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
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

A. J. Means March 1, 1875 at Sam'l Means, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths . . .do say that the aforesaid Means came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in the hands of Pinkney Brewton [?]

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

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

female child female child May 19, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the unknown female child . . . came to her death. . . by mischance or accident or from causes to this jury unknown

Rosa M. Smith October 11, 1877 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rosa M. Smith came to her death by means of accidental burning

Enoch McLean August 27, 1840 at Wm C. Brown's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .came to his death by misfortune or accident

Jesse Bell January 20, 1839 at the House of Mrs Elizabeth Ward, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - We find that the deceased came to his death on the night of the 19th Instant by immersing himself in Little River near Laurens Court House having been chased by dogs and pursued by men until he was over heated - That we are of opinion that the length of time he remained in the water was the principle cause of his death...

Samuel Negro Man Anderson County, SC

the Decd had been missing ever since Sunday. . .he would search the Mill pond as he had been seen in the neighborhood?and found him floating on the water in the pond about 12 feet from the Dam. . .That he knew of no enemy the Decd had had never heard of any threats--thought it was accidental.

Duke negro man March 25, 1855 near Dennis Carpenters, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid negro slave name Duke. . .did come to his death from intemperance and exposure

Medora Williams April 4, 1878 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Medora Williams while alone in her house ... fell into the fire and was burned to death while suffering from a fit or fainting

Rody Kennedy November 30, 1830 at the house of Rody Kennedy, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rody Kennedy came to his death on the morning of this day on his own plantation by means of the contents of a loaded shot gun being discharged in his body. The Jurors aforesaid say they have no positive evidence the gun was discharged, but from the circumstances coming before them and have no doubt it was discharged by the said Rody Kennedy himself.

Mary female Slave January 13, 1853 at Isaac Bowles[?], Edgefield County, SC

The jury find that the decased Mary came to her death by falling into the Said Mountain Creek and drowned

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

Chas. Youngue at the plantation of Dr.[?] B. Estes, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that-Charles Youngue died from the effect of being drowned

Sarah Farmer July 14, 1878 at Williams Goodwin Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Sarah Farmer came to her death from a pistol shot taken affect just above the right Eye and that the pistol was supposed to be in the hands of the deceased and that it was accidental

Miles Robuck December 16, 1856 at the house of S.S. Roebuck, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by having his head crushed between the head block and one of the arms of the Cog wheel of a Cotton Gin, that the said Miles Roebuck came to his death in manner and form aforesaid, by misfortune or accident.

Sarah Lucas October 30, 1890 at Mr. M L Holson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death by being Burned to death by fire from accident

Smith June 9, 1876 near R. H. Anderson's Tanyard, Anderson County, SC

do say that . . .the said Smith was accidentally drowned in a race dith; that is to say the said Smith in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Jack February 12, 1830 at John McClintock's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths they believe he came to his death by burning and not otherwise.

Hattie Smalls at C.B. Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hattie Smalls, in manner and form aforsaid came to her death by having burned[?] to death accidently

Unknown infant December 28, 1880 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said Infant child came to his death by being accidently smothered

John Young June 27, 1891 at the residence of John Young, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Young came to his death from sum Strok

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death . . .by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing . . .or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

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

Fleetwood Moody May 20, 1936 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Fleetwood Moody received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burned in the hands of origin unknown . . . came to his death from burns and suffocation origin unknown

Jesse Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Berry McLauren August 1, 1881 at Jas P. Brock's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Berry M Clarran came to his death by being accidently drowned in Brocks Mill.

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
Ned December 12, 1835 at Joel Dendys, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths the deceased came to his death by the Effects of Cold and other causes not Known.

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

Adam Hempley February 1, 1853 near Wilson Wingo's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe it. . .was caused by the falling of a limb from a tree he cut down himself

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

Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

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

Infant of Rick Rogers Infant of Rick Rogers June 11, 1895 at J.B. Buchannon's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infant child came to its death from being accidently smothered in bed

Thomas Bramblet May 28, 1889 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Bramblet came to his death by being accidentally struck by the Hose Reel, near the Greenville Laurens RR trestle on the evening of the 27 of May 1889.

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

Frank Young June 28, 1874 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Frank Young (colored) while bathing in Broom's Mill Pond in said County before noon on the 27th day of Juned 1874, did then and there come to his death by accidental drowning;

F. H. McNair February 2, 1899 on E.M. Wells' Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the jurors aforesaid do say that F H McNair in manner aforesaid came to his death by natural causes

Elleck free boy December 13, 1866 at Johnathan Gregorys, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a Gun. . .that Elleck free boy in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accident

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

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

John Whitlock boy September 8, 1869 at Grainteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an act of Providence being subject to fits

James Owens March 13, 1885 at James Owens's house, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that ... James Owens came to his death by misfortunte or accident

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

Rebecca Sherman child January 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the deceased Rebeccas Sherman came to her death . . .from the effects of an accedental burn

Willie Featherston December 29, 1875 at Ridgeway, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Featherston came to his death, on Wednesday after noon, from a Knife wound, inflicted by himself, in the lower part of the Sternum, as we believe by accident

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