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 101 - 150 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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...

Ida Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

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

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

Dick male slave July 13, 1859 at Ted Scurrys residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say. . .that he came to his death by going in to the Saluda River and got in Deep water an drowned

Saul slave January 9, 1833 at Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Saul did unfortunately and accidentally fall from the dam or bridge

George Roseman January 30, 1883 at T. J. Sullivan's, Laurens County, SC

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

James Lee March 1, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Lee received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Exposure Caused by Extreme Drunkenness

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

[No official declaration]

Enoch Douglass August 11, 1879 near Wesly Barrs on the rail road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Enoch Douglass came to his death by accident

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

M. D. Smith December 24, 1906 at W. K. Sellars, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said M.D. Smith Came to his death by burns by fire.

Robert Anderson January 31, 1825 at the camp near the Wateree Canal, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Robert Anderson came to his death by a gun going accidentally off as William Forten was laying it up, the cock of said gun striking against the place where it was to be laid, which caused it to go off and the load was lodged in the neck of said Robert Anderson

Daniel October 8, 1834 at Maj. John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths that from evidence that the said Negro came to his Death by Mischance by plunging into the River at or near the head of Maj. John Black's Millhouse in said District through fear dogs which were threatened by calling & encouraging of a Negro man, Doc, the property of Reginald Duncan by order of John Odell, supposing him to be a runaway.

Infant child of Amanda Williams at the residence of Alex Cockerell, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say having viewed the dead body of Amanda Williams infant and heard the evidence of witnesses and this our verdict that it came to its death form congestion of the lungs.

Samuel Brock Sr. March 23, 1884 at Samuel Brocks Sr, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Samuel Brock Sr came to his death by being burned to death in his own hous supposed accidently

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

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.

Louisa Nettles May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Hampton Reynolds July 30, 1892 at J.W. Reynolds Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Hampton Reynolds Came to his death from burns received by Explostion from Engine

Tip Jackson November 29, 1885 near New Prospect, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Tip Jackson came to his death by accidentally falling down a steep bank about fourteen feet, his neck falling across a log causing suffocation new New Prospect on the Mills Gap Road about midnight

Elijah February 8, 1860 at the house of D.r J. H. Norman, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant Slave "Elijah" the property of Eliza Jane Hughes (A Mintor) came to its death by accident by being overlain either by its mother or another child of hers

Herman Peters November 2, 1836 on the Camden Road near the house of Hugh Y.[?] Rosborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe according to all evidence adduced to them, the said Herman Peters came to his death from intoxication and inclemency of the weather, some time of the morning of the 2nd instant, on the Camden Road four miles from Winnsborough

Hannah Lee March 7, 1893 at Moor Church, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceased came to her death from natural causes

Benjamin Franklin Zimmerman June 18, 1932 near Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning in the waters of big Juniper creek-1/2 miles north East of the Town of Patrick, S. C.

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

Eugenia Richardson on James McGill's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she was accidently over layed by her mother and smothered to death, and came to her death by misfortune or accident.

Butler Farmer December 20, 1890 on M B Pools Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Butler Farmer came to his death "from a gun shot wound from the hands of James Gowan or Henry Jones, supposed to be an accident."

Truman Miles October 22, 1839 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

do say that said Truman Miles. . . .at Anderson Court House was found dead that he had no marks of violence afore him and died by the [?] of God from the many severe falls he received when in a state of intoxication and not otherwise

Infant Boy Child Infant Boy Child June 18, 1883 at Marsh Grobe Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say . . .the Child come to its death accidentally or by being smutherd

Rachail Langley December 30, 1878 in Spartanburg Co., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... the said Rachail Langley came to her death from indigestion caused by eating too much heartily of unwholesome diet

infant infant December 13, 1851 at A. J. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it was accidently smoothered by its mother

H. McKnight April 14, 1842 at the house of Thomas Tegues, Esq in the Town of Camden ... upon the view of the dead body of Henry McKnight who was found dead in the Wateree River near the bank of said river & raised by means of a hoop, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry McKnight came to his death by the visitation of God having fallen into the river supposed to have been in a fit and alone

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.

Blanchy Wilson November 30, 1893 on the plantation of Robert Hastings, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at woods childs house. . .by a single barrel shot gun lying in the loft of said house and started to fall and Siche Chiles caught the gun and it struck the joist and fired

Thomas Yongue near Strother, Fairfield County, SC

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

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

Larrence Valentine December 28, 1893 at Mt[?] Willing, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .find that said Larrence Valentine aforesaid came to his death by a gun shot wound in his own hands, from the evidence we believe it was purely accidental

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

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

Alcy negro child July 22, 1851 at B. J. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the dieast came to its death by being overlaid by its mother

Gus Sexton August 11, 1894 at Tildy Austin's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Gus Sexton came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted by his own hand.

Lucius Walker October 5, 1869 at James Doziers plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "That Lucius Walker came to his death by having accidentally fallen into the machinery of the Cotton gin of Mr James Dozier. His body passing through a pair of cog wheels in motion and breaking his spine

John Young October 1, 1857 in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the jury after hearing the evidence offered to us on the above inquest find that the deceased came to his death by an injury or hurt received in the suffer with James Guy, either by a from said Guy or by falling upon Guys knee when said was fallen down

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

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

Joseph A. McJunkin March 15, 1858 at Wm Hawkins House, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe the Decd came to his death from what testimony they can get from a [?] Fits[?] & in that condition had fallen in to the river where he Decsd was Fishing & drowned

James Spradley August 19, 1808 near Sander's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that ... the said James Spradley happening to be close behind the said George Nettles looking at the dogs afighting received the contents of the said gun consisting of a load of powder and buck shot in his forehead just over his left eye which shot shot away a considerable part of his skull and brains [and] in one hour after his receiving the said wound, [he] died of the same

Margret Ann Kinncade at W.B. Murry's Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death from a burn by accidently catching on fire, Sept the 3d, 1886[.]

Samuel F. Evans Sr. January 23, 1878 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Samuel F. Evans Sr. came to his death by accidental burning

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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