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 251 - 300 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Larie February 3, 1829 at the premises of Capt Nathan Sims, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Mr. Lary came to his death, in our opinion for want of attention in consequence of his own conduct exposing himself in bad weather from intoxication

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

Elenora Yongue near Struther[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elenora Yongue came to her death by accidental burning.

Willie Senteel August 9, 1885 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Willie Senteel came to his death by accidental drowning at Clifton

Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say . . .that the aforesaid sally . . .came to her death by misfortune or accident

Dick male slave July 13, 1859 at Ted Scurrys residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say. . .that he came to his death by going in to the Saluda River and got in Deep water an drowned

Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

Siller female slave November 12, 1842 at an oald wast house in the plantation of Mrs Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that . . .the said Siller axcidently caught fire in her beding whilst a sleep, and from inability to help her Self ware burned to death

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

Sylvester Robins September 20, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sylvester Robbins came to his death ... from the effect of falling behind the bed and being caught by the chin and head between the railing of the bed and the wall of the house

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

Ella Davis at the dwelling house of Alice Simms, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ella Davis, being a child of six years, and having been left alone in the dwelling house of said Alice Simms by the said Alice, the mother of said child, in the afternoon of the day aforesaid, no one being present and able to protect her, accidently took fire on her clothing and died from burning and suffocation[.]

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

Patrick Williams August 23, 1842 at the house of patrick Williams decsd, Union County, SC

do say that . . .Patrick Willaims came to his death by the fall of a certain oak tree which we found lying upon his Mangled body

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

Samuel H. Young May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Fletcher McFarland January 17, 1881 at Davis McFarlands, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Fletcher McFarland came to his death by being burned and that it was accidently

Samuel Harrison February 18, 1881 at [inelligible - faded], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say they Believe that . . .Samme Harison Came to his death by the Carlesnes of his Mother Milley Worthington

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

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

George Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths. . .by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

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[?]

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

Margret Douglass March 10, 1892 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Margaret Doublass came to her death by drowning while attempting to cross Thompson Creek near Craigs mill

Robert Brownlee July 26, 1883 at Seneca River, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Robert Brownlee came to his death by drowning accidentally while swimming in Seneca River.

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Infant of Solomon Huguy Infant of Solomon Huguy [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

J. G. Finney February 13, 1877 at the Residence of John Finney, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said deceased J G Finney came to his death by concussion of the brain caused by a fall from his horse on the 11th day of Feb 1877.

William Bradley December 29, 1841 at Elizabeth Eubank's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . drink & ardent spirits to an excess so as to intoxicate him so much as to render him incapible of helping himself to where he could have the benefit of fire, and only reached the edge of the field where in his residence was ... and there fell down and perished with Coald.

Infant of George and Ann Crawford Infant of George and Ann Crawford May 8, 1906 At G A S[??]cers, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: By strangulation the cause of which is unknown to Jury

W. T. Reid at Ridgeway, Fairfield County, SC

thinks that he came to his dath from extreme alcholism and exposure.

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

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

Emma Beser November 24, 1877 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emma Beser[?] came to her death by accidental drowning

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Willie Dunlap September 6, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

We the undersigned jurious find from the evidence given that Willie Dunlap came to his death by poison administered by an unknown person to us.

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

Calhoun Templeton February 3, 1892 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Calhoun Templeton came to his death on the 3rd day of Feb. A.D. 1892 at Laurens CH. By Accident, being burnt in a burning house on the plantation of JD Watts.

Muse slave September 18, 1831 at the resident of Roger Parish, Kershaw County, SC

do upon their oaths sayeth that the sd. Slave above mentioned died by the visitation of God a natural death on the 18 Instant. . .by lying in the open air the weather being very cool and he being very old and very thin clothed

Jerry May 16, 1808 at the Mill House of Henry Brockman, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, the said Negrow man Jerry came to his Death by being Intoxicated in Liquor and Indeavoring to cross the Enoree River... between Laurens & Spartanburgh Districts that then & there the sd. Negrow Jerry got strangled sufficated & Drowned & from all appearance contrary to the wife sd. Negrow by mischance 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

Butler Farmer December 20, 1890 on M B Pools Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Butler Farmer came to his death "from a gun shot wound from the hands of James Gowan or Henry Jones, supposed to be an accident."

James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

Mary Tottey January 3, 1814 Union County, SC

do upon their oaths say that the said Mary Came to her Death By the act of God By Droning

Alfred Gage May 21, 1890 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say that the said Alfred Gage came to his death "By Accidental Drowning in little river at the Mills at Milton.

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

infant March 20, 1883 at Jerry Frey's House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Jerry Frey's House ... said infant child came to its death by being miscarried at a stage too early for it to possibly survive

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