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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

Elizabeth Knight June 27, 1885 at Joseph Knight's residence, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Elizabeth Knight in Manner and form aforesaid Came to her death by misfortune or accident By a gunshot wound on the right side of the Forehead which was caused by the careless handling of a gun in the hands of her little Brother

Crosby Irby at Perry Irby's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his home. . .from a gun shot wound accidently fired[.]

James L. Hill January 10, 1867 at James L Hills, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said James L Hill came to his death by Mischance or accident

Lizzie Clyburn October 10, 1924 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon taking the testimony of the three witnesses herein enclosed I concluded that the empaneling of a jury was unnecessary, as it was clearly shown by the witnesses that deceased dies of natural causes.

William Foster December 20, 1845 at Bishop's old field, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by freezing to death from being intoxicated

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

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

Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

James McCannon May 1, 1821 at Joseph Hughes, Union County, SC

say on our oths that the said James McCannon did come to his death by the act of God . . .by attmting to Crose a Creek by the name of Hughs Creek and was forthwith drownded

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

Joseph Ruffington January 9, 1893 at Thos O Attaways, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph Ruffington came to his death accidentally by the falling of a tree cut by Pick Deloach

Jane infant negro December 31, 1840 at E. M. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child was accidently overlayed by its mother

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

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

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

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

upon their oaths do say Robt Reynolds came to his death from burnes received by Explosion from Engine owned by J. H. Bussy

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

John Hinson July 20, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the the aforesaid John Hinson ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

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 [?]

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Lafayette Valentine January 1, 1873 at Jack Valentines, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lafayette Valentine came to his death by the accidental firing of a Pistol in the hands of J.B. Watts.

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

Leander Pack August 14, 1883 at the residence of Elias Atkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Leander Pack came to his death ... by a blow of a fallen tree of which the decased were cutting

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to death.

Martin Wheeler November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say "that he came to his death from the Explosion of Mr Badgetts Boiler."

J. B. Deas February 6, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J. B. Deas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Single Barrell Shot gun in the hands of Durant Easterling & Sinclair Sellers

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.

Pauline Abraham child November 19, 1882 at Archey Ramsey's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Pauline Abrham came to her death by some cause to them unknown

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. . .

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

Willie Williams Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

Wilson Campbell December 26, 1880 at Henry Sorrels, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say it appears that the deceased came to his death by mischance by freezing to death the finding shall conclude That that Wilson Campbell, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

James McCants December 8, 1836 at the residence of the deceased, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he came to his death by the fall of a dead tree on fire, in his New Ground, about 12 oclock Meridian.

Beatrice McGuine March 23, 1896 at W. A. Buchannon's Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Beatrice McGuine came to her death from strangulation while sucking its mother

Lena Hutchinson October 20, 1873 Anderson County, SC

do say according to their knowledge and belief according to the evidence that she came to her death by accident by being burned to death

James Edward Settle boy March 9, 1884 on Henry Hill Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon there [?] that said James Edward Settle Came to his death from Epellepcy and Starvation

Willis Cumings child October 10, 1890 at C. M. Lanhams, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willis Cumings came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of John Cumings by accident

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

Chaney female slave June 15, 1841 at Mrs. Catherin Bateses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .a certain negro boy the property of the Sd Mrs Bates was handling a shot gun being loaded without his knowledge which went off by accident and blew the contents into the forehead of the said Chaney

Emma Williams January 8, 1894 at J.O.C. Fleming's mill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emma Williams came to her death By accident, having been caught in the machinery of the mill.

Proph[?] Fryday at Willson Fryday's, Fairfield County, SC

I am satisfied that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound on the evening of the 29 of March at or near his fathers house and that the gun was fired accidentally.

Milledge Fuller freedman February 18, 1867 at John Ransford plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .came to his death by a gun shot wound accidently done in the hands of Ellie a freedwoman

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

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.

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

Rachal Hough August 28, 1888 at Millers Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Rachal Hough in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

John Baswell February 16, 1860 at the plantation of Abner McVay, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Baswell came to his death by misfortune or accident

Cudjo Johnson November 29, 1875 at the Poor House, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceased came to his death by a gun shot wound in at the hands of Thomas N. Smart, and that the said Thomas N. Smart fired [in the dark] without intending to shoot deceased or any human being, but believed it was a dog or some other brute animal

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