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
Elijah Sullivan April 24, 1898 at Cow-buel[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he died from heart failure and the falling of tree across him by accident

William Moore April 15, 1893 in a lake near little river, Laurens County, SC

Being a lawful Jury of inquest and being charged and sworn to inquire for the State of S.C. how and by what means the said Wm. Moore came to his death on the 14th of April inst. In Laurens County By Accidental drowning, in a lake near little river.

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

Duff Gist June 20, 1893 at Beaver Dam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Duff Gist came to his death from Congestion of the Bowels.

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

Lincoln Gregory March 5, 1938 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lincoln Gregory received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hands of Bryalus McManns

Lewis Bradley Laurens County, SC

we the jury find in our opinion that Lewis Bradlet Died in Laurens County on the 29th day of Decr. 1894 from great Exposure in the [extreme?] cold, and that no one is to blame as far as we know, for his death.

Washington Cash March 8, 1873 at Cash's Depot, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Washington Cash came to his death by tetanus or lock jaw caused by some accident unknown to the Jury.

Ludley February 8, 1860 at Conwayboro in Horry District (near the River Landing), Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say tha the said Slave "Ludley" the property of D. W. Jordan came to his death by accidentally falling from a Flat the property of his master into the Reiver and was drowned

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

slave slave January 25, 1836 at the plantation of Daniel L. Desaushore[?], Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being intoxicated, falling in a rut or gully and thereby the storm[?] rain & sleet has drowned or frose [sic] to Death

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

John Prince July 15, 1856 at Miles[?] Southerns[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by the excessive use of [?] liquors and lying in the hot sun.

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave May 30, 1847 at the house of Mrs Sarow Brandons, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child dyed by the visitation of god or [?] have been axcidently Smothered by its mother

negro negro February 3, 1838 at Maj. John Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we find that the boddy upon examination is a negro man and it is our opinion that he came to his death by drowning & probably was drowned in crossing the Camden Ferry on the night of the 23d of Dec'r last

Maggie Henderson at the Dr. Sam Mobley place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Maggie Henderson came to her death from pistol shot wound, discharged by her sister, Millie Henderson accidentily between midnight and day on the 13th of Feb 1886 at the residence of Hall Henderson on the place of Caleb Craig[.]

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.

Abram negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at Henry L Maysons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Abram came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the savanah river

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.

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 Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning . . . near McBees Mills in Reedy River

Isaac Miller at Thomas W. Rables[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by a tree falling on him accidently.

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

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

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

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

Joe Alexander Ryan October 24, 1912 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death in an accidental fall in the arms of his mother

Elsie Williams June 28, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elsie Williams did on this place on the 29th day of June 1886-accidentally receive in her abdomen a pistol shot which caused her death on the 1st day of July 1886

Friday slave October 6, 1830 at the house of Robt Martin, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the sd Friday a slave came to his death by accident . . .on tyson River by the water wheel of Gd[?] Mill catching him the sd Friday a slave between the arm of Gd[?] wheel and a sile near it

infant child infant child December 9, 1891 at a colored cemetary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death from the burns that was found upon its body

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.

Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

Peggyann 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.

Everett Hook July 18, 1891 at the saw Mill of M J Hook, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by accidently falling upon a cicular Saw While in Motion

Clarrisa Boyd May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death from the Effects fire being in a house that was burnt over her all by Accident or misfortune.

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

Unknown June 26, 1856 at a spot near the Wateree River and on or near the Road leading to Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after such examination as was in their power to make they are clearly of opinion that the decased came to his death by falling into the ditch leading from Bolton's[?] Branch while in a state of intoxication and being unable to help himself was drowned

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

Viola 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.

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said slave John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

infant April 15, 1879 at the house of Mrs. Mary Smith, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the infant aforesaid came to its death ... from the ignorant neglect of said child by Sarah D. Smith, the mother of said child without intent to murder the child upon her part

infant January 28, 1863 at Cannon's Old Grave yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased child came to its or her death by carelessness or mismanagement or misfortune at the house of Jefferson Saterfield

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

slave slave June 24, 1843 at Thomas Holland's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that according to evidence believe the said child was strangled to death by its mother's milk

Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody May 13, 1889 on the plantation of M.B. Pool, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child died by strangulation accidental.

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC
Alexander Martin September 8, 1867 at the residence fo B.W. Knight, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander L. Martin came to his death by the falloing of a tree some of the limbs striking dec'd on the back of the head neck and shoulders

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

Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old May 15, 1893 on the plantation of D.D. Simpson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said colored man came to his death from inflamation of the left hand and arm of phlegmonous character and for want of proper attention, that he died some time about the 13th inst.

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