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
John A. Motz October 18, 1886 at the Brewer Gold Mine, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John A. Motz came to his death by a falling rock from the east side of the quarry at the Brewer Gold mine where he at that time was turning a drill, 10 minutes till 2 O'clock P.M. the falling rock strick his head, and pushed it against another rock, which crushed his brains out.

Sarah Robison June 30, 1806 at Abraham Maddens Mill, Laurens County, SC

Do say on there oaths that fore said Sarah Robison came to her Death by Misfortune.

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 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

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

Mary Thompson June 12, 1878 Anderson County, SC

find that the child has been burnt on the spinal [?] a place as large as a [?] also burnt on the [?] and near mostly all over its body as pieces between [?] as to the cause of her death is from constriction of the brain.

Glasco Ferly at the house of Glasco Ferly, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said colored Ferly came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentily inflicted upon himself

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.

John Stafford December 16, 1831 Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths he came to his death by accidentally drowning in a state of intoxication

J. F. Styron April 21, 1891 at residence of J. F. Styron[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said J. F. Styron dropped dead in his field from being over heat while engaged in burning logs and in such heat drinking big drought of cold water and as the Physician tells us from heart failure

John Shumport[?] November 7, 1851 at John Shumports[?], Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that John Shumport . . .did come to his death by misfortune or accident

Charles Hobbs October 1, 1817 on the highway near John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

Do say uppon there oaths after hearing all the Evidence that cold [sic] be obtained that it is there oppinion that through Intoxication he fell from his hors [sic] and Sufficated [sic] in the mud and watter as it was a Night of Very hard Rain and he was found in a hollow and partly covered with mud and the same.

Pressly Foster boy August 1, 1882 at Mr. Wm G[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .came to his death by falling in a branch in an epileptic fit & causing strangulation

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

slave slave January 17, 1827 near McRae's mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to it by intemperate drinking & exposure to the cold in an open field

Aggey September 14, 1830 near the house of Edward P. Mobley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that said Negroe Aggey came to her death on the night of the 11th this instant by the breaking of a joist or two in a house, which fell on her

Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

James Graham June 8, 1858 at the place known as the public square in Logtown, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jame Graham here lying dead came to his death from intemperance and exposure

Female Infant of Milly Campbell Female Infant of Milly Campbell October 17, 1867 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that it came to its death by accidental Suffocation.

infant infant January 24, 1893 at Clintonwards, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant of Millie Hamond came to its death by a cause unknown

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

Male Infant Male Infant March 20, 1884 at the Jeff Sumerel place, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say; that the deceased male infant came to his death by suffocation or mischance. . .

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

Griffin Infant Childe December 26, 1860 at Andy [?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say the child come it death by accident or mischance by smuthering or some way unknown

Earl Rivers October 14, 1909 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

Upon hearing the above evidence I decided that it was accidental and it was not necessary to have a formal inquiry Saul H. Reid

John Shockley July 27, 1865 at John Shockley's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said disseast came to his death by misfortune or accident

Henry Ethredge June 2, 1899 at the plantation of P.B. Mayson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Henry Ethredge came to his death from foul air in the well

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

Wade Harper September 3, 1924 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Wade Harper, about 17 years old, son of J. F. Harper, of Cheraw S.C. came to his death at Anderson's Mill, Cheraw, by mischance, without blame on the part of another person

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child . . .died by accidentally getting Smothered

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

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC
infant slave infant slave December 30, 1857 at Isaac Gregorys house, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that . . . it came to its death by accidental overLaying or strangling by the mothers breast

William Bently March 21, 1851 at Wm Bently's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that the said Wm Bently came to his death . . . by a wall plate that fell from the top of the house which he was Building which was by misfortune or accident

John D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

Mordicae Bloice May 14, 1818 at the flat [?] of Edylis[?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . . that the deceased Mordica Bloice came to his death by accidental drowning

A. R. Steel girl child August 28, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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[.]

Bailey Redman June 28, 1817 at Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon there [sic] oaths. . .that his death was caused by [swimming] over the dam

Edward Huntly December 31, 1907 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Mattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

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."

W. H. Davis November 1, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that W. H. Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by gun shot in the hands of self-inflicted accidentally

Infant child of Amanda Williams at the residence of Alex Cockerell, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say having viewed the dead body of Amanda Williams infant and heard the evidence of witnesses and this our verdict that it came to its death form congestion of the lungs.

Eugenia Richardson on James McGill's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she was accidently over layed by her mother and smothered to death, and came to her death by misfortune or accident.

Mary McDaniel January 13, 1891 at Burnside, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mary McDaniel came to her death by accidental drowning

[illegible] [illegible] November 17, 1920 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jurors find that the Cause to her death by Coming in Cantack with live wire [???] Light & [???] [???]

Joseph Powel August 18, 1879 at [??], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the said Jos Powel came to his death by accidental drouding on Sunday evening crossing Logg creek

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