albert W. Wilkins received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Truck-operated by Cheraw state park in the hands of G. E. Parnell

Otis Terry August 8, 1934 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: being struck by By car driven by Walter Elliot same being unavoidable accident

Dorothy Wise July 29, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Dorothy Wise received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by_________ in the hands of E. W. English

Charles February 25, 1832 at the house of Littleton Kelly, Fairfield County, SC tree fall
Phebe February 25, 1832 at the house of Littleton Kelly, Fairfield County, SC tree fall
N. C. Smith July 19, 1871 at N.S. Smith's residence, Chesterfield County, SC tree fall

upon their oaths, do say: That N.C. Smith came to his death by a tree falling on him causing instant-death this happening on the plantation of N.S. Smith, on the 18th day of July 1871

Fletcher Boan October 25, 1947 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say that Fletcher Boan received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by________ in the hands of_________

William Rogers March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

Charles Moore November 29, 1889 at Charles Moor, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon there oaths do say that Charles Moore came to his death by being struck by an engine on the Spartanburg Union and Columbia Railroad ... and that the occurrance was purely accidental

James Blocker May 6, 1897 Edgefield County, SC train

upon theirs oaths aforesaid do say that the said James Blocker by the pilot on back of [??] him and Knocking him off the track no blame attached to the Rail Road

Allen Johnson June 17, 1876 at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC train

do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek

John Ellerbe March 2, 1885 at McKays Station at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say: That the said John Ellerbe in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Thomas Bryant August 16, 1887 at Rich Hill, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Bryant here lying dead did come to his death ... by the Spartanburg & Union Road cars unavoidably passing over him

J. M. Higgins March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

John Haskell March 11, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said John Haskell in manner and for aforesaid come to his death by the accidental falling from a train on the Charlotte and Atlanta [?] Line Rail Raod while in motion

N. W. Lafoy June 17, 1876 at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC train

do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek

David Adkinson June 9, 1894 on the Harris plantation near Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that he (David Adkinson) Died from the Effects of a severe blow upon the right side of the head, being accidentally struck by the passing 10 oclock train on the G.C. &N. R.R. At the place known as the Harris place 3 1/2 miles N.E. of Clinton.

Will Harris June 16, 1896 in Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

We the Jury of inquest Empaneled in the case of the state vs dead of unknown colored man (supposed to be William Harris) found dead on or near the track of the G.C. & N. R.R. at Clinton S.C. find that said unknown man came to his death from bruises and shock supposed to be received by jumping or falling from train no 41 on Georgia Carolina and Northern Railway about midnight June 16th 1896 while trying to steal a ride.

M. E. Mason June 16, 1880 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at Cowpens on the A&C Air Line ... from the effects of being caught between the train on said road and the wood track, in which condition he was crushed and from which he almost instantly died

S. W. Murtishaw December 22, 1859 at Alston Depot, G & C R. Road, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, that according ot he testimongy given in the case. S.W. Mustishaw in attempting to cross the Greenville and Columbia R. Road only a few paces in front of the down passenger train, when said train was in pretty rapid motion on a decending grade was run over & crushed instantly to death.

L. W. Warren July 26, 1894 in Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

we the jury find that he died from the effects of a fall from the Lever, it being fastened by the flagg [sic] staff in the hands of himself, and a man on the RR car, running at great speed, causing a jack to fall from Lever and jump it up throwing Mr Warren and hands from car. We also find that he alone was the sole cause of the accident and the RR in no way to blame.

T. J. Blaydon November 30, 1878 at or near Hugh Mahaffey's on the Greenville and Columbia Rail Road about two miles below Williamston, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the said T. J. Baydon came to his death by being under the influence of liquors and being on the Grenville & Columbia R. R. Trac [sic] and was run over by the down freight train (No. 6) and instantly killed

Elliott Pegues May 15, 1903 at Crusal branch trestle near Ruby, Chesterfield County, SC train

We find that the said John Boggon and Elliott Pegues came to their death by a loose box car running into a lever car which they were operating.

Wilson Clark at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say that Wilson, Clark came to his death on the C.C & A R. Road in Winnsboro the 30th day of May 1889 By being run over by Engine 7B7

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

Hosea Jackson free person of color July 10, 1863 upon the Rail Road of the Spartanburg & Union, Spartanburg County, SC train

herewith decide that the said boy Hosea Jackson came to his death by his own carelessness and from no carelessness whatever on the part of the engineer

Duncan Oliver September 9, 1933 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

We find that the said Duncan Oliver was killed and murdered by some person or persons or by some means to the Jurors unknown.

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