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 501 - 550 of 1096
Namesort descending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Jane infant negro December 31, 1840 at E. M. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child was accidently overlayed by its mother

Jane slave April 16, 1849 at John J. E. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that . . .the said Jane was accidently or unknowinly smuthered by her mother or some one Else in bead

Jane Forgy March 10, 1896 on the plantation of Mattie McPherson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she the said Jane Forgy came to her death from the Effects of a gun shot wound from the hands of Tom Forgy by Accident on the 9th day of March inst.

Jane Kelly May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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.

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

Jean Young December 6, 1816 Union County, SC wagon

Came to his death by the act of God a Waggon Whel running [?]

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

Jeff Jackson January 30, 1923 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I do not find it necessary to hold a formal inquest in my Judgment Jeff Jackson come to his death by mischance with out blame of on the part of any being person

Jeff Steel February 11, 1892 at Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do Say That Jeff Steel came to his death by accident on account of carelessness on his part he having disobeyed the rules of Caot, Cason in riding on the rear of the Tender of the Engine.

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

Jefferson Kitsinger 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

Jeremiah Morgan January 12, 1881 at or near the residence of, Spartanburg County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Jerry Morgan came to his death ... by a fall from his horse

Jerry May 16, 1808 at the Mill House of Henry Brockman, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, the said Negrow man Jerry came to his Death by being Intoxicated in Liquor and Indeavoring to cross the Enoree River... between Laurens & Spartanburgh Districts that then & there the sd. Negrow Jerry got strangled sufficated & Drowned & from all appearance contrary to the wife sd. Negrow by mischance or accident.

Jerry R. McLeod May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Jesse May 15, 1850 at Lyles Ford on the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man came to his dead by drowing or accident to the Jurors unknown

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...

Jesse Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

Jesse Moragna[?] March 3, 1882 at Luke Moragines[?] House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the diceased Came to his death by the falling of a tree top which struck him on the Head frackturing the sckull . . .by Misfortune and Contrary to his will

Jessie Lee Jordon August 25, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Jessie Lee Jordon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile in the hands of Joe Watts, Jr.

Jessie Pitomac May 9, 1907 at Bleeraw S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accident

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

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

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.

Jim Rice on James Jones' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oaths do "say" that Jim Rice in manner and form aforesaid caem to his death by a bucket fallin acidently on his head while walking in a well

Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

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

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

Joe Coleman near Buck Head, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Joe Coleman in manner and form aforsaid, came to his death 'from old age and freezing[.]"

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

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

John slave November 13, 1849 at the house of Mrs. J.S. McRae, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the falling of a tree

John August 16, 1859 at Edw Garreth, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Boy John aforesaid came to his death by going in to the water and by accident got into deep water and not being able to swim was drowned.

John November 24, 1829 at the house of Robert G Bagley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to such and all evidence it is their belief that on the night of the 23rd instant the before mentioned Alexander Caldwell and his little son (the deceased) was in a Small House and A Sleep an they believe that a pallet whereon the deceased lay or the house caught fire, by accident, and consumed the house and the child...

John April 23, 1859 at the Residence of Dr. D A Richardson, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say. That the said slave John at the Residence of Daniel A Richardson on the 12th day of April in the afternoon came to his death, By accident the result of a fall producing a dislocation of the neck

John A. Motz October 18, 1886 at the Brewer Gold Mine, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John A. Motz came to his death by a falling rock from the east side of the quarry at the Brewer Gold mine where he at that time was turning a drill, 10 minutes till 2 O'clock P.M. the falling rock strick his head, and pushed it against another rock, which crushed his brains out.

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

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.

John Bogan May 15, 1903 at Crusal branch trestle near Ruby, Chesterfield County, SC train

We find that the said John Boggon and Elliott Pegues came to their death by a loose box car running into a lever car which they were operating.

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
John Calhoun Clemson August 11, 1871 at Pendleton, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the deceased came to his death . . .by the unavoidable running of the lumber train of the G & C R Road into the passenger train of the Blue Ridge Railroad

John Cotton March 15, 1826 at the river bank in Mr. Jno. Nelson's field, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that on the second day January last that the said John Cotton came to his death by attempting to go to the shore from a boat that was lodged in the shoal near Jones Mills within said district and was drowned accidentally and not otherwise

John D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

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.

John Davis June 19, 1939 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that John Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile collision in the hands of Wilson Smith

John Dawkins July 14, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

before their oaths do say that the said John Dawkins caused to his death by his own negligence

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

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 Downey February 26, 1873 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors, find the following verdict, That the Deceased, John Downey, cam to his death the twenty fifth day of February 1873. From rupture of the spleen caus by misfortune or accident

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