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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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")

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Dolly Young child March 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upont their oaths do say that the said Dolly Young . . . came to her death by accident or smuthering or by misclued[?]

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

Stephen slave December 18, 1860 at Mr. M. Mungo, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Stephen came to his death from a fall and which caused his neck to break

M. A. Lipscomb March 11, 1880 at late residence of David Lipscomb, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to her death from hemorhage caused by premature labor, said labor produced by diarhea

Thomas Henry October 20, 1817 at the Dweling Hous of Samuel, Union County, SC

do Say on their oaths tha Said Thomas Came to his Death By a [?] fall that Nathan[?] Howard [?] him By throwing him [?] his hous[?] in a [????]

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

Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Thomas child of Thomas M Chandler September 11, 1850 at Thos M. Chandler's house, and at the old Pottery, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death on the 8th ist by accidental drowning

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

Thomas Dalton February 8, 1882 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that in their opinion the said Thos Dalton by abcess on the[?] part of the head which was accidentally[?] effected and caused his death.

A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody May 13, 1889 on the plantation of M.B. Pool, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child died by strangulation accidental.

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Aleck Dorsey March 23, 1877 at J.W. Coleman's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he come to his death by the accidental burning of a house on the above noted plantation on the 22nd day of March A.D. 1877 about 8 or 9 O Clock in the morning

Robert Johnston May 23, 1891 at Clarks Ferry below bridge on C. & G.[?] R R, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by Mischance and accidentally falling into Saluda river

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

Daniel Bragg February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in striving to save a negroe man he got drowned.

Dora Woods May 3, 1885 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "By accident or mishap by a fall from the banister or shelf of the piazza while playing there."

James Gage April 12, 1865 at the house of R.T. Yarboroughs house, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say. That according to the evidence of witnesses, in above case, James Gage came to his death by the accidental falling upon his head, a large and heavy Well Bucket, filled by him with water and mud, while he was cleaning out Mr. R.T. Yarborough's well-Said accident having occured, by the slipping loose of a knot in the end of the rope, which said James Gage, himself, had tied and affixed to the well Bucket.

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

Peter Redfearn December 28, 1870 at Hornsboro, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peter Redfearn came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the left foot the gun accidently firing while in the hands of Ben Lowry

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

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

H. L.[?] Davis Fairfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

John Marshell Pages August 9, 1901 at F. Sherrell's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Marshell Pages came to his death by accidental drowning

Tom slave October 25, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Tom [a] slave of Joseph Murphy came to his death by a fall from a log and broke his neck

Hollan April 29, 1856 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, tha the said Girl Hollan came to her Death by accidental Drowning

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

Avery slave November 14, 1831 at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

Margret Ann Kinncade at W.B. Murry's Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death from a burn by accidently catching on fire, Sept the 3d, 1886[.]

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

slave slave October 30, 1840 at Wiley Kelly's, Kershaw County, SC

do say on their oaths that the slave infant came to her death by Accident

J. B. Deas February 6, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J. B. Deas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Single Barrell Shot gun in the hands of Durant Easterling & Sinclair Sellers

Kitty Young near Rock City, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Kity Young came to her death from a pistol shot wound, the pistol being fired by her little brother Johnnie Young, and that the shooting was purely accidental.

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

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

[No official declaration]

James Edwards little boy January 14, 1876 at Enoree Church, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid James Edwards came to his death by being accidentally burnt by his clothers taken on fire

Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

George Craig January 19, 1825 at the house of Mathew Richmond, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that, according evidence and their own belief a tree which he assisted to cutdown, by misfortune fell on him and broke his scull on the evening of the 18th.

Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

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

Rebecca Sherman child January 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the deceased Rebeccas Sherman came to her death . . .from the effects of an accedental burn

David West boy January 30, 1862 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that it was by accidently drowning in the Graniteville Factory canel

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