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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
M. N. Chapman February 20, 1840 at or near Mt. Zion, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he was drowned by accidentally falling into the waters of Wilson's Creek while in the act of fishing

Jesse May 15, 1850 at Lyles Ford on the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man came to his dead by drowing or accident to the Jurors unknown

Lora slave January 6, 1852 at Gerrymiah Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child Lora she was accidently smothered by its mother

David Monson April 5, 1889 at Cheraw Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon thire oaths do says that his death was caused by accidental drowning and he died on the 4 day of april 1889

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."

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

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

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

John Harrington February 25, 1896 at Dr. J. W. McKay's Plantation on the Pee Dee River, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That John Harrington came to his death by accidental drowning

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

John Dawkins July 14, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

before their oaths do say that the said John Dawkins caused to his death by his own negligence

Sarah Arledge April 22, 1812 at Meeting House Branch, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oath that the said infant child as aforesaid came to its death by being lost in the woods & perished to death by hunger and cold on the night of the twelfth of this Instant on Meeting House Branch

Charles Flowers June 13, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I find that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

Matilda Tippins March 28, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that the said Matilda Tippins came to her death by accidental burnings

Mary Brown's infant at William Brice's place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that said infant came to its death by Accidental Suffocation.

Thomas J. Geer November 23, 1860 Thomas J. Geer's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say the said Thomas Green did . . . in the fore noon of the same day came to his death by fits and accidental drowning

Lila Washington February 20, 1879 at Wesley Barns Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Lila Washington came to her death by accident in catching on fire and Burning to death

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

Edgar Daniel July 26, 1886 at Jack Daniel's residence, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Edgar Daniel came to his death by accidental drowning, he, of his own accord, going too far into the deep water Broad River of J. L. Allison's place

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

Wilson M. Gilligan July 25, 1855 at the Jail of the Districtaforesaid in Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by Dorwning, cause unknown

Rachel McBurney October 21, 1833 in the house of Major James Barkley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced, they believe that on the morning of the 20th this instant, or some time in the night of the 19th, a small house adjoining the dwelling of the said Major James Barkley, occupied by said Rachel McBurney as a Bed Room, caught fire, how, not known, was consumed with the contents, and her, the said Rachel.

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

Elijah February 8, 1860 at the house of D.r J. H. Norman, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant Slave "Elijah" the property of Eliza Jane Hughes (A Mintor) came to its death by accident by being overlain either by its mother or another child of hers

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer . . .from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

Blanchy Wilson November 30, 1893 on the plantation of Robert Hastings, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at woods childs house. . .by a single barrel shot gun lying in the loft of said house and started to fall and Siche Chiles caught the gun and it struck the joist and fired

John L. Thorton Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John. L. Thornton Smith came to his death by accidental drownign in a water-course known as Lawson's Fork 1 1/2 miles distant from Spartanburg

Esther Jeter April 17, 1893 at Huiets x Roads, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Esther Jeter came to her death by accident. . .burned to death

infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said child. . .came to his death by accidental Suffocation

Violet Gray February 25, 1877 at the house of Violet Gray, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Violet Gray came to her death by accidentally falling into the fire and burning to death at her own home

William Hutchins December 9, 1840 at Equilla Burns's[?], Spartanburg County, SC

on oath that we believe that said child comes to his death by accident of falling or slipping in [the Maple Swamp] creek and being drowned near Wm. Smith's mill

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

Sue Simmons February 18, 1914 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Robert Burns February 3, 1873 at Alston, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by axidental Drowning

William McDonald December 25, 1803 in the District aforesaid, Laurens County, SC

Say upon there Oaths that the aforesaid Wm McDonal in Manor & form aforesaid was hurt & came to his Death By Misfortune...

App Chapman July 31, 1883 at the residence of J. D.[?] Chastern[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said App Chapman came to his death by misfortune.

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

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.

Maston Fuller September 21, 1916 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol wound accidentially discharge by his own hands

Walter Manningall November 21, 1906 at Clearview in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say Walter Manningall came to his death by accidental burning

Mrs. M. C. Williams October 13, 1908 [at] Mrs. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Mrs. M.C. Williams did some to her death by a gun shot wound by George Williams . . .

Eloise Bird April 23, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Eloise Bird . . .came to her death . . .by misfortune or accident

Howard Gale June 13, 1879 at Jacksons Holinns[?] Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oath do say that the Said Howard Gale came to his death by accidental droning

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