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 1 - 50 of 1096
Namesort ascending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
[illegible] [illegible] November 17, 1920 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jurors find that the Cause to her death by Coming in Cantack with live wire [???] Light & [???] [???]

Zilpha Fisher July 19, 1882 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said Zilpha Fisher came to her death from sun stroke

Zechariah Tottey December 4, 1806 at the Mill River, Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Totty Came to his Death we Belive By toxication[?] in [?] and [?] By haggs[?] in a [?]

Younger son of Joe Cunningham Younger son of Joe Cunningham March 26, 1908 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Wyatt Harris April 22, 1887 at Limestone Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Whay Harris was killed by accident at Limestone Springs ... by a rock thrown by a blast at Simon's works striking him on top of the head while he was at work at Richardson's kiln and killing his instantly

Woodward King July 16, 1820 at Capt. Boles[?] Hamilton's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that from the examination of the corpse and information received from children they believe that he came to his death. . .by a shot from a pistol in the hands of his brother Mancel King aged ten years accidentally without any intention of killing

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

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

Wilson M. Gilligan July 25, 1855 at the Jail of the Districtaforesaid in Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by Dorwning, cause unknown

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

Wilson Clark at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say that Wilson, Clark came to his death on the C.C & A R. Road in Winnsboro the 30th day of May 1889 By being run over by Engine 7B7

Wilson Campbell December 26, 1880 at Henry Sorrels, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say it appears that the deceased came to his death by mischance by freezing to death the finding shall conclude That that Wilson Campbell, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Willis Watson June 14, 1876 at the river bank on Saulda one mile above Gambell old Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that said decd came to his death by accidental drowning in the River of Saluda.

Willis Gary at James Mockins[?], Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that he was killed by the Accidental falling from a train of cars on the C.C. & A R.R. and being crushed by said train

Willis Cumings child October 10, 1890 at C. M. Lanhams, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willis Cumings came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of John Cumings by accident

Willie Williams Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

Willie Thackston June 26, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Thackston came to his death near his father's residence . . . from the effect of being thrown from a mule and dragged for considerable distance

Willie Sizemore August 7, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the said Willie Sizemore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Willie Senteel August 9, 1885 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Willie Senteel came to his death by accidental drowning at Clifton

Willie Parker December 21, 1892 at S. Parkers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Willie Parker came to his death by being struck on his head by a falling Tree Accidinetly

Willie Hendrix Stricklin March 23, 1901 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I have this day helt a perliminary examination over the dad body of Willie Hendrix Stricklin and from the evidence of witnesses I do not deam it nesary to hold an inqest but from Such witness find that the sed Willie Hendrix Stricklin came to his dath from none others than natural causes

Willie Gooding at [?] Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Willie Gooding came to his death from accidental burning by fire

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

Willie Ford July 1, 1935 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC baseball

[No official declaration]

Willie Featherston December 29, 1875 at Ridgeway, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Featherston came to his death, on Wednesday after noon, from a Knife wound, inflicted by himself, in the lower part of the Sternum, as we believe by accident

Willie Dunlap September 6, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

We the undersigned jurious find from the evidence given that Willie Dunlap came to his death by poison administered by an unknown person to us.

Willie Dawkins at the old Ashford place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Willie, Dawkins came to his death at the house of Edward Rodgers the 12 of Feb 1891 from Accidental Burning

Willie Chappell June 18, 1882 at Badgetts quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Chappell came to his death at Badgetts quarter place in Laurens County on Sunday the 20th day of June AD 1882 That Lucinda Bradford the said Willie Chappell by misfortune and contrary to her will in manner and form aforesaid did kill...

William White December 10, 1898 at Savanah River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That the deceased William White came to his death by accidental drowning

William Watson near the Harrison Ferry on the Wateree River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Watson came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun in his own hands, on the bank of the Wateree river on the afternoon of 30th day of Jan AD 1894[.]

William Vaugh August 28, 1842 at the dweling house of Patrick Williams, Union County, SC

adduced that William Vaughn came to his death by the fawling of a certain oak tree a part of which was found [?] his mangled limbs which had [?] shattered his Skull

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

William Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

William Sandy Little June 18, 1890 at the Belk Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said W.S. Little came to his death by accient from falling in the well & being drowned

William Rose July 11, 1877 at Welford in Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Wm. Rose came to his death by the accidental falling of[f] the side of a rail road cut three miles east of Welford, S.C. . . .while loading the gravel train with ballast

William Rogers March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

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.

William Prince July 9, 1851 at the house of John W Garrett, Edgefield County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Prince . . .come to his death by accidentally drowning himself

William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

William Potter February 14, 1875 in Spartanburg County, Cherokee Township, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William came to his death by the mischance or accident of being drowned

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

William Perry January 7, 1894 in the county and state aforesaid, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid William Perry came to his death from gun shot wound in the hands of Calib Hunter. . .said wound was accidental

William Penny March 5, 1839 at Mr. Thomas A. Rabbs, Fairfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that from all testimony and Every Circumstance Connected therewith they are of the opinion that the deceased came to his death on the public high way by a fall from his horse

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.

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
William McDonald December 25, 1803 in the District aforesaid, Laurens County, SC

Say upon there Oaths that the aforesaid Wm McDonal in Manor & form aforesaid was hurt & came to his Death By Misfortune...

William McCode January 20, 1870 at Luke McCoy's [?], Anderson County, SC

do say that he came to his death . . . from exposure in the rain & cold on the roadside . . . and came to his death by accident.

William McAbee April 8, 1885 Spartanburg County, SC
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

William Lindsey January 10, 1840 at Isaac Lindsey's, Spartanburg County, SC horse

that Wm. Lindsey came to his death by a fall from a horse

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia