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 301 - 350 of 1096
Namesort ascending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Pauline Paulding[?] at Captain John Thomas' Place, Fairfield County, SC

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

Pauline Abraham child November 19, 1882 at Archey Ramsey's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Pauline Abrham came to her death by some cause to them unknown

Paul Deese January 14, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

James Purdie Deese & Paul Deese came to his death upon their oaths do say that _______ received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by S.A.L. Train #1 -- Caused by collision of the driver of the Deese car

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

Otis Terry August 8, 1934 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: being struck by By car driven by Walter Elliot same being unavoidable accident

Oscar Matthews November 23, 1877 at C.H.[?] Matthews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths say that the aforesaid Oscar Mathews came to his death on the 22nd day of November 1877 at the Mill dam by the accidental falling from the pear[?] trial[?] of the grist mill or from drowning after the fall unknown to the jury[.]

Oscar Latter at the Nancy Rabb place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death sometime between mid night and day the 27th of Feb 1889 on the Plantation of W.C. Rabbs from accidental Suffocation

Ora Weaver February 21, 1891 at the plantation of D B. H Holfarth[illegible - ink blot], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ara Weaver came to her death from accidental Burning

Oliver Neely March 5, 1821 at Thomas Hughs Senors[?], Union County, SC boat

came to his death by act of God

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

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

[No official declaration]

Obediah Martin July 21, 1853 in the road near Hugh Caldwell's, Spartanburg County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental turning over of a waggon and a saw log rolling on him

O. P. Brown October 27, 1851 at Durbin Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that he died of a wound received by the fauling of an arch of the Bridge near J.W. Meadors across Durbin Creek which did dislocate his neck and bruise his shoulders and body

Norman Cameron March 28, 1850 at Mr. John McGoogan's, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Norman Cameron came to his death by misfortune or accidentally falling off his horse

Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

Nicy female slave October 8, 1859 at Philip Downs[?] Hous, Union County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that from . . .marks found on the arm and head of Decsd that decsd Came to her death by the cars [?] attemting to cross the track before the cars . . .by misfortune or accident

Nicholas Lowery December 28, 1820 on the Ridge Road near John Lowrey's, Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Nicholas Lowrey came to his death by being run against a tree by the Horse he rode

Nettie Mae Bennett November 9, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Nettie Mae Bennett received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by shot gun in the hands in the hands of Derk Gardin (accidental)

Nelson Pettifoot free black February 11, 1848 at the edge of the town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say the deceased came t his death by the wagon running over him

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

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

negro Child negro Child August 27, 1849 at James C. Mingo, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the said child was axcidently or negligently Smothered and killed by its mother in her Sleep

negro child negro child February 17, 1850 at the plantation of James Ellises, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Female child came to its death by mischance being accidentally smothered

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

negro negro February 3, 1838 at Maj. John Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we find that the boddy upon examination is a negro man and it is our opinion that he came to his death by drowning & probably was drowned in crossing the Camden Ferry on the night of the 23d of Dec'r last

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child . . .died by accidentally getting Smothered

Ned February 15, 1831 near the house of Joseph Gladney Little River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that on the 25th December in attempting to cross little river at a Ford [he] was thrown off a mule on which he rode and then and there was drowned, without any Person being accessory to his death but think they have some reason to believe he was in some degree intoxicated which might in some manner procured his being thrown from said mule

Ned December 12, 1835 at Joel Dendys, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths the deceased came to his death by the Effects of Cold and other causes not Known.

Nancy Weaver December 20, 1893 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that we the jurors aforesaid do say that Nancy aforesaid, came to her death, by a gun shot wound in the hands of Savanah Gray accidently

Nancy Smith February 10, 1847 at the resident of Elijah Smith, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the sd. Nancy Smith. . .died by a visitation of God by a stroke of lightning

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

Nancy Crawford August 9, 1876 at Cooly's Grave Yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death. . .near the door of her house (being in labor) by misfortune or accident

N. W. Lafoy 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

N. T. Hooper November 7, 1881 n.a., Anderson County, SC train

he must have been struck by the over head bridge at Felton 4 miles west of And[erson].

N. C. Smith July 19, 1871 at N.S. Smith's residence, Chesterfield County, SC tree fall

upon their oaths, do say: That N.C. Smith came to his death by a tree falling on him causing instant-death this happening on the plantation of N.S. Smith, on the 18th day of July 1871

N. B. Anderson November 30, 1891 in Youngstownship, Laurens County, SC morphine

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

Muse slave September 18, 1831 at the resident of Roger Parish, Kershaw County, SC

do upon their oaths sayeth that the sd. Slave above mentioned died by the visitation of God a natural death on the 18 Instant. . .by lying in the open air the weather being very cool and he being very old and very thin clothed

Murray P. Humphrey March 3, 1937 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say Murray P. Humphrey received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car and wagon collision in the hands of some bring unavoidable accident

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC
Mrs. M. C. Williams October 13, 1908 [at] Mrs. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Mrs. M.C. Williams did some to her death by a gun shot wound by George Williams . . .

Mrs. Gus Lynch December 20, 1921 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

We find that Mrs. Gus Lynch came to her death from collision between Seaboard Air Line train No. 4 and the automobile occupied by her and Mr. Ernest King at block house crossing, about 8:30 A.M., Dec. 20th, 1921

Mordicae Bloice May 14, 1818 at the flat [?] of Edylis[?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . . that the deceased Mordica Bloice came to his death by accidental drowning

Mma Mildred McDonald September 30, 1935 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Mia Mildred McDonald received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by being struck by an automobile in the hands of Frank Stokes, Jr.

Mitilda Gilbert September 26, 1876 at Isaac Gilbert's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death . . . being found lying at length in said spring being there drowned by misfortune or accident

Miss Lona Atkinson October 16, 1944 at McBee, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Lona Atkinson, L. J. Atkinson & Carolyn Atkinson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Car driven by Miss Thelma Moore in the hands of Thelma Moore

Minnie Johnson December 22, 1892 at John Bettis plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Minnie Johnson came to her death by strangulation caused by an accidental fall into shaws creek

Minnie Cason June 9, 1883 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the death of said Minnie was caused by falling into a well from 25 to 30 feet deep?

Mingo Mosley January 13, 1883 at Samuel[?] Corley's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Mindo Mosley came to his death by accidental burning

Milton Barter[?] youth August 24, 1849 at Capt. Andrew J Hammonds Mills, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say . . .by accidental drowning in Mr Andrew Hammonds Mill Pond

Milly Thomas October 8, 1878 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Milly Thomas came to her death from being crushed under the shafting in W.B. Creights gin room on the afternoon of the 7th October 1878 at Winnsboro.

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