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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old May 15, 1893 on the plantation of D.D. Simpson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said colored man came to his death from inflamation of the left hand and arm of phlegmonous character and for want of proper attention, that he died some time about the 13th inst.

Rachiel Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths. . .by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

J. McGee September 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said J. H. McGee came to his death from a fall from a scaffold by misfortune or accident

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

Sarah McCulley wife of Barney McCulley September 1, 1841 at the house of Barney McCulley, Anderson County, SC

do say that she the sd deceased died of violence on the night of 31 Augt 1841 in her own house & by her own husband Barney McCulley

George Wilkins January 7, 1886 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht George Wilkins came to his death by misfortune or accident from a gun shot in the hands of Jack Lewis

Infant of Adeline Teague Infant of Adeline Teague August 18, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it Died in Laurens Co. on the 17th day of Aug. AD. 1894 from accidental suffocation.

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

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

Peter slave November 23, 1862 at Mrs Colemans, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Decsd Came to his by the hand of the Almighty he was Suppond[?] as he was subject to having fits & Falling at any place where he might be. We Conclude that the Decsd fell in the Branch in a Fit on his face & Drownd

Jethro July 27, 1857 at the residence of Cornelius B. Sarvis, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jethro came to his death by accidental drowning

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.

John Hester May 13, 1846 at Hamburg in the shop of J.J. Kenedy, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, He died in the said shop . . .while working at the bench in a fit . . .came to his death by misfortune or visitation of God

Alexander Martin September 8, 1867 at the residence fo B.W. Knight, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander L. Martin came to his death by the falloing of a tree some of the limbs striking dec'd on the back of the head neck and shoulders

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.

Aleck Dorsey March 23, 1877 at J.W. Coleman's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he come to his death by the accidental burning of a house on the above noted plantation on the 22nd day of March A.D. 1877 about 8 or 9 O Clock in the morning

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer . . .from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

John Baswell February 16, 1860 at the plantation of Abner McVay, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Baswell came to his death by misfortune or accident

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
John Henry Goudelock June 3, 1882 at Bethlehem Grove Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being burned in the dwelling house of Jane Goudelock which is included in Laurens County, State of South Carolina. The cause or origin of the said fire is to this jury unknown.

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

[No official declaration]

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.

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

Adam Hempley February 1, 1853 near Wilson Wingo's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe it. . .was caused by the falling of a limb from a tree he cut down himself

Julia Whalan July 19, 1882 at RH Young Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Julia Whalan came to her death by accidental drowning in a pool of water

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

Unknown Unknown March 29, 1922 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

(We find that the deceased come to his death by being burned in the guard house at McBee, S.C. supposed to have been trying to burn his way to free on the morning March 29th 1922)

Peter Redfearn December 28, 1870 at Hornsboro, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peter Redfearn came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the left foot the gun accidently firing while in the hands of Ben Lowry

Abby Davis May 29, 1877 at Quarly[?] Davis, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid Abby Davis came to her death to the best of their belief from the evidence given, by misfortune or accident.

William Pettifoot free black January 21, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by being accidentally overlaid & smothered in the course fo the night by its mother

Crafford Brantley November 4, 1927 at House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

upon there oathes do Say that Crafford Brantley came to His Death By accidental gun shot wound on Nov 4th at about 11 am 1927

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

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

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

John Williams freed person infant June 23, 1867 at John Meadows, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it came to its death by being smuthered by him in her sleep

Lee Campbell December 24, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Lee Cambell came to his death from a gun shot woud who was shot by Tracy Blackwell. The shooting was acdently done.

Sarah Ratcliff January 3, 1873 at Mr. Isaac Smith's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to her death by accedental burning on the plantation of Mr Isaac Smith on Tusday the 31t day of December 1872

Bob slave February 18, 1823 near Captain James W. Lang's Mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Bob a Negro man slave came to his death by being exposed & was frozen to death on the night of the sixteenth Instant which exposure was probably produced by intoxication in the woods near Captain Lang's Mills

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

Elleck free boy December 13, 1866 at Johnathan Gregorys, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a Gun. . .that Elleck free boy in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accident

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

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

Milledge Fuller freedman February 18, 1867 at John Ransford plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .came to his death by a gun shot wound accidently done in the hands of Ellie a freedwoman

John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

Benjamin Freeman June 24, 1833 at the home of Isaac Hill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the sd. Benj. Freeman went into Tyger River a swimming or by some cause became drowned

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

David West boy January 30, 1862 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that it was by accidently drowning in the Graniteville Factory canel

Major Crawford July 21, 1880 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that Major Crawford came to his death by accidentally falling from the trestle at Rocky River while in a state of intoxication

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