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 201 - 250 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
James Jenkins May 30, 1875 at Robert Spence's [?] Mill, Anderson County, SC

It appears that deceased came to his death by mischance or misfortune or accidental drowning in the mill pond at Robert Spences

Jane Kelly May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
infant child infant child January 18, 1892 at the Plantation of L. G. Swearinger, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

Thomas Davis March 30, 1884 at John Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Davis came to his death by misfortune or accident

Oliver Lee February 17, 1892 at Cokers Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Oliver Lee came to his death by accidently falling upon a circular saw while in motion cutting of both legs near the body causing instantly death on the 17th day of February 1892 about 10 Oclock am at Cokers Saw Mill

William Johnson Senior December 30, 1869 at the first Swamp on the Road leading from the public Road to Hughes Landing on Little Pee Dee River, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that we Suppose he came to his death by mischance

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson . . .died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Sebron Machan November 27, 1878 at James A [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sebron Macham came to his death by some means to the jury unknown

William Gaston April 30, 1837 at the house of James N. Gaston, Spartanburg County, SC

say upon their oaths that the aforesaid William Gaston ... came to his death by the accidental falling of a tree

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

Martin Wheeler November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say "that he came to his death from the Explosion of Mr Badgetts Boiler."

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.

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

Jackson Byars December 13, 1877 at Boiling Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jackson Byars came to his death beside the Mills Gap Road nine miles from Spartanburg C.H. in the County and State aforesaid ... from appoplexy or effusion of blood upon the brain

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

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child was . . .smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

Avery slave November 14, 1831 at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to 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.

Elsie Williams June 28, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elsie Williams did on this place on the 29th day of June 1886-accidentally receive in her abdomen a pistol shot which caused her death on the 1st day of July 1886

Tilman Attaway April 14, 1849 at the corner of the Oharer[?] old field, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the said Tillman Attaway. . .was shot with a load of buck shot discharged from a gun, or pistol, and ... that he the said Samuel Webb Shot the said Tilman Attaway, with a doble barrel Shot gun accidently through a mistake for a Turkey

Thomas Dalton February 8, 1882 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that in their opinion the said Thos Dalton by abcess on the[?] part of the head which was accidentally[?] effected and caused his death.

Stephen slave December 18, 1860 at Mr. M. Mungo, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Stephen came to his death from a fall and which caused his neck to break

Duff Gist June 20, 1893 at Beaver Dam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Duff Gist came to his death from Congestion of the Bowels.

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

Martha Boone January 16, 1896 at A. B. Merrimans place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Martha Boone came to her death by accidental burning

Pressly Foster boy August 1, 1882 at Mr. Wm G[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .came to his death by falling in a branch in an epileptic fit & causing strangulation

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

Samuel Williams at Major Wilkes' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Samuel Williams came to his death by the falling timbers from the house, caused by a severe storm on the night of the 19th of February 1884.

George Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Robert Johnston May 23, 1891 at Clarks Ferry below bridge on C. & G.[?] R R, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by Mischance and accidentally falling into Saluda river

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 C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Unknown July 13, 1830 at Rocky Mount Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that upon the evidence adduced that the said child was found on the evening of the 18th Inst. found in a fish Trap near the above named ferry prior to that time they are not able to asertain and from not being able to asertain any marks of violence do believe to[?] come to its death by being drowned

Lizzie Darian child November 21, 1894 at Waldo Richardsons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Lizzie Darion came to her death by mischance, the burning of the house it was left in by what means it caught on fire is unknown

Pauline Paulding[?] at Captain John Thomas' Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Pauline Pauling died of suffocation[?]

William Bradley December 29, 1841 at Elizabeth Eubank's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . drink & ardent spirits to an excess so as to intoxicate him so much as to render him incapible of helping himself to where he could have the benefit of fire, and only reached the edge of the field where in his residence was ... and there fell down and perished with Coald.

Maston Fuller September 21, 1916 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol wound accidentially discharge by his own hands

Sam Slave June 14, 1858 at Henry Spiers[?], Edgefield County, SC

who came to his death by drowning in Butlers Mill Pond

David Dantzler June 29, 1829 at Nazareth Meeting House, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths after examination [that] he came to his death by accidental drowning

Fleetwood Moody May 20, 1936 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Fleetwood Moody received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burned in the hands of origin unknown . . . came to his death from burns and suffocation origin unknown

Infant of Sarah McQueen Infant of Sarah McQueen November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Alick Croker boy September 29, 1878 at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC

Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding

Peter Gadsden November 28, 1873 near Doko[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That on the night of the twentieth day of November 1873, before the hour of midnight the said Peter Gadsden being alone in the house, on the Plantation of L.M.[?] Bookhart[?] was burned to death by the accidental catching of fire to the building near the chimney which resulted int he destruction of the building and the death of said Peter Gadsden, and that...Peter Gadsden...came to his death by accidental burning

William Godfrey October 19, 1873 near Leaterwood's Mills, Spartanburg County, SC

open [sic] their oaths do say that [deceased] did fall into a gully and being unable to get out did then and there die

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.

Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say . . .that the aforesaid sally . . .came to her death by misfortune or accident

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

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