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 251 - 300 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Edmund Cleveland December 4, 1871 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that sd. deceased came to his death by the falling of the wall of Duncan's new building in the town of Spartanburg

Della Jenkins February 13, 1904 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

Alfred Sowell December 1, 1816 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Alfred Sowell came to his death by misfortune, that is to say, but accidental firing of a smooth bored gun, being at the same time charged, which drove her charge of shot into the breast of the said Alfred Sowell

Fletcher McFarland January 17, 1881 at Davis McFarlands, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Fletcher McFarland came to his death by being burned and that it was accidently

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.

Ryal Negro Slave July 28, 1851 at Mr Thos McKies Batteau landing on Big Stephen's Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they boy Ryal went in the creek of his own accord and [?] to swim drowned

Lena Hutchinson October 20, 1873 Anderson County, SC

do say according to their knowledge and belief according to the evidence that she came to her death by accident by being burned to death

Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Gertrude infant child December 1, 1891 at Edgfield Court house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that the infant received burns which caused death

Sylvester Robins September 20, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sylvester Robbins came to his death ... from the effect of falling behind the bed and being caught by the chin and head between the railing of the bed and the wall of the house

Lodrick Dobson February 18, 1836 at the dwelling house of John Sarratt, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [he] came to his death by misfortune being intoxicated his clothes caught fire & was burned

Bluford Papley November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Bluford Paply came to his death ("by the Explosion of Thos L Badgetts Boiler")

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.

Rosa M. Smith October 11, 1877 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rosa M. Smith came to her death by means of accidental burning

Wade Harper September 3, 1924 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Wade Harper, about 17 years old, son of J. F. Harper, of Cheraw S.C. came to his death at Anderson's Mill, Cheraw, by mischance, without blame on the part of another person

negro man negro man August 7, 1853 at or near Wm [?] old Mill, Union County, SC

Can Clude that the Said negro man Came to his Death by drowing

Carey slave February 1, 1831 at the house of John Williams, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths We the Jurors . . .believe he got his Death accidentally by fire to the best of our knowledges and the evidence given by Mary Carraway and Nathan Waters before us proves nothing more

Rody Kennedy November 30, 1830 at the house of Rody Kennedy, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rody Kennedy came to his death on the morning of this day on his own plantation by means of the contents of a loaded shot gun being discharged in his body. The Jurors aforesaid say they have no positive evidence the gun was discharged, but from the circumstances coming before them and have no doubt it was discharged by the said Rody Kennedy himself.

Hattie Smalls at C.B. Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hattie Smalls, in manner and form aforsaid came to her death by having burned[?] to death accidently

Benjamin Grady August 28, 1886 at Brocks Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Benjamin Grady came to his death by being accidently Drowned in Brocks Mill Pond on 27th day of August 1886

Samuel H. Young May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Euphemia Jones child February 6, 1894 on the plantation of Mr. Stroud, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Euphemia Jones here deceased came to her death from being burned, by accident, whereunto we the jurors and coroner here set our names and seals.

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

Chas McQueen February 5, 1895 at Chas. McQueen's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Chas McQueen came to his death from some bodily ailment unknown to us and by exposure in the cold

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

John Lyons July 1, 1882 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .came to his death from congestion of the Lungs

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

Elliott Wilson at A.W. Ladds', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say he was killed by a tree being accidentally fell upon him

Luis 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

Patrick Williams August 23, 1842 at the house of patrick Williams decsd, Union County, SC

do say that . . .Patrick Willaims came to his death by the fall of a certain oak tree which we found lying upon his Mangled body

Thomas D. Cook April 10, 1854 at Stover's Ferry on Savannah River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Thomas D. Cook came to his death by accidental drowning

Adam Wood December 5, 1880 at Cowpens Station on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased came to his death . . . by being run over or struck by the train on said road, receiving thereby such wounds as to cause his death

James Sullivan July 23, 1874 at the Residence Cesear Sulivan, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the afforesaid James Sullivan in manner and form aforesaid with Lewis Beckes Toler Sulivan and John Mitchel then and there Did Drown

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

Mary Harrison September 10, 1894 at Dornville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Mary Harris, aforesaid, came to her death. . .by accidental scalding with hot Water

Mattie Woods at Jim[?] Sawyer's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say That from the evidence of Dr J E Douglass we conclude the deceased came to its death by a blow on full[?] on its head, caused by the carelessness of children left to attend to it who are not legally reponsible.

Tom Purvis February 5, 1912 at T. A. Hendricks Res, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tom Purvis came to his death By Accidental Gun Shot wound in the Hands of Ray Hendrick

Henry slave, boy May 1, 1857 at Arthur Glovers House, Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .from drinking an [?] quantity of water when heated. . .came to his death by misfortune

Richard Stenhouse November 1, 1857 at the house of Richard Stenhouse, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Richard Stenhouse was killed . . . by the accidental falling of a tree near his own house.

John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

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.

Unknown Infant Unknown Infant March 10, 1883 at the house of Peter Blakeney, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say That said child in manner and form aforesaid came to its death by misfortune or accident

Robert Burns February 3, 1873 at Alston, Fairfield County, SC

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

colored colored May 9, 1872 at Ja's Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant. . .came to its death by misfortunte or accident

Lester Caute Woodward March 15, 1904 at the residence of A. L. Steen, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Alexander McKee January 4, 1817 in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.

Toney Clawson February 16, 1873 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Toney Clawson came to his death by accidental drowning while attempting to cross a small streamunusually swollen from heavy rains

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

Ryefield boy October 24, 1846 near the Island Ford on Broad River, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say That they suppose the body before them to be that of the younger Ryefield drowned at Smiths Ford some days back, and that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

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