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 1 - 50 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Thomas Welheu[?] June 19, 1868 at Benjamin Better[?] wheat field on the Columbia & Augusta Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a pistol shot accidentally discharged by his own hands

Berry McLauren August 1, 1881 at Jas P. Brock's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Berry M Clarran came to his death by being accidently drowned in Brocks Mill.

Aaron Hardin June 24, 1845 at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC

do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.

Adam Hempley February 1, 1853 near Wilson Wingo's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe it. . .was caused by the falling of a limb from a tree he cut down himself

Peter Negro man December 30, 1859 at the Plantation of Mr Wm Bunch, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Peter. . .came to his death by the accidental falling of the top of a tree he appears himself to have cut down

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

Solomon negro man June 24, 1844 near the Mill of George A. McKee on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said negro came to his death by drowning

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

Mary Ann July 2, 1855 at the plantation of Henry Pitts on Walnut Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said nego Girl, Mary Ann, her lying dead came to her death by drowning in Walnut Creeke on the night of the first of July

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

A. L. Lattimore July 2, 1883 at Pacolet Cotton Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid A. L. Lattimore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Louisa Wooden October 13, 1893 at Mose Woden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Louisa Wooden came to her death by an accidental gunshot wound in the hands of Moses Wooden

Silas Cockrum April 28, 1858 at Jacks Bridge, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, that he was drowned near Jacks Bridge in Reedy river in said District, by accident or mischance

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

Washington negro man February 1, 1857 at Pullok[?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe Decsd Came to his death by misfortune though intoxication & exposure to rain & cold

Dobydick Golding May 12, 1875 at Office Trial Justice Bird, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Deceased Dobydick Golding came to his death in the County & State aforesaid on Saturday May 8th AD 1875 by a Gun Shot wound with a Shot Gun in the hands of one Duck Miller alias Fuller and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid. Do say that the aforesaid Doby Dick Golding came to his death by mischance by accidental discharge of a double barrel shot gun very carelessly handled by one Duck Miller alias Fuller.

George Fisher March 14, 1826 on the bank of the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

[upon their oaths] do say that the said George Fisher going into a certain River] called Broad River to fish traps for fish of his own will at a late hour of the night it happened that accidentally, casually, and misfortunate [he] was in the water of the said river then suffocated and drowned...and there instantly died

Charley Geeter October 27, 1881 at Violets Geeter's house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Charley Geeter came to his death by accident from fire

Unknown at the House of Frank Stephanie, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceasd came to his death from Accidental Smothering in bed at its Fathers house[.]

Jeff Jackson January 30, 1923 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I do not find it necessary to hold a formal inquest in my Judgment Jeff Jackson come to his death by mischance with out blame of on the part of any being person

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

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.

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

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

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

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

John Harrington February 25, 1896 at Dr. J. W. McKay's Plantation on the Pee Dee River, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That John Harrington came to his death by accidental drowning

John Elmore January 3, 1883 at Aaron Elmore home on LE Foleys plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Elmore came to his death by misfortune or accident

John Groce June 12, 1876 at John Groce's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he John P. Groce came to his death . . . by accidental drowning in the mill pond of W J Bates while bathing in company with P D Bates, Morgan Flynn and Benjame Cannon[?]

Augusta Sullivan August 4, 1896 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

from the best information could be gathered came to his death by misschance or by accidental drowning in the mill pond of J. A. McMillan

William Harlin February 19, 1856 at a new place sitting by Mr James Swearingem(Jr) on the Akien Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased William Harlin, came to his death by the cavin in and filling up with dirt the well in which he was engaged digging on the Siken Road

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."

Sam Malloy May 30, 1899 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

From the evidence I got from the party's there the deceased was accidentaly drowned

William Watson near the Harrison Ferry on the Wateree River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Watson came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun in his own hands, on the bank of the Wateree river on the afternoon of 30th day of Jan AD 1894[.]

Mary Robertson at the Gailiard grave yard, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased came to her death from internal hemorrhage, caused by having a premature birth produced by some cause unknown to the jury

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

William McDonald December 25, 1803 in the District aforesaid, Laurens County, SC

Say upon there Oaths that the aforesaid Wm McDonal in Manor & form aforesaid was hurt & came to his Death By Misfortune...

Infant son of Lee & Eliza Moore at the plantation of Mrs. N. Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say this child came to his death from some natural cause unknown to the Jury

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

Woodward King July 16, 1820 at Capt. Boles[?] Hamilton's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that from the examination of the corpse and information received from children they believe that he came to his death. . .by a shot from a pistol in the hands of his brother Mancel King aged ten years accidentally without any intention of killing

infant child infant child January 10, 1892 at Trenton, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deat was produced from suffocation . . . after a long spell of sickness

Sarah Arledge April 22, 1812 at Meeting House Branch, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oath that the said infant child as aforesaid came to its death by being lost in the woods & perished to death by hunger and cold on the night of the twelfth of this Instant on Meeting House Branch

Violet Gray February 25, 1877 at the house of Violet Gray, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Violet Gray came to her death by accidentally falling into the fire and burning to death at her own home

Lizzie Coleman at A.P. Irby's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child Lizzie, Coleman, came to her death by burning in a house on the Plantation of Capt A.P. Irby's the 21st of Nov 1884 the origin of the fire unknown to the jury[.]

Unknown infant December 28, 1880 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said Infant child came to his death by being accidently smothered

Angus Jefferson Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Angus Jefferson Smith came to his death by accidental drowning in a water course known as Lawson's Fork 1 /12 miles distant from Spartangburg C.H.

John L. Thorton Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John. L. Thornton Smith came to his death by accidental drownign in a water-course known as Lawson's Fork 1 1/2 miles distant from Spartanburg

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

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

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

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