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
Hampton Reynolds July 30, 1892 at J.W. Reynolds Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Hampton Reynolds Came to his death from burns received by Explostion from Engine

Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

William Hopkins at J. Feaster Lyles' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun in the hands of Robert Hopkins[.]

Crispan Smith December 5, 1836 at the house of George Smith, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he died by the visitation of god in a natural way by accidentaly getting frozen to death

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

Older son of Joe Cunningham Older son of Joe Cunningham March 26, 1908 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Elizabeth Tillatson January 17, 1878 at Frances Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said P. Elizabeth Tillatson came to her death at the house of Frances Turner ... from fire, occurring in the house where she lived

Nettie Mae Bennett November 9, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Nettie Mae Bennett received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by shot gun in the hands in the hands of Derk Gardin (accidental)

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

Eva Blocker February 11, 1893 at J. P. Wrights Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eva Blocker. . .came to her death by accidental burning

Isaac Davis February 27, 1880 at Jas. R. McGills, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, the deceased came to his death by a well caving in, covering and smothering him to death at Jas. R. McGills, near Monticello. And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths, do say that Isaac Davis in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

David McClellan November 27, 1857 at residence of David McClellan, Anderson County, SC

do say that by the evidence of his wife & daughter that he was hunting a cow & found her mired was found dead near the cow lying across a pole from apperion[?] he had been trying to prize the cow out and we come to the conclusion that he came to his death by the fall

Koon female child April 23, 1836 at the house of Davin M[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said child . . .died by the visitation of God by accidentally Getting Droud in the Spring

Rachail Langley December 30, 1878 in Spartanburg Co., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... the said Rachail Langley came to her death from indigestion caused by eating too much heartily of unwholesome diet

John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

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

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

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.

George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

James Lee March 1, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Lee received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Exposure Caused by Extreme Drunkenness

Charles negro boy November 14, 1842 On Mr Thos Oliver's Plantation, at or near Said Oliver's residence, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the boy Charles . . .came to his death by being burnt to death in an old house, accidently caught fire in some unknown or misterious way to us

infant child infant child November 23, 1891 at the plantation of Willis Owdom[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it died from strangulation

Caroline Rhodes April 17, 1865 at Burnt Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by accidental drowning in Tyger River just below A. Floyd's mill dam

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

Thomas D. Cook April 10, 1854 at Stover's Ferry on Savannah River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Thomas D. Cook came to his death by accidental drowning

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

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

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.

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

Robert McCants January 27, 1817 at the house of Samuel Alston, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Robert McCants came to his death at sometime about Half a Mile from his own House by intoxication and exposure to the cold.

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

Samuel Brock Sr. March 23, 1884 at Samuel Brocks Sr, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Samuel Brock Sr came to his death by being burned to death in his own hous supposed accidently

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.

Dick Keith January 6, 1877 at George Lound's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Dick Keith came to his death by freezing to his death from exposure to the cold

Benjamin Grady August 28, 1886 at Brocks Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Benjamin Grady came to his death by being accidently Drowned in Brocks Mill Pond on 27th day of August 1886

William White December 10, 1898 at Savanah River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That the deceased William White came to his death by accidental drowning

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

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

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

Eldrige Padgett February 9, 1859 at Eidson Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the decased came to his death by being intoxicated and caught on fire and burnt to death in his own house

Green Kerley December 31, 1869 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the said Green Kerley came to his death by a fall from a third story window in the Hotel to the pavemen, while laboring under a fit of delerum [?].

Hannah Lee March 7, 1893 at Moor Church, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceased came to her death from natural causes

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

Sam October 31, 1840 at the house of Nelson [?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Sam came to his death by the shot of a gun -which gun was accidently shot by a negro boy Allen about 8 years of age

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

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

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 Henry Goudelock June 3, 1882 at Bethlehem Grove Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being burned in the dwelling house of Jane Goudelock which is included in Laurens County, State of South Carolina. The cause or origin of the said fire is to this jury unknown.

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

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