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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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.

Samuel Whillow December 17, 1818 Laurens County, SC

We the Jurors after having been lawfully summoned, & sworn by James Watts having examined the body of decsd. Give it as our opinion that sd. Whillow came to his death by reason of his being very much intoxicated with ardent spirits & in attempting to go home some time about dark forced his young horse in saluda river at Childs' Ferry & drowned...

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

William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

Harry slave August 13, 1807 at McRae & Cantey's Merchant (grist) mill, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave came to his death by misfortune

William Watson near the Harrison Ferry on the Wateree River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Watson came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun in his own hands, on the bank of the Wateree river on the afternoon of 30th day of Jan AD 1894[.]

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Josephine A. Brookes Thrift infant child March 28, 1860 at Delila Jenkinses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the child came to its death by being smothered by its mother by accident

Collen Baskins August 4, 1885 at Josh Baskins, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tat the Said Collen Baskins came to his death by being acly Drowned

Willie Chappell June 18, 1882 at Badgetts quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Chappell came to his death at Badgetts quarter place in Laurens County on Sunday the 20th day of June AD 1882 That Lucinda Bradford the said Willie Chappell by misfortune and contrary to her will in manner and form aforesaid did kill...

J. G. Finney February 13, 1877 at the Residence of John Finney, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said deceased J G Finney came to his death by concussion of the brain caused by a fall from his horse on the 11th day of Feb 1877.

African Negroe Man African Negroe Man January 20, 1807 at the Common Gaol, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid African negroe man slave, on the night between the nineteenth and twentieh day of this instant being confined in the common gaol of Laurens district aforesaid, then and there died of the visitation of God, he having forzen to death, not having since sufficient to keep on his clothing, which was furnished by the gaoler of the said District, he having in the room in which he was confined by himself, four blankets, and when found being entirely naked, and then and there in manner & form aforesaid came to his death and not otherwise.

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

[No official declaration]

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

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.

Austin Dunlap April 10, 1894 at Waterman Robinson's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Austin Dunlap came to his death from the effects of burns received on the 9th of April 1894

George Keerison November 22, 1856 at Alston Depot, G & C.[?] R. Road, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say,- that according to the testimony given, the said George Keerison was crossing Broad River on the G & 6 R.R. Bridge at Alston in a state of intoxication on the 4th instant, and accidentally fell off said Bridge, which was the cause of his death

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

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

John Young October 1, 1857 in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the jury after hearing the evidence offered to us on the above inquest find that the deceased came to his death by an injury or hurt received in the suffer with James Guy, either by a from said Guy or by falling upon Guys knee when said was fallen down

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

John Watson May 23, 1892 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death "by Accidental Gun Shot in his own hand on the 22 day of May 1892

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

Elliott Wilson at A.W. Ladds', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say he was killed by a tree being accidentally fell upon him

George February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

doth say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in crossing Enoree River got wash. Off his horse and got drowned.

John Thomas October 6, 1852 at Line Creek, Greenville County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they think he much intoxicated, and in attempting to crop[?] the River fell off on a rock under the Bridge broke his skull and so stunned him that he was immediately drowned

Eliga Clark April 18, 1906 at Purvis Brige in Cheraw Town ship, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Eliga Clark came to his death by causes unknown to the jury

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

Samuel Williams at Major Wilkes' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Samuel Williams came to his death by the falling timbers from the house, caused by a severe storm on the night of the 19th of February 1884.

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...

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.

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

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

Alcy negro child July 22, 1851 at B. J. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the dieast came to its death by being overlaid by its mother

John Findley March 22, 1819 at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

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

Gabriel Gibson April 18, 1819 at Elbethel Meeting house, Union County, SC

Doe say upon their oaths that . . .Gabriel Gibson Came to his End By Mischance & Say that he was Spliting Roling Down A Decent

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.

Zechariah Tottey December 4, 1806 at the Mill River, Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Totty Came to his Death we Belive By toxication[?] in [?] and [?] By haggs[?] in a [?]

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.

Sloan freedman November 19, 1866 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [Sloan] came to his death by being burnt to death by the accidental burning of the Gin house of Major A. M. Hamilton. . .as the jury could ascertain in cause of the fire the presumption being that It was through matches, in the possession of the said Sloan

Emanuel slave March 12, 1856 at Matthew McGraw's plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say-that Emanuel was Killed by the fall of a tree

Polly December 25, 1866 at Darlings Lake, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that She came to her death by accident or mischance

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

John Benjamin October 16, 1893 at a mill in Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Benjamin did come to his death by misfortune or accident.

Francis Sanders April 27, 1848 at Sakin's[?] Mill, Fairfield County, SC

we the Jurors do find and [?] that the said Francis Sanders; came to his death by drowning in the Broad River on the 26th[?] April 1848.

Callen O'Neall November 11, 1855 at Luke Havirds[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Callen Oneall came to his death. . .By drinking too much liquor and supposed to have strangled to death by Throwing up

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

Daniel October 8, 1834 at Maj. John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths that from evidence that the said Negro came to his Death by Mischance by plunging into the River at or near the head of Maj. John Black's Millhouse in said District through fear dogs which were threatened by calling & encouraging of a Negro man, Doc, the property of Reginald Duncan by order of John Odell, supposing him to be a runaway.

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