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
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

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

[No official declaration]

Nicy female slave October 8, 1859 at Philip Downs[?] Hous, Union County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that from . . .marks found on the arm and head of Decsd that decsd Came to her death by the cars [?] attemting to cross the track before the cars . . .by misfortune or accident

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

Wallace Halloway June 25, 1895 at Edgefield Court house, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, that we the Jury agree that Wallace Halloway came to his death in consequences of injuries received in a wreck which occurred on the south Carolina Rail Road near the rock Quarry

Thomas Richards July 31, 1888 at the Air Line Railroad Bridge on Broad River, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Richards came to his death by accidentally falling or jumping off Train number fifty-one (51) on the Atalnta and Charlotte Air Line Division of the Richmond and Danville Railrad [and] was accidentally caught under and run over and killed by said train of cars

George F. Farmer December 3, 1886 at Thicketty Station, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say taht the said George F. Farmer came to his death by jumping from the cars while they were crossing the Trestle over Big Thickety Creek near Thickety Station and by falling on timbers below ... the said fall caused by accident on the part of the deceased being the result of drunkenness

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

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.

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.

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.

Lillie Washington December 22, 1892 on the plantation of J.O.C. Flemming, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death "By the train running against her throwing her off the track, and in our opinion unavoidable.

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

Glenn Strong August 31, 1941 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Glenn Strong received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by apparently stuck by North Bound Seaboard Air Line Train

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

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.

Dozier Anderson June 16, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Dozier Anderson 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 a train hand 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 aforesaid Dozier Anderson in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident, which accident occured on the 13th day of June AD. 1882.

Jessie Pitomac May 9, 1907 at Bleeraw S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

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

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.

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

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

Sam negro man October 19, 1856 on the track of the South Carolina Rail Road between the Paper Mill and Marsh's, Edgefield County, SC train

that said boy came to his death. . .by being Run over by the night express train

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

James Turner June 27, 1889 at or near Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceased James E. Turner came to his death by injuries received by jumping from the second class car, or platform thereof, of the passenger train, No. 51, of Atlanta and Carlotte Division of Richmond & Danville Railroad, near Thickety Station ... and from the evidence before us we attach no censure or blame to the said railroad

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

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

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

N. T. Hooper November 7, 1881 n.a., Anderson County, SC train

he must have been struck by the over head bridge at Felton 4 miles west of And[erson].

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

Isaac negro man December 1, 1856 at a point on the South Carolina Rail Road [?] Brooks Mill creek, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say and declare. . .that the said negro Isaac, as aforesaid came to his death, by having been Run over by the engine and train

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.

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.

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

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

Fannie Ford March 5, 1893 at Trenton S.C., Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that. . .Fannie Ford came to her death from being run over by a train

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

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[.]

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

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

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.

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.

Henry Thompson 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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

H. Martin Brown at Blair's, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that H. Martin Brown in manner and form aforsaid came to his death by attempting to cross between the cars while standing still on the public crossing at Blairs and crushed to death as it started[?] off by the wheels

J. R. Gainey Jr. September 30, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. R. Gainey, Jr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by causes unknown in the hands of unknown

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

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