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 enslaved child was as potentially valuable as a Lexus, infant death in the quarter was more rigorously investigated. Coupled with deep prejudices against enslaved mothers, inquests typically found that an unnamed “negro Child” was “negligently Smothered” by its mother, or that the enslaved child Lora was “accidentally smothered” in the family bed, or that the enslaved 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
Jean Young December 6, 1816 Union County, SC wagon

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

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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[.]

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
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_________

Richard C. Springs October 22, 1877 on the S&U R.R. near Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Richard C. Spring was accidentally killed by being run over by a train while walking along the track

Paul Deese January 14, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

James Purdie Deese & Paul Deese came to his death upon their oaths do say that _______ received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by S.A.L. Train #1 -- Caused by collision of the driver of the Deese car

Anna G. Goodrich November 10, 1881 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC train

do say that. . .near Pelzer Depot. . .Goodrich was then and there killed by the Greenville and Columbia train having accidentally run over her.

Wade Adair December 13, 1891 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that he said Wade Adair came to his death by being accidentally run over by the C N & L Train No. 151 P.C. Gailard Conductor and we find Railroad Company in no wise responsible for his death.

W. H. Parker at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say We the undersigned Jurors in the within stated case find that the deceased person supposed to be one W.H. Parker from papers found on his person, come to his death Accidentally by a moving train

Walker Tobias June 13, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oathes do say that the said Walker Tobias, came to his death on the 13th day of June AD. 1882 in Laurens County on Laurens RR. In the discharge of his duties as a train hand on Material train No 1. in the employ of and doing the work of C & G RR Co, and so we find that the said Walker Tobias, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by mischance or accident.

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

Lawrence Wright January 10, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Lawrence Wright received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by apparently by train (Seaboard) in the hands of apparently by train (Seaboard)

James Purdie Deese January 14, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

James Purdie Deese & Paul Deese came to his death upon their oaths do say that _______ received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by S.A.L. Train #1 -- Caused by collision of the driver of the Deese car

Henry Peterson June 13, 1893 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say That the deceased Henry Peterson came to his death by being crushed [?] while passing between two sections of freight cars

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

Jeff Steel February 11, 1892 at Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do Say That Jeff Steel came to his death by accident on account of carelessness on his part he having disobeyed the rules of Caot, Cason in riding on the rear of the Tender of the Engine.

Lewis Littlejohn May 12, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that said Lewis Littlejohn came to his death on the A&C Air Line

S. J. Thomas June 13, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said SJ Thomas came to his death on the 14th day of June AD 1882 in Laurens County on the Laurens Rail Road in the discharge of his duties as conductor on Material train No 1 in the employ of and doing the work of the Columbia and Greenville Rail Road and so we find that the aforementioned SJ Thomas in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

David M[?] Elkin at Alston, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, We the jury compelled to inquire into the death of David M[?] Elkin do find that the said David M[?] Elkincame to his death at [?] Lexington Co by jumping from the cab on the freight train-while moving and was run over and killed, and the death of the said David M[?] Elkin was a misfortune and an accident.

William Roberts April 11, 1883 at Belton in Anderson County, Anderson County, SC train

do say, that the said William roberts came to his death by accident and carelessness on his part while attempting to get off of the Belton & Walhalla train while in motion; the train running over and crushing him; and that his death was not caused by any dereliction of duty on the part of the rail-road employees or by fault of any other person or persons.

Emanuel Johnson October 7, 1893 at Wards, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Emanuel Johnson aforesaid came to his death by injuries received by being knocked off of the back of Rail Road by a locomotive on the R & D. R and we the jury aforesaid attach no blame to the authorities whatever as it was unavoidable on the part of said R.R. Employee

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

Tom Griffin at the freight depot in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

it appears that the deceased Tom Griffen was killed by being run over by a railroad train on the tracks by the side of the freight depot at Winnsboro, S.C. on the twenty ninth day of November A.D. 1897.

C. B. Griggs December 24, 1916 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC train

[No official declaration]

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