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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
Aaron Rogers May 14, 1872 at Isham Johnson's Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Aaron Rogers (the deceased) came to his death by accidental drowning in Thompson's Creek, below Purvis' Bridge, on Sunday the 12th May AD 1872

Green Kerley December 31, 1869 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the said Green Kerley came to his death by a fall from a third story window in the Hotel to the pavemen, while laboring under a fit of delerum [?].

Chaney Pilgrim August 12, 1877 at the plantation of James Anderson, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Chaney Pilgrim came to her death while in the bed with her mother Julia Pilrim. . .from some cause or causes unknown to the jury

Sarah Lucas October 30, 1890 at Mr. M L Holson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death by being Burned to death by fire from accident

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

Henry Davis October 30, 1857 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

are of the opinion that Henry Davis came to his death by excessive drink, cold and a fall which rendered him unable to take care of himself.

Joe Alexander Ryan October 24, 1912 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death in an accidental fall in the arms of his mother

Sue Simmons February 18, 1914 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Emma Beser November 24, 1877 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emma Beser[?] came to her death by accidental drowning

Peter Knox July 23, 1878 near Calrandellers[?] Ferry on Tugalo River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Peter Knox . . . in Tugaloo River came to his death accidentally by drowning in attempting to cross said river

J. J. Gulladge December 24, 1869 at the house of J. J. Gulladge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J J Gulledge did come to his death by accident

Jeff Bird January 8, 1878 at G.B. Pettigrews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun

Miles Pryor July 6, 1878 at Hobby's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he caused his death by accident, the accidental discharging of a gun, emptying its contents in the head

John Young June 27, 1891 at the residence of John Young, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Young came to his death from sum Strok

O. P. Brown October 27, 1851 at Durbin Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that he died of a wound received by the fauling of an arch of the Bridge near J.W. Meadors across Durbin Creek which did dislocate his neck and bruise his shoulders and body

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

[No official declaration]

Rock Pearson January 15, 1878 at G.B. Pearson's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by mischance. That Rock Pearson in manner and form aforesaid, caem to his death by misfortune or accident

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death . . .by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing . . .or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

John Watson May 23, 1892 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death "by Accidental Gun Shot in his own hand on the 22 day of May 1892

Julia Hightower child November 9, 1890 at Mr Sam Marshes Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death from being burn by accident

Miles Robuck December 16, 1856 at the house of S.S. Roebuck, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by having his head crushed between the head block and one of the arms of the Cog wheel of a Cotton Gin, that the said Miles Roebuck came to his death in manner and form aforesaid, by misfortune or accident.

Charles negro male slave, boy September 20, 1827 at David Johnsons, Union County, SC

say upon our oaths that from the testimony before us we do believe that the aforesaid Charles was drowned in Big[? Broad?] River by Misfortune

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

Jonathan Newman October 9, 1869 at the late residence of Jonathan C. Newman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say said deceased came to his death by the accidental or providential caving of a well at his own residence

John Dedman March 15, 1806 at Mr Jno Kings, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths that the s. Dedman, (arguably to the Testimony of Jas. Parker E.S. Roland and A. Bishop, persons present when he died) was killed by fall from a Horse at Home of Chas. Simmons in the District aforesaid

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

John Prince July 15, 1856 at Miles[?] Southerns[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by the excessive use of [?] liquors and lying in the hot sun.

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC
John Lyons July 1, 1882 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .came to his death from congestion of the Lungs

Maty slave December 10, 1833 at the dwelling house of Jesse Hammet, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they are of the opinion that the said slave came to her death by the visitation of God in afflicting her with fits or spasms and being neglected by those who had her in their care

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

John Thomas October 6, 1852 at Line Creek, Greenville County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they think he much intoxicated, and in attempting to crop[?] the River fell off on a rock under the Bridge broke his skull and so stunned him that he was immediately drowned

Hattie Smalls at C.B. Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hattie Smalls, in manner and form aforsaid came to her death by having burned[?] to death accidently

Abram McJunkin March 14, 1867 at the [??], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .by drowning came to his death by accident

Thomas Yongue near Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Tomas Yongue came to his death from accidental burning

Joe Malloy October 25, 1893 at George Lany's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joe Malloy came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in his own hands

Augusta Sullivan August 4, 1896 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

from the best information could be gathered came to his death by misschance or by accidental drowning in the mill pond of J. A. McMillan

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.

Loucille Pate Cassidy June 19, 1939 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Loucille Pate Cassidy received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol

Elijah Sullivan April 24, 1898 at Cow-buel[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he died from heart failure and the falling of tree across him by accident

Unknown at the House of Frank Stephanie, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceasd came to his death from Accidental Smothering in bed at its Fathers house[.]

James Hillian November 21, 1911 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child . . .died by accidentally getting Smothered

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

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

William Lundy August 28, 1846 at house of John Rainsford, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that decd came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun that was in his hands the load entering his left temple and passing out of the top of his head carrying part of the brain & skull off

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said slave John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

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.

Abram negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at Henry L Maysons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Abram came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the savanah river

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