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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Isaac Davis February 27, 1880 at Jas. R. McGills, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, the deceased came to his death by a well caving in, covering and smothering him to death at Jas. R. McGills, near Monticello. And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths, do say that Isaac Davis in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Dan Richardson June 28, 1890 at T.J. Sullivans Residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Dave Richardson came to his death from the inhalation of poisonous gas in a well on the premises of T.J. Sullivan

Mattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

Henry slave December 25, 1830 on public highway from Pendleton to Pickensville [modern-day Easley], Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Henry did come to his death?on the night of the 24th instant, by intoxication, or being intoxicated and lying out in the wet died of expsoure or?.came to his death by misfortune by the act of God.

Edinborough Ryan December 30, 1882 at Mrs D. L Bussy Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say ... that the said Edinborough Ryan Came to his death from cause unknown

Sherman Bowden May 7, 1878 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said Sherman Bowden while bathing in the Lawson's Fork Creek ... accidentally fell into water over his head and was drowned

Hannah White December 25, 1870 near William Pitts' dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hannah White in manner and form aforesaid came to her death, by being accidently burnt

slave child slave child December 31, 1846 at the plantation of Nathan Hawkins, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that it was either Smothered accidentaly or otherwise dyed natrualy

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

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

infant of Sam Coleman at the residence of Sam Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say that they believe the infant of Sam Coleman came to its death by asphyxia

Daisy Polk May 20, 1889 at Chesterfield CH, Chesterfield County, SC

upon thire oaths do Say That the said Daisy Polk came to her death by the accidental burning of the house

Emanuel slave March 12, 1856 at Matthew McGraw's plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say-that Emanuel was Killed by the fall of a tree

Robert Brownlee July 26, 1883 at Seneca River, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Robert Brownlee came to his death by drowning accidentally while swimming in Seneca River.

Jonathan Newman October 9, 1869 at the late residence of Jonathan C. Newman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say said deceased came to his death by the accidental or providential caving of a well at his own residence

S. F. White November 22, 1889 at or on General Bates Plantation, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Mr. S. F. White came to his death by falling into the fire while suffering from an epileptic fit

George Grant January 16, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Geo Grant came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound accidently inflicted by the hands of Edward Martin.

George Gardner January 22, 1935 in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Gardner received . . . mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hand of Rance Cue some being unavoidable accident

Milledge Fuller freedman February 18, 1867 at John Ransford plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .came to his death by a gun shot wound accidently done in the hands of Ellie a freedwoman

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

F. H. McNair February 2, 1899 on E.M. Wells' Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the jurors aforesaid do say that F H McNair in manner aforesaid came to his death by natural causes

Wesley Holiday September 14, 1883 at Joseph P. Nabor's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by its mother turning over on it in bed, which was as we believe an accident

Caroline Rhodes April 17, 1865 at Burnt Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by accidental drowning in Tyger River just below A. Floyd's mill dam

Maggie Henderson at the Dr. Sam Mobley place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Maggie Henderson came to her death from pistol shot wound, discharged by her sister, Millie Henderson accidentily between midnight and day on the 13th of Feb 1886 at the residence of Hall Henderson on the place of Caleb Craig[.]

Sally E. Hanna October 19, 1875 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Sallie E Hanna came to her death by being smothered, accidently during the night of the 18th Inst

Clarrisa Boyd May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death from the Effects fire being in a house that was burnt over her all by Accident or misfortune.

Benjamin Cockroft March 18, 1847 in the woods near the house of Beryman[?] Bledsoe, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oats do say that the said Benjamin Cockroft came to his death from the effects of being dissipation and lying on the cold ground

James Frazier Babie October 24, 1890 at D. B Hollingworth, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid James Frazier did die from Suffocation

William Johnson July 31, 1866 at David Gunter's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . in John L. Southern's mill pond by being drowned accidentally while bathing

Joseph Shaw July 26, 1858 at the residence of John H Shaw near Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joseph Shaw bathing in the Mill pond of Col H. H. Pickens. . .came to his death by accidental drowing

Edward Norris December 26, 1882 at the residence of Aaron Wells, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That on Friday the 22nd day of December 1882 Bil Norris went to Greenwood, and returned home late in the night, very drunk, and that on Saturday morning the 23rd day of Dec about 9 o'clock am the boy Edward decd. Was kicked by Bill Norris in his right-side the decd. lingered til the 26th day of December and died...

Infant of Rick Rogers Infant of Rick Rogers June 11, 1895 at J.B. Buchannon's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infant child came to its death from being accidently smothered in bed

Howard Gale June 13, 1879 at Jacksons Holinns[?] Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oath do say that the Said Howard Gale came to his death by accidental droning

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

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

Charles Flowers June 13, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I find that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

Jim Rice on James Jones' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oaths do "say" that Jim Rice in manner and form aforesaid caem to his death by a bucket fallin acidently on his head while walking in a well

Mary female Slave January 13, 1853 at Isaac Bowles[?], Edgefield County, SC

The jury find that the decased Mary came to her death by falling into the Said Mountain Creek and drowned

Margaret McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

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

Hanah infant Child November 2, 1861 at Cooperville, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child was found dead . . .from bieng overlaid by its parents or some other unknown means to them in bed

Eloise Bird April 23, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Eloise Bird . . .came to her death . . .by misfortune or accident

infant child infant child September 15, 1861 at the residence of Mrs Margret Willis, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said infant child of Elizabeth Hallman was. . .born dead being prematurely Delivered its Delivery being caused by and injury received by the mother in a fall

William Davis January 16, 1841 at or near the residence of Alex. McMakin, Spartanburg County, SC

[do say that] not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil came to his untimely end. . .by drinking intoxicating spirits to an excess and attemting [sic] to vomet [sic] and strangled so that he finally lost his Breath and departed this life

Hattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

Jack slave [runaway] November 21, 1835 at Andersonville, Anderson County, SC

do say that Elias E. Harrison ... a certain gun of the value of seven dollars then and there charged with gun powder and leaden buck shot, which he the said Elias E. Harrison then and there had and held in both is hands, then and there accidently and by misfortune and against the will of him the said Elias E. Harrison discharged and....and shot out of the said gun him the said negro man in and upon the right arm, shoulder and back of the head....ten wounds with said shot, which were mortal wounds

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

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