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 751 - 800 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

Carey slave February 1, 1831 at the house of John Williams, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths We the Jurors . . .believe he got his Death accidentally by fire to the best of our knowledges and the evidence given by Mary Carraway and Nathan Waters before us proves nothing more

John Benjamin October 16, 1893 at a mill in Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Benjamin did come to his death by misfortune or accident.

Mordicae Bloice May 14, 1818 at the flat [?] of Edylis[?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . . that the deceased Mordica Bloice came to his death by accidental drowning

William Perry January 7, 1894 in the county and state aforesaid, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid William Perry came to his death from gun shot wound in the hands of Calib Hunter. . .said wound was accidental

Francis Sanders April 27, 1848 at Sakin's[?] Mill, Fairfield County, SC

we the Jurors do find and [?] that the said Francis Sanders; came to his death by drowning in the Broad River on the 26th[?] April 1848.

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

Lizzie Coleman at A.P. Irby's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child Lizzie, Coleman, came to her death by burning in a house on the Plantation of Capt A.P. Irby's the 21st of Nov 1884 the origin of the fire unknown to the jury[.]

William Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

Charley Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say "that Charley Campbell came to his death. By Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say . . .that the aforesaid sally . . .came to her death by misfortune or accident

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

J. G. Finney February 13, 1877 at the Residence of John Finney, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said deceased J G Finney came to his death by concussion of the brain caused by a fall from his horse on the 11th day of Feb 1877.

Unknown June 6, 1829 at the plantation of John Holinshead on Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say (viz) from the evidence of Mrs. Hugheys and John beal, with other circumstances that the negro boy belonged to a speculator who had brobibly traded for him in the district of Newberry and carried him into this district some distance when the boy took his master's horse and returned to Hugheys ferry...she [Mrs. Hughey] heard a considerable splash in the watter...John beal made oath that he was walking on the bank of the river near a mile below the said, ferry on the fifth..he states that he seen a negro [?] on a rock he procured a canoe the same evening and had him brought to the bank the negro was dead and from every cricumstances he believed the negro had been drowned and appeared he had been in the river one or two days

Crosby Irby at Perry Irby's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his home. . .from a gun shot wound accidently fired[.]

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

Charlie Woodard November 15, 1915 at H. L. Woodards, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By accidental gunshot from his own hands

Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

Male Infant Male Infant March 20, 1884 at the Jeff Sumerel place, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say; that the deceased male infant came to his death by suffocation or mischance. . .

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

Willie Chappell June 18, 1882 at Badgetts quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Chappell came to his death at Badgetts quarter place in Laurens County on Sunday the 20th day of June AD 1882 That Lucinda Bradford the said Willie Chappell by misfortune and contrary to her will in manner and form aforesaid did kill...

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson . . .died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Fannie Patton November 18, 1898 at Francis Williams house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that upon examination find that Fannie Patton Came to her death by accidental Drowning

Frank Young June 28, 1874 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Frank Young (colored) while bathing in Broom's Mill Pond in said County before noon on the 27th day of Juned 1874, did then and there come to his death by accidental drowning;

William Johnson January 20, 1871 at William Johnson's residence in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Johnson came to his death ... from a sudden attack of illness occasioned by his having eaten oysters which were probably tainted

Robert Johnston May 23, 1891 at Clarks Ferry below bridge on C. & G.[?] R R, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by Mischance and accidentally falling into Saluda river

John Maddox June 15, 1881 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the aforesaid John Madox came to his death by his own act of going into the Saluda in said county^ River and getting drowned.

Addora Wallace Fairfield County, SC

we the undersigned Jurymen do hereby find the following verdict That Addora Wallace came to her death by drowning not Known to the Jury.

Daniel Bragg February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in striving to save a negroe man he got drowned.

Dick male slave July 13, 1859 at Ted Scurrys residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say. . .that he came to his death by going in to the Saluda River and got in Deep water an drowned

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child was . . .smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

Archie Oliver May 9, 1909 at the home of J. P. Thurman, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, so say: That the said Archie Oliver came to his death by a gun shot wound in the head= said gun being at the time in the hands of Willis Thurman said sun being discharged accidentally = without any effort of the said Willis Thurman = he at the time not knowing that the gun was loaded

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

Isabella McClain September 15, 1873 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that She Came to her death by a Gun Shot Inflicted by one Cesar Beaty, though we Consider the whole transaction accidental

Edward Young December 26, 1833 at the house of Mrs. Mathews on the waters of Wateree Creek, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that accord=ing to the evidence adduced to them, they believe, that the evening of the 25th December instant Riding at a smart rate, in company with Robert Harper. The said Edward Young by his horse suddently taking a contrary side of a tree from what he expected, or intended. thereby was thrown or dashed against the same which we believe caused the death of the said Edward.

W. W. Miller January 13, 1930 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By Being Bound drowned in an open well on Main St. of Jefferson by unknown means.

Alick Croker boy September 29, 1878 at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC

Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding

Jim Mason free man of color January 9, 1850 near the residence of William Poole, Anderson County, SC

do say that he was of extremely intermperate habits, and altho there is no positive proof that he was drunk when last seen, the jury and unanimously of opinion before all the circumstances, that he was laboring under the influence of drink, and came to his death from the effect of his habits and exposure to the weather, during the rain and storm of Sunday night and monday last.

Edward F. Lyles June 12, 1879 at Wm J. Martin's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands.

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

Alfred Gage May 21, 1890 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say that the said Alfred Gage came to his death "By Accidental Drowning in little river at the Mills at Milton.

John Davis September 6, 1859 at Jas. H. Parks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - That he came to his death by misfortune and accident by a plate falling struck him on the head about 1 o cl'k on the 5th Inst. Which caused his death in about six hours.

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

Austin Dunlap April 10, 1894 at Waterman Robinson's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Austin Dunlap came to his death from the effects of burns received on the 9th of April 1894

Saul slave January 9, 1833 at Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Saul did unfortunately and accidentally fall from the dam or bridge

infant child infant child January 18, 1892 at the Plantation of L. G. Swearinger, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

Jesse Bell January 20, 1839 at the House of Mrs Elizabeth Ward, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - We find that the deceased came to his death on the night of the 19th Instant by immersing himself in Little River near Laurens Court House having been chased by dogs and pursued by men until he was over heated - That we are of opinion that the length of time he remained in the water was the principle cause of his death...

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