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 551 - 600 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
Adam Wood December 5, 1880 at Cowpens Station on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased came to his death . . . by being run over or struck by the train on said road, receiving thereby such wounds as to cause his death

James Sullivan July 23, 1874 at the Residence Cesear Sulivan, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the afforesaid James Sullivan in manner and form aforesaid with Lewis Beckes Toler Sulivan and John Mitchel then and there Did Drown

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

Mary Harrison September 10, 1894 at Dornville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Mary Harris, aforesaid, came to her death. . .by accidental scalding with hot Water

Mattie Woods at Jim[?] Sawyer's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say That from the evidence of Dr J E Douglass we conclude the deceased came to its death by a blow on full[?] on its head, caused by the carelessness of children left to attend to it who are not legally reponsible.

Tom Purvis February 5, 1912 at T. A. Hendricks Res, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tom Purvis came to his death By Accidental Gun Shot wound in the Hands of Ray Hendrick

Henry slave, boy May 1, 1857 at Arthur Glovers House, Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .from drinking an [?] quantity of water when heated. . .came to his death by misfortune

Richard Stenhouse November 1, 1857 at the house of Richard Stenhouse, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Richard Stenhouse was killed . . . by the accidental falling of a tree near his own house.

John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

John Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning . . . near McBees Mills in Reedy River

Booker negro March 30, 1823 at the plantation called Flint Hill[?], Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the sd. negro. . .was axacery [sic] to his own death by drinking to [sic] much spirits and being exposed to the inclemency of the weather

Unknown July 2, 1880 at Samson Campbell, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the deceased came to his death by being accidently smothered by his mrother on the first day of July A D 1880

Isaac Grimer December 10, 1868 at Jacobs Branch on the Spaun Church road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Isaac Grimer came to his death on the Spann Church road near Jacobs Church ... by misfortune or accident

John Downey February 26, 1873 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors, find the following verdict, That the Deceased, John Downey, cam to his death the twenty fifth day of February 1873. From rupture of the spleen caus by misfortune or accident

Toney Clawson February 16, 1873 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Toney Clawson came to his death by accidental drowning while attempting to cross a small streamunusually swollen from heavy rains

John Dawkins July 14, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

before their oaths do say that the said John Dawkins caused to his death by his own negligence

Ryefield boy October 24, 1846 near the Island Ford on Broad River, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say That they suppose the body before them to be that of the younger Ryefield drowned at Smiths Ford some days back, and that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

Daniel Gallis January 31, 1819 at house of Daniel Gillis, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . . by cutting down a oak he was accidentally struck by a limb of the said tree and instantly killed

Berry McLauren August 1, 1881 at Jas P. Brock's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Berry M Clarran came to his death by being accidently drowned in Brocks Mill.

Thomas Milane March 7, 1811 near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Milane came to his death by misfortune by a fall from his horse on this day.

Jack negro boy May 14, 1852 at the house of H. W. Posey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said negro boy Jack then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill by drowning in the mill pong

colored colored April 24, 1874 at Dr. J. A. Todd's, Anderson County, SC

do say that infant child came to its death by pressure on preroted[?] artery by stran of beads. . . by misfortune or accident

Sarah Ann Howell May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
infant child infant child January 10, 1892 at Trenton, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deat was produced from suffocation . . . after a long spell of sickness

James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

Richard Mims August 1, 1899 at the plantation of Mrs. H. Carter, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: that Richard Mims came to his death by a pistol Shot in the hands of John McManus . . . accidental Shot of John McManus

John Garrett October 22, 1822 at House of John Garrett, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .Came to his death by being accid Draunded

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

Henrietta Brown January 9, 1878 at Thomas Blair's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to her death by her clothes taking fie, and was burned to death.

Handy Papley November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that the said Handy Papley came to his death "by the Explosion of an Engine boiler."

Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson June 18, 1890 at Laurens Simpsons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant child came to its death by "Accidental Smothering."

John H Webb January 22, 1882 at James Webb Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do Say . . .that said John H Webb Came to his Death from Drowning in Sleepy Creek

Abner Evans June 14, 1867 at P.A. Parker's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the Deceased came to his Death By mischance that Abner Evin came to his deat By Falling in the Well and was Drowned

negro child negro child February 17, 1850 at the plantation of James Ellises, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Female child came to its death by mischance being accidentally smothered

Muse slave September 18, 1831 at the resident of Roger Parish, Kershaw County, SC

do upon their oaths sayeth that the sd. Slave above mentioned died by the visitation of God a natural death on the 18 Instant. . .by lying in the open air the weather being very cool and he being very old and very thin clothed

Thomas Anderson March 24, 1835 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Anderson being highly intoxicated, walked into a deep pool of water inadvertently and was drowned.

Peggyann Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

John A. Motz October 18, 1886 at the Brewer Gold Mine, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John A. Motz came to his death by a falling rock from the east side of the quarry at the Brewer Gold mine where he at that time was turning a drill, 10 minutes till 2 O'clock P.M. the falling rock strick his head, and pushed it against another rock, which crushed his brains out.

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Esther Jeter April 17, 1893 at Huiets x Roads, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Esther Jeter came to her death by accident. . .burned to death

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

William Moore April 15, 1893 in a lake near little river, Laurens County, SC

Being a lawful Jury of inquest and being charged and sworn to inquire for the State of S.C. how and by what means the said Wm. Moore came to his death on the 14th of April inst. In Laurens County By Accidental drowning, in a lake near little river.

Sam October 31, 1840 at the house of Nelson [?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Sam came to his death by the shot of a gun -which gun was accidently shot by a negro boy Allen about 8 years of age

Ben F. Williams March 13, 1895 at M. C. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ben F. Williams came to his death by accident or misfortune

July infant slave September 8, 1856 at the House of Mrs Elender[?] Martin, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say . . .the Decsd came to its Death by misfortune or accident occasioned by the overLaying of its mother

Zilpha Fisher July 19, 1882 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said Zilpha Fisher came to her death from sun stroke

John R. Edwards March 24, 1858 Spartanburg County, SC

find J.R. Edwards came to his death by fall or drowning

Calvin Lemmon at Dawkins, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he was instantly killed by the explosion of J.S. Swygerts engine, while deceased was firing the engine[.]

Maggie Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

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