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 Datesort ascending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Fannie Dennis March 6, 1950 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Farris Dennis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Car-Truck Collision in the hands of Tim Robinson

Flora Bell Ford October 18, 1948 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Flora Bell Ford received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Ford Automobile in the hands of William Sanders

Robert Paul Harden April 5, 1948 at McBee, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Robert Paul Harden received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Collison with truck in the hands of J. H. Harman . . . The jury recommends that J. H. Harman not be held responsible

Betty Jo Edgeworth February 18, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC bus

upon their oaths do say that Betty Jo Edgeworth received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a tree falling on school Bus. . . & recommend that Mr. Jessie McManus & crew be held not responsible -- Unavoidable

Sam King February 13, 1948 at McBee, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Sam King received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Car in the hands of Miltard E. Gilbert. . . The Said Mr. Sam King Came to his death by a car driven by Mr. M. E. Gilbert & recommend he be not held responsible (unavoidable)

Fletcher Boan October 25, 1947 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say that Fletcher Boan received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by________ in the hands of_________

James Walters October 21, 1947 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC boat

Came to his death by accidental drowning

Dorothy Wise July 29, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Dorothy Wise received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by_________ in the hands of E. W. English

Hester Johnson Shaw July 19, 1947 McBee, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Mrs. Hester Johnson Shaw received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pontiac Automobile in the hands of Sgt. James Holly

Redmer A. Burch June 20, 1947 at Mt Croghan, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Redmer A. Burch received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Car Chrysler, License #D34072

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

James Purdie 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

James David Mauldin April 8, 1946 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that James David Mauldin received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile in the hands of Herman Vaughn

James Lynch December 29, 1945 at Mt Croghan, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that James Lynch received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by J. U. Eudy Car Accident in the hands of J. U. Eudy - Unavoidable

John T. Parker November 23, 1945 at Chesterfield, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John T. Parker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns suffered in House fire, Origins Unknown

Fred Demby October 12, 1945 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say: Fred Demby came to his death by a car being driven by the hands of Abe Clark

George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Carolyn 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

L. J. 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

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

Betty Lou Burch May 29, 1944 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Betty Lou Burch received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car in the hands of Thomas Jack Welsh

Lee Blakney February 25, 1944 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC plank

upon their oaths do say that Lee Blakney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Planer Hill in the hands of Self. . . Lee Blakney came to his death, by accident, while operating a planer.

Lola W. Curry December 8, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Lola W. Curry received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 1935 Ford Car in the hands of Abraham Parsons

Bare Sikes November 24, 1943 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC bus

upon their oaths do say that Bare Sikes received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Green City Bus in the hands of H. M. Smith, driver

Mattie Malloy September 7, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Mattie Malloy received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car wreck in the hands of Tanny Mathews

Adolphus E. Tucker August 11, 1943 at Ruby, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Adolphus E. Tucker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Ford Car in the hands of J. C. Hinson

Tom Melton July 26, 1943 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Tom Melton received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Truck in the hands of Joe Maree

James Warren Blackmon November 2, 1942 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that James Warren Blackmon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Steam Shovel bed & Tract of Trailer in the hands of Operated by W. E. McDaniel

Devoid Gulledge September 10, 1942 at Patrick, S.C, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Devoid Gulledge received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Transport Truck in the hands of Gordon Deardorff

Marim Evans Hudson July 28, 1942 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Marim Evans Hudson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol accidently discharged in the hands of Ira W. Boun, Jr.

Hampton Stokes October 13, 1941 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Hampton Stokes received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by being hit by automobile accidently in the hands of Mrs. Grace M. Stetzel

Margret Faye Davis September 22, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Margret Faye Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by being hit accidently by an automobile in the hands of Robert Lee Smith

Alexander "Boyd" Jackson September 17, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Alexander Jackson Theodore Niveis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by ______ in the hands of by Drowning

Theodore Niveis September 17, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Alexander Jackson Theodore Niveis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by ______ in the hands of by Drowning

Glenn Strong August 31, 1941 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Glenn Strong received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by apparently stuck by North Bound Seaboard Air Line Train

Jessie Lee Jordon August 25, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Jessie Lee Jordon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile in the hands of Joe Watts, Jr.

Marion Tolson July 28, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Marion Tolson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by truck in the hands of Will Crawford - accidently

Harvey Black July 8, 1941 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Harvey Black received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile in the hands of Daniel S. McNeil

Fletcher Forest Hankins June 18, 1941 at Jefferson, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

[No official declaration]

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

W. H. Davis November 1, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that W. H. Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by gun shot in the hands of self-inflicted accidentally

J. R. Gainey Jr. September 30, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. R. Gainey, Jr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by causes unknown in the hands of unknown

H. M. Smith September 23, 1940 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC motorcycle

upon their oaths do say that H. M. Smith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by motorcycle collision with tree in the hands of own hands accidently

William L. Stubbs Sr. August 4, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that W. L. Stubbs, Sr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by mortal wound by being stuck in the hands of by Truck in the hands of Paul Adams

Joseph Homer Lavinge July 5, 1940 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Joseph Homer Lavinge received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile Wreck in the hands of Billie Nicholson

Lennie Pope January 24, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Heck Curry, Tom Oliver, Lennie Pope received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile collision in the hands of Heck Curry

Tom Oliver January 23, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Heck Curry, Tom Oliver, Lennie Pope received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile collision in the hands of Heck Curry

Heck Curry January 22, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Heck Curry, Tom Oliver, Lennie Pope received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile collision in the hands of Heck Curry

Hazel Keith December 18, 1939 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Hazel Keith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car driven by London Jenkins

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