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 151 - 200 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
Charles Goins at T.D. [?] plantation, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say on the 19th day of June 1883 Charles Goins came to his death from injuries received by him from being dragged by amule runaway he having by mischance been thrown from the mule and his leg having been entangledin the gears[?][.]

George Bowers May 26, 1891 at Kenards bend, Edgefield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that George Bowers came to his death by misfortunes or being thrown from a Mule getting his foot hung in trace and dragged to death

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.

Henry Jinnings August 31, 1839 at Mr. William Martins, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that on hearing all the testimony and after Examinin the dead Body of the aforesaid Henry jennings they are of the opinion that he came this death by being dragged by a Mule his leg being fastned by a trace Chain

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

Burton A. Root November 16, 1928 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC motorcycle

upon their oaths, do say: that Burton A. Root came to his death as a result of striking a car with the motor cycle he rode, said car being driven by one R. E. Randall. We do here by exonerate the said R.E. Randall of all responsibility for said accident.

H. M. Smith September 23, 1940 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC motorcycle

upon their oaths do say that H. M. Smith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by motorcycle collision with tree in the hands of own hands accidently

N. B. Anderson November 30, 1891 in Youngstownship, Laurens County, SC morphine

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by the accidental falling of a log across his breast.

Emily Griffith January 12, 1896 in Young's Township, Laurens County, SC morphine

upon their oaths do say that Emily Griffith came to her death by an overdose of morphine Given by mistake by Bettie Griffith

Richard negro boy Slave September 9, 1850 at Thomas Garretts, Edgefield County, SC machinery

Upon their Oaths do say, that. . .we believe the deceased came to his death by accident

Charles slave July 1, 1854 at Kings W Iron Co[?] Rolling Mill, Union County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say that the say Boy Charles. . . came to his death by misfortune or accident

Absalom June 26, 1829 at Nathaniel Holleys, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that said Absalom came to his death by a stroke of lightning

Berry Campbell March 1, 1882 at A.B. Reid's Turpentine Camp, Chesterfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say That the said John Smotherman Berry Campbell and Sandy Purvis came to their deaths by accident at the Turpentine Camp of A B Reid . . . By Lightning.

Sandy Purvis March 1, 1882 at A.B. Reid's Turpentine Camp, Chesterfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say That the said John Smotherman Berry Campbell and Sandy Purvis came to their deaths by accident at the Turpentine Camp of A B Reid . . . By Lightning.

John Smotherman March 1, 1882 at A.B. Reid's Turpentine Camp, Chesterfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say That the said John Smotherman Berry Campbell and Sandy Purvis came to their deaths by accident at the Turpentine Camp of A B Reid . . . By Lightning.

Corvie Bowers July 24, 1885 at J S Blalocks place, Laurens County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Corvie Bowers came to her death in Laurens County on the 23d day of July AD 1885 by a strike of Lightning.

Lewis July 13, 1860 at William Young's darm, Laurens County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say; that the said boy came to his death by a stroke of lightning

Lucy Roper June 29, 1899 on the pantation of S.W. Miller, Edgefield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Lucy Roper came to her death by a Stroke of lightning

Rosa Blasingame June 30, 1882 at the farm of A. C. McGee, Greenville County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by a stroke of lightening it being an act of Providence

Nancy Smith February 10, 1847 at the resident of Elijah Smith, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the sd. Nancy Smith. . .died by a visitation of God by a stroke of lightning

Roanoake slave April 3, 1861 at James R Jeters, Union County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that . . .Roanoake came to his death from being struck with lightning

John Love August 3, 1871 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that ... the aforesaid John Lowe came to his death from a stroke on lightning

William Brice July 11, 1830 at the house of Jesse Wakefield, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that in the dusk of the evening of the 10th day of said month as he was returning from muster in the yard or about a distance of 25 steps from the dwelling house of Jesse Wakefield in sd' district by an act of God he was killed by a stroke of Lightning

Landrum Hopper August 17, 1882 at Truman S. Webber's, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the said Landrum Hopper came to his death from the effects of a stroke lightning in the field of Truman S. Weber where he had been ploughing

Charles negro man May 2, 1847 at J Greens, Union County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths. . . that he came to his death by the visitation of God in sending a Streak of lightning which said lightning caused the instant death of the said Charles

Broderick Mason April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Cinthy April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Alias July 14, 1838 at the plantation of Samuel Mobley, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that they believe from the evidence given that the two aforesaid Negro Men came to their death by Lightning and by no other way

Matt July 14, 1838 at the plantation of Samuel Mobley, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that they believe from the evidence given that the two aforesaid Negro Men came to their death by Lightning and by no other way

Rachel Evans August 25, 1822 at house of Elias Parish, Kershaw County, SC lightning

are unanimously agreed that the said Rachel who is now lying dead at the house of Elias Parish came to her death by the visitation of God on the 24 Instant by lightning [and] was struck dead

Ransom Hollaway May 14, 1862 at Ransom Holaways, Edgefield County, SC lightning

do say upon there oaths that he was killed by Lighting during a Thunder storm

Charity Goldplate March 9, 1894 at Dr. McKay's place, Chesterfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths, do say: that Charity Goldplate came to her death from Stroke of lightning

Henry colored man May 24, 1852 at Ephraim Few's, Greenville County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by lightening

Charles Brown at the house of Simon Jones, Fairfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that Charles Brown, on the 27th July 1889, in township #7 came to his death by a strike of Lightning at the hand of God

Unknown April 15, 1861 At Pendleton, Anderson County, SC laudanum

do say that the deceaced came to his death, they believe by taking Laudanum

Sam Burton December 9, 1876 Anderson County, SC laudanum

do say that Sam Burton came to his death by the voluntary use of laudanum taken by himself, and taken from the hands of his brother John Burton

T. Clark Singleton August 27, 1841 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC laudanum

upon their oaths do say that the said T. Clark Singleton infant did come to his death by the administration of an over portion of laudnum given to him by his mother Margaret

Wilson Harris February 12, 1876 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Harris came to his death by accident caused by being run over or against by a horse ridden by John W. Wright in a race being run on the old race track at Gaffney City ... said accident being caused by his (the deceased's) own carelessness

Spencer Bradford November 2, 1840 at the house of Spencer Bradford, Fairfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that [?] [?] Bradford was thrown from his Horse against the Body[?] of a tree near [?] Bridge on Little River

Pickens M. Brown February 10, 1882 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do Say, that the said Pickens M. Brown came to his death by injuries received, from being accidently thrown from a horse while running a race near Cheraw, Chesterfield Co. S.C. February 9th 1882.

Louisa Jane Low minor child November 3, 1842 Union County, SC horse

the Decd came to her death . . .by accidently falling from a horse

Auson Peeler July 25, 1868 near Kalmia[?] Mills, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse

William Cassidy July 28, 1883 at Levi Cassidy's, Chesterfield County, SC horse

upon there oaths do say That the said William Cassady caem to his death from natural causes

Edward Simpson January 9, 1836 at William Simpson's, Spartanburg County, SC horse

do say uppon [sic] there [sic] oaths that he was riding a horse at full speed. . .on the wagon road [and[ was thrown against a tree which gave him one mortal wound from his hip on the right side extruding to his shoulder on the same right side

Bill slave November 19, 1851 at Colonel Samuel Beaty's, Union County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that by being flung and dragged by the horse with his feet wound in the chain some hundred and fifty yards. . . came to his death by misfortune or accident

Wilson Stanley December 19, 1853 at Peter Gosnels[?], Greenville County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson B. Stanley came to his death by a fall from his horse into the branch [?] the road near Hodges Mills

Somerset slave March 24, 1824 Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the said Somerset came to his death by accident arising from a fall from a horse

Sherod Holms October 10, 1884 at Sherod Holms House, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Mr S Homs Came to his death by accidentally by Mr Eddie Talbert horse knocking down Mr S Holms horse

Joseph D. Reasonover January 21, 1871 at a place four miles south of Camden, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph D. Reasonover came to his death from a kick received from a horse on his breast or stomach

James Gregory August 28, 1880 at Geo. W. Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that James Gregory came to his death by the fall from his Horse caused by the Horse falling down near George W. Hurner's farm

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