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 501 - 550 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

Curry slave March 17, 1856 at Mrs Elizabeth Middletons Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Curry came to his death by accidental drowning

David Griffin July 28, 1873 at T. H. Clark's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said David Griffin came to his death by accidental drowning

A. R. Steel girl child August 28, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep

Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

Kitty Young near Rock City, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Kity Young came to her death from a pistol shot wound, the pistol being fired by her little brother Johnnie Young, and that the shooting was purely accidental.

Sandy McNair December 14, 1878 at Peter Ingrahams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say- That the said Sandy McNair came to his death by exposure to cold, producing congestion of the lungs and the internal organs; and that deceased died on the night of the 12th inst.

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

Henry negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at New Savannah in beach Island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths Say that the negro man Henry came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the Savannah river

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Abram Clement October 6, 1868 at Martin Williamston's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said deceased was killed by the falling of a limb from a tree which he had cut down near the old school house.

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

Everett Hook July 18, 1891 at the saw Mill of M J Hook, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by accidently falling upon a cicular Saw While in Motion

Absalom McAbee January 6, 1883 at Almarine Willis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by mischange by being partially paralised and falling into water and strangled or drowned being a man of 80 years or more and very feeble

Ned February 15, 1831 near the house of Joseph Gladney Little River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that on the 25th December in attempting to cross little river at a Ford [he] was thrown off a mule on which he rode and then and there was drowned, without any Person being accessory to his death but think they have some reason to believe he was in some degree intoxicated which might in some manner procured his being thrown from said mule

Adam Davis February 5, 1841 at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC

uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated

Jeff Jackson January 30, 1923 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I do not find it necessary to hold a formal inquest in my Judgment Jeff Jackson come to his death by mischance with out blame of on the part of any being person

John Groce June 12, 1876 at John Groce's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he John P. Groce came to his death . . . by accidental drowning in the mill pond of W J Bates while bathing in company with P D Bates, Morgan Flynn and Benjame Cannon[?]

Riah Simpson infant daughter of Jim and Manda Simpson June 28, 1884 at the Langly House on White Plains Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death in the hoise of Jim Simpson on the 28th of June between the hours of 8 & 9 oclock from the effects of a pistol shot in the hands of William Simpson accidentally through carelessness

Infant Child of Caroline Hunter Infant Child of Caroline Hunter January 13, 1872 at Samuel J. Bryson plantion, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths d say We Jurors afforesaid did examine the dead body of the said infant do say that the dead infant came to its death by accidental Smothering. . .

Lizzy Rardon September 28, 1879 at Clansey Holloways plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say the said Lizzy Rardon came to her death by falling into the creek and strugling and from exaustion and being chilled

Abby Davis May 29, 1877 at Quarly[?] Davis, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid Abby Davis came to her death to the best of their belief from the evidence given, by misfortune or accident.

Mitilda Gilbert September 26, 1876 at Isaac Gilbert's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death . . . being found lying at length in said spring being there drowned by misfortune or accident

Edward Huntly December 31, 1907 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Delila Tucker July 31, 1835 at the house of Isaac M Caffertys, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Delila Tucker came to her death by [?] from the wounds probably caused by a fall from a fence

slave slave January 17, 1827 near McRae's mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to it by intemperate drinking & exposure to the cold in an open field

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

Chas. Youngue at the plantation of Dr.[?] B. Estes, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that-Charles Youngue died from the effect of being drowned

Augustus Johnson December 17, 1885 Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

Wee as sworn of in quest Believe Come to his Deth By Acdent

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer . . .from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Mary Thompson June 12, 1878 Anderson County, SC

find that the child has been burnt on the spinal [?] a place as large as a [?] also burnt on the [?] and near mostly all over its body as pieces between [?] as to the cause of her death is from constriction of the brain.

Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Minnie Johnson December 22, 1892 at John Bettis plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Minnie Johnson came to her death by strangulation caused by an accidental fall into shaws creek

Jack February 12, 1830 at John McClintock's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths they believe he came to his death by burning and not otherwise.

Ann June 28, 1837 at the house of Andrew Yongue[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they do believe agreeable to evidence that the said Ann came to her death by accidentily falling into the Creek and getting drowned and not otherwise.

Lusindy Gainey November 15, 1893 at Spring Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon there oath do say that Lusindy Gainey deceast Come to his deth By Being in Sane and getting lost in the Swamp and getting wet in the cold and come to death

Thomas Henry October 20, 1817 at the Dweling Hous of Samuel, Union County, SC

do Say on their oaths tha Said Thomas Came to his Death By a [?] fall that Nathan[?] Howard [?] him By throwing him [?] his hous[?] in a [????]

infant female infant female November 25, 1880 at T. H. Long, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . . the said infant came to its death by being smothered by its Mother accidentally while she was asleep in bed

Belaus[Velaus?] slave, boy March 30, 1863 at Robert Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say-that he came to his death. . .by going in to the Mill Pond of B W Hatchers. . .and was by Misfortune of accidently drowned

James McCravy January 4, 1851 at the house of Amos Holmes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James McCravy being intoxicated and out in the snow frozed [sic] to death

Isaac Miller at Thomas W. Rables[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by a tree falling on him accidently.

Benjamin Anderson December 22, 1873 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Benjamin Anderson came to his death from excessive use of Liquor & exposure to cold

John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC
William Vaugh August 28, 1842 at the dweling house of Patrick Williams, Union County, SC

adduced that William Vaughn came to his death by the fawling of a certain oak tree a part of which was found [?] his mangled limbs which had [?] shattered his Skull

Bob slave December 26, 1845 at the residence Mr. Parks, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being drunk and exposed to the weather which was wet and very cold

Alexander January 2, 1862 at Dr. Austins, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander came to his death Jany 1st by accident having been caught in the running gear of the gin.

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