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 101 - 150 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
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 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

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

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.

Porter Hampton Fairfield County, SC train

JUST TESTIMONY

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

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.

David M[?] Elkin at Alston, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, We the jury compelled to inquire into the death of David M[?] Elkin do find that the said David M[?] Elkincame to his death at [?] Lexington Co by jumping from the cab on the freight train-while moving and was run over and killed, and the death of the said David M[?] Elkin was a misfortune and an accident.

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

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)

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

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.

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

[No official declaration]

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Richard C. Springs October 22, 1877 on the S&U R.R. near Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Richard C. Spring was accidentally killed by being run over by a train while walking along the track

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

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.

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

Manerva Sanders March 22, 1890 at Webb S.C, Edgefield County, SC tornado

do say that Manerva Sanders came to her death. . .by a Storm or Cyclone. . . blowing down a house in which she Was in and the falling timbers Kill her

Edward Horton August 7, 1879 near Wesley Barrs[?], Edgefield County, SC sunstroke

do say that the said Edward Horton came to his death by acissive bleeding of the nose or Sun Stroke or both combined

Jane Smith March 24, 1884 at Tip Top, Laurens County, SC strychnine

upon their oaths do say that the said Jane Smith came to her death by a dose of Strychnine accidentally given her for Colomel and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, do say the aforesaid Jane Smith came to her death in the manner as before said.

Mary Blocker December 6, 1894 at R H Parks, Edgefield County, SC strychnine

upon their oaths do say, that Mary Blocker came to her death by taking a dose of Strychnine

George Low col June 6, 1869 at Sand Bar Ferry, Edgefield County, SC stems of yellow jasmine

upon their oaths do say That they find that the said George Low came to his death through drinking a tea made of the stems of the yellow Jessamine having mistaken the same for the cross Vine of which he intended to make tea

Abram man slave August 17, 1860 at the Residence of Gen[?] Jas B. Griffin, Edgefield County, SC snake

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Abram came to his death by being bitten twice by a snake

Howard G. Laney June 17, 1935 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC shovel

upon their oaths do say that Howard G. Laney received un Chesterfield County a mortal wound by part of a gas shovel in the hands of R. E. Craft, employee of S.C. Highway Dept. . . . said shovel being in bad and unsafe state of repair ad caused death by accident.

Soloman Hilliard February 11, 1829 Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that he . . . shot gun, property of John Barnes[?] & [?] which was the occasion of his death supposed to be [?] 30 or 40 shot lodged in his head.

Hampton Weaver colored July 17, 1869 at the house of and on the farm of James T Outz, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

the said Hampton Weaver came to his death do say . . .by the accidental discharge of a single barreled shot gun held in his own hands inflicting a mortal wound under his right Jaw

Eli David Junkins July 24, 1871 at or near the hosue of John Martin (colored) near Richard Robinson Mill, Anderson County, SC shotgun

do say that the said Eli David Jenkins came to his death by being shot with a small single barrelled shot gun in the hands of Leslie Martin a colored boy some 16 or 17 years old. . .the said Leslie Martin did not intend or had any idea of the gun going off or doing the boy any injury whatever and believe it was entirely accidental

Stephen Yeargin March 5, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC saw

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said Stephen Yaergin came to his death by misfortune or accident

William Thompson May 26, 1826 in town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC saltpeter

do say upon their oaths that it was by taking a dose of saltpetre though mistake

Henry negro boy Slave September 17, 1829 at John Gayes[?], Union County, SC rope

do say upon their oaths . . .by accidentaly hanging himself by swing by a rope used for suspending a Waggon Body

William Humphry January 4, 1894 at Etheridge Bridge, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

the said Wm Humphry now being dead came to his death from the effect of a wound inflicted by a pocket knife which pierced the heart and that the knife was in his own hands while he was holding or trying[?] to hold Mark Thrig[?] with his right hand and arm and that it was his Misfortune

Lee Blakney February 25, 1944 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC plank

upon their oaths do say that Lee Blakney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Planer Hill in the hands of Self. . . Lee Blakney came to his death, by accident, while operating a planer.

Isah Zimmerman December 26, 1881 at the Residence of W F Ste[?]eies, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that He Come to His Death by a Pistol Shot Wound in the hands of Lias Dorn accidently

Frank a negro boy December 11, 1866 [at] Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Boy Frank came to his death by a shot from a pistol accidentally fired by his brother named Lee

Wily Royal January 7, 1895 at J.S. Hancocks, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that Wily Royal came to death. . .by Pistol shot wound accidently inflicted by Walter Deale

Charles S. Harrison November 25, 1878 at E.C. House, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Charles S Harrison came to his death by an accidental Pistol Shot from the hands of F A Bilanger

Spencer Mays freedman November 8, 1866 at John Buslys, Edgefield County, SC pistol

the said Spencer Mays freedman came to his death do say that the said Spencer came to his death by a Pistol shot in the hands of Charles Warren freedman the ball entering just above the left knee

Tully Black child August 2, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that . . .said Tully Black lost his life by a pistol shot accidentally discharged by one King David Hill

Prophet Goodman May 24, 1884 at the residence of N A Green, Laurens County, SC pig

upon their oaths do say that the said Prophet Goodman came to his death on the 24th day of May AD 1884 from being torn and lacerated by a sow hog, which sais tearing and lacerating was done on N A Greens place in Laurens County And so the jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Prophet Goodman came to his death by mischance or accident.

Rose Ford at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC opium

upon their Oaths do say that the deceasd came to her death in Winnsbor between the hours of 12 PM and 6 AM from the conjoint result of an over dose of Opium and Whiskey and disease of the Kidneys

Willie Glover July 26, 1892 at Lark Glovers Plantation, Edgefield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Glover came to his death from concussion of the brain caused by being drug in the gear of a mule for 100 or 200 yds upon the ground and rocks

Hilliard Brown at Washington Ashford's house on the Boyd place, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from being thrown dragged & kicked by his mule while returning from his field on the Boyd place[.]

W. J. Summers youth August 18, 1843 at Goshen[?] Hill, Union County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by the kick of a mule the property of the Father of the deceased

Jacob Cromer December 4, 1867 at the residence of Jacob Cromer, Anderson County, SC mule

do say that the deceased came to his death by the hand of Providence, the true cause being unknown.

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