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 201 - 250 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
George Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

Thomas Davis March 30, 1884 at John Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Davis came to his death by misfortune or accident

Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley August 30, 1890 on the plantation of Capt Alex Henry's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said female child came to its death from "suffocation"

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

Seware[?] Stuart November 4, 1893 at J.[?] E. Griffiths, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Seware Stuart Came to his death by the accidental discharge of a 38 caliber Pistol, in the hands of William Griffith, holding by the brick[?] and seware Stuart carelessly playing with it, and said Pistol fired. . .it was intirely accidental

D. Stepp June 9, 1883 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said D. W. Stepp came to his death by being drowned accidentally in the Mill Pond at Hutchinson's Tan Yard

Simon slave December 24, 1830 at the house of Mrs. Mary Moore, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .he was burnt to death by accident in one of the the Negro houses of Mrs. Mary Moore

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

doth say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in crossing Enoree River got wash. Off his horse and got drowned.

Lucilla S. Gresham Chester Co., at Shelton Depot, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That L.S. Gresham in manner and form afresaid, came to her death by accident drown in broad river at Fish Dam Ferry on the 4th day of February 1895

Booker negro March 30, 1823 at the plantation called Flint Hill[?], Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the sd. negro. . .was axacery [sic] to his own death by drinking to [sic] much spirits and being exposed to the inclemency of the weather

John Harry February 2, 1827 at the House of John Harry, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their oathes that they are of opinion that the deceased came to his death by falling from his hors [sic] when he was driving his waggon in his own plantation

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

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

Proph[?] Fryday at Willson Fryday's, Fairfield County, SC

I am satisfied that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound on the evening of the 29 of March at or near his fathers house and that the gun was fired accidentally.

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

H. McKnight April 14, 1842 at the house of Thomas Tegues, Esq in the Town of Camden ... upon the view of the dead body of Henry McKnight who was found dead in the Wateree River near the bank of said river & raised by means of a hoop, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry McKnight came to his death by the visitation of God having fallen into the river supposed to have been in a fit and alone

Thomas Rosseter[?] August 30, 1852 at Hamburg SC, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he, said Thos Rosseter came to his death by drowning . . .in the street in the town of Hamburg, during the high water Backed[?] out from the Savannah River

Robert Anderson January 31, 1825 at the camp near the Wateree Canal, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Robert Anderson came to his death by a gun going accidentally off as William Forten was laying it up, the cock of said gun striking against the place where it was to be laid, which caused it to go off and the load was lodged in the neck of said Robert Anderson

John Maddox June 15, 1881 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the aforesaid John Madox came to his death by his own act of going into the Saluda in said county^ River and getting drowned.

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

London Byard October 8, 1870 at [?] Byers[?], Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hand of Providence by the falling of the earth on him in a ore[?] bank

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

Unknown Unknown March 29, 1922 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

(We find that the deceased come to his death by being burned in the guard house at McBee, S.C. supposed to have been trying to burn his way to free on the morning March 29th 1922)

James Adis June 13, 1818 Union County, SC

do say u[?] thr oaths that the desceased [?] come to his by being drowned

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Enoch Adams November 23, 1916 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death by caving in of Cotton Seed upon him at the Cheraw oil mill being smothered.

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

James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

Oscar Matthews November 23, 1877 at C.H.[?] Matthews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths say that the aforesaid Oscar Mathews came to his death on the 22nd day of November 1877 at the Mill dam by the accidental falling from the pear[?] trial[?] of the grist mill or from drowning after the fall unknown to the jury[.]

Tom W. Walters January 21, 1917 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Tom W. Walters came to his death by an accidental fall from theloft of Mungo Bros. Feed stables

Martha Boone January 16, 1896 at A. B. Merrimans place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Martha Boone came to her death by accidental burning

Milly Thomas October 8, 1878 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Milly Thomas came to her death from being crushed under the shafting in W.B. Creights gin room on the afternoon of the 7th October 1878 at Winnsboro.

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

George Dillard February 2, 1885 at Taylormill, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Dillard in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accidentally falling into the fire...

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

Eva Tucker May 29, 1894 at R. P. Tucker's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Eva Tucker came to her death from an accidental pistol shot wound in the hands of Wm M Chappell, inflicted on or about the 27th of April 1894

Thomas D. Cook April 10, 1854 at Stover's Ferry on Savannah River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Thomas D. Cook came to his death by accidental drowning

J. W. Park May 24, 1870 at Black Jack, Fairfield County, SC

The Jury having heard the testimony came to the conclusion that the deceased came to his death from drowning

Georgiana Fowler July 28, 1885 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Georgiana Fowler came to her death by a dislocation of the cervical vertebra from a fall in a fainting fit

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

Truman Miles October 22, 1839 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

do say that said Truman Miles. . . .at Anderson Court House was found dead that he had no marks of violence afore him and died by the [?] of God from the many severe falls he received when in a state of intoxication and not otherwise

John H Webb January 22, 1882 at James Webb Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do Say . . .that said John H Webb Came to his Death from Drowning in Sleepy Creek

Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lindy Jones March 15, 1882 at George Holingsworth House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say that Lindy Jones Came to her death from accidental Burning

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

William Fortune November 24, 1873 at Jerkens Stabberd, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We find that the deceased Wm Fortune came to his death by excessive use of ardent spirits and exposure to cold, producing Lung congestion of the lungs and other viscera.

Elizabeth Tillatson January 17, 1878 at Frances Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said P. Elizabeth Tillatson came to her death at the house of Frances Turner ... from fire, occurring in the house where she lived

Sarah Ann Howell May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Maggie Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

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