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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
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.

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

William Rose July 11, 1877 at Welford in Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Wm. Rose came to his death by the accidental falling of[f] the side of a rail road cut three miles east of Welford, S.C. . . .while loading the gravel train with ballast

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

William Jones September 8, 1877 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Wm Jones came to his death by being accidentally run over by the Train on the Atlanta and Charlotte Line Rial Road

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.

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

Hugh Wetherford June 25, 1895 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Hugh Weatherford came to his death by wreck of Engine no 6 ... Caused by R R Spikes being placed on rails about two miles east of Edgefield by parties unknown

James Sellers May 12, 1939 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that James Sellers received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Seaboard Train #2 in the hands of W. W. Shoemaker

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)

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.

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

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.

Albert Brunson June 26, 1895 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say. That Albert Brunson came to his death by wreck of Enjine no. 6. . .caused by rail road spikes being placed on rails. . .by parties unknown

George Delaughter April 30, 1861 at the Hamburg Passenger Depot, Edgefield County, SC train

upon there oaths do say the said George Delaughter came to his death from falling of the Rail Road cars

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. Searsey October 21, 1890 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC train

by their oaths do say that We the undersigned Jurors find that the deceased WH Searsey came to his death Oct 20th 1890 at Laurenns SC by accident - caused from Jumping from the Engine on account of a collision, caused by service Train, and from the Evidence, it was carelessness upon the Part of the Engineer and conductor of Service Train, and RR authorities of PR and WC RR.

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

Augustus Barton December 9, 1884 Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that ... on said rail road ... the said Augustus [?] came to his death by accident falling from the top of a moving car and being crushed under the wheels of the said car

Will Metts March 16, 1895 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

we the jurors impaneled find from the testimony produced that the said Will Metts came to his death By being caught between Box Car and platform, crushing his body. In our opinion there could be no Blame attached to any one.

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.

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.

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

Richard negroe Boy April 21, 1863 in the District of Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC train

by the oaths of the Jurors they do say the said boy came to his death by being on the above named night Express train comeing to Augusta Ga Contrary to the order of his Master as he was run away and was Killed in the Smash up of Cars at the Brooks Culbert

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.

Beau Brown August 13, 1933 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths, so say: Beauer Brown came to his Death by being struck by an SAL Train through carlessnes on the part of the Sal rail road emploers

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.

Stephen D. Wallace December 4, 1889 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon thire oaths do Say that Stephen Wallace came to his death by being ran over by the Engine on the Palmetto Rail Road. . . while he was lying drunk on the trestle of said Rail Road and we find that the Rail Road Company was without fault

Mrs. Gus Lynch December 20, 1921 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

We find that Mrs. Gus Lynch came to her death from collision between Seaboard Air Line train No. 4 and the automobile occupied by her and Mr. Ernest King at block house crossing, about 8:30 A.M., Dec. 20th, 1921

John Henry Butler[?] at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

William Abbott September 26, 1880 on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that said William Abbott came to his death ... by being run over by a passenger train on said Road, being mangled, bruised, cut and crushed from which bruises &c. he instantly died

Fred Walker February 10, 1929 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

the Said Fred Walker came to his death by being run over by a Seaboard train

R. Davis May 1, 1881 at Grove Station, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceasd R J. Davis came to his death ... from mischance or accident by being knocked off a freight Train

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.

Ezekiel Thomas February 4, 1879 near Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Ezekiel Thomas came to his death by a collission of the Sharlott Columbia and Augusta Train No 3 coming from Columbia going south from Columbia on the high way coming in contact with him and his wagon & [?] while attempting to cross the tract on a publick Road

M. J. Wilson 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

Julius Brockman negroe boy August 11, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Julius Brockman came to his death by an [?] accident causedly being Struck by engine No 22 train no 49 on the [??] Rail Road

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.

Harry Fort January 6, 1875 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Harry Fort came to his death by being accidently mashed between two cars while cappling them at Cases Depot

Adolphus Littlejohn May 31, 1888 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Adolphus Littlejohn came to his death by being run over by the Ballast Train of the Richmond and Danville Roilroad about the incorporate limits of Gaffney City

Jefferson Kitsinger 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 Taylor March 22, 1918 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

we the Juror find that John Taylor came to his death by a freight train on Atlantic Cost Line Rail Road having his Head Cut entirley from his body also right Arm broken and right hand badly mashed allso left Leg & foot mashed in the Town limits of Cheraw S.C

Jonah Roland May 1, 1890 at Four Mile Branch, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon there oaths do Say that the said Jonah Roland came to his death by being struck by train on Cheraw & Salisbury R. R. to the best of our belief.

George Martin November 30, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said George W. Martin was accidentally struck and killed by passenger train No 42 of the Atlanta and Charlotte [?] Line Rail Road

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

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

John Winchester October 15, 1890 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John Winchester came to his death by being thrown from a train at or near the switch gate at Clinton

Cyrus slave September 15, 1860 at the shanty [?] upon the grounds of the Blue Ridge Rail Road Company at Anderson, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the said Cyrus came to his death by reason of coming into contact with a bridge over the track of the Blue Ridge Rail Road known as Hanson's [?] Bridge about seven miles from Anderson C. H. . . while on the top of of [sic] a freight car attending to the brake conguardely raised himself erect just as the train of came over & under said Bridge, causing his head to come in contact with the bridge from the affect of which blow his death ensued and...came to his death by misfortune or accident.

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

William Brewer at White Oak, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say The deceased came to his death form his own negligence by sitting on the track of the Southern R. Road[.]

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