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 151 - 200 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Gertrude infant child December 1, 1891 at Edgfield Court house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that the infant received burns which caused death

Fanny July 22, 1856 at "Gressetts Landing or Store Landing" on the Waccamaw River, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said slave Fanny the porperty . . . of the said R. G. W. Grissett did on Sunday the 20.th Inst came to her death by Misfortune or accidental drowning

John Johnson March 2, 1814 at the plantation of John Mitchel, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the sd. John Johnson came to his death on the night of the 26th February last, by Drowning

Macomb Campbell March 10, 1873 at R. E. Evans', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Macomb Capbell came to his death by being accidently Burned

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

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

Frank Young in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the deceased Frank Young came to his death by accidental drowning

Cland Elam child March 17, 1892 at A. J. Norris Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Child Came to its death from a wound inflicted by fire accidentily

Henry male infant slave November 23, 1860 at Berry Shells House, Union County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the Decest Came to his death by accidental overlaying of his Mother & smothering to death

Ida Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

Eva Blocker February 11, 1893 at J. P. Wrights Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eva Blocker. . .came to her death by accidental burning

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

slave slave June 24, 1843 at Thomas Holland's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that according to evidence believe the said child was strangled to death by its mother's milk

William Sandy Little June 18, 1890 at the Belk Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said W.S. Little came to his death by accient from falling in the well & being drowned

Tom Purvis February 5, 1912 at T. A. Hendricks Res, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tom Purvis came to his death By Accidental Gun Shot wound in the Hands of Ray Hendrick

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

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

Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

H. C. Rudisail December 31, 1881 at Campobello, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht the said H. C. Rudisail deceased came to his death by apoplexy caused from over work by violent exertion of the body

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Isaac Grimer December 10, 1868 at Jacobs Branch on the Spaun Church road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Isaac Grimer came to his death on the Spann Church road near Jacobs Church ... by misfortune or accident

Jane Forgy March 10, 1896 on the plantation of Mattie McPherson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she the said Jane Forgy came to her death from the Effects of a gun shot wound from the hands of Tom Forgy by Accident on the 9th day of March inst.

Austin Dunlap April 10, 1894 at Waterman Robinson's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Austin Dunlap came to his death from the effects of burns received on the 9th of April 1894

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

Isaac Miller at Thomas W. Rables[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by a tree falling on him accidently.

West Myers boy August 8, 1866 on Washington [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that sd West Myers was accidentally drowned by Cicero Caveton[?]

Walden C. Sullivan September 12, 1893 at the house of Mr. John A. Sullivan, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Walden C. Sullivan came to his death by accidental smothering at the Residence of John A. Sullivan

Saul slave January 9, 1833 at Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Saul did unfortunately and accidentally fall from the dam or bridge

Willie Chappell June 18, 1882 at Badgetts quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Chappell came to his death at Badgetts quarter place in Laurens County on Sunday the 20th day of June AD 1882 That Lucinda Bradford the said Willie Chappell by misfortune and contrary to her will in manner and form aforesaid did kill...

Joe Malloy October 25, 1893 at George Lany's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joe Malloy came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in his own hands

Benjamin Freeman June 24, 1833 at the home of Isaac Hill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the sd. Benj. Freeman went into Tyger River a swimming or by some cause became drowned

Adam Wood December 5, 1880 at Cowpens Station on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased came to his death . . . by being run over or struck by the train on said road, receiving thereby such wounds as to cause his death

Thomas Thompson at Capt. Manus' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Thompson came to his death from the affect of a burn caused by falling in the fire[.]

David Garison February 23, 1823 [?] the house of David Garison, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they suppose the said David Garison get chilled to death from the inclemency of the weather and exposure.

John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

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

slave slave March 10, 1835 at the house of W.W. Dickies, Spartanburg County, SC

are of the opinion that she came to her death by taking a fit or spazm and falling into the fire and not being able to extricate herself burnt to death

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.

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

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

Hewlet Swangum July 21, 1883 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by drowning in Saluda River.

Tom Slave, old negro man January 12, 1853 near the residence of Harry Scott, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that the dead body of Tom lying in the branch near the residence of Henry Scott . . .came to his death, by accident or misfortune

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

Sloan freedman November 19, 1866 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [Sloan] came to his death by being burnt to death by the accidental burning of the Gin house of Major A. M. Hamilton. . .as the jury could ascertain in cause of the fire the presumption being that It was through matches, in the possession of the said Sloan

Elmer Brookfield March 17, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Elmer Brookfield received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun in the hands of Woodroe McQunn

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

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

William Godfrey October 19, 1873 near Leaterwood's Mills, Spartanburg County, SC

open [sic] their oaths do say that [deceased] did fall into a gully and being unable to get out did then and there die

Thomas Milane March 7, 1811 near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Milane came to his death by misfortune by a fall from his horse on this day.

Benjamin Anderson December 22, 1873 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Benjamin Anderson came to his death from excessive use of Liquor & exposure to cold

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