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 1 - 50 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

unknown negro unknown negro May 15, 1837 at the plantation of A. Murphy or Joseph Prins[?], Union County, SC

Doo say upon their oaths that the sade unknown . . .dide by the visitation of God by getting Drowned in Tigor River

George W. Moose June 7, 1882 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said J. W. Moore ... came to his death from heart disease or from a fall consequent upon disease of the heart

Cornelius Johnson at Samuel Johnson's Residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death [at] his Fathers house, on the 15 [Dec] 1892 from burns frm Accidentaly catching on f[ire][.]

negro child negro child February 17, 1850 at the plantation of James Ellises, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Female child came to its death by mischance being accidentally smothered

Bob May 31, 1831 at Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being accidentally drowned in the Catawba River at Rocky Mount Ferry

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC
Priner Davis near Simm Davis' Spring, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Priner Davis came to his death from apoplectic Fit-brought on by drinking bad whiskey and exposure near the Public Road in Fairfield Co SC, leading form Winnsboro to Kincades Bridge on or between the night of the 13th and the morning of the 15th of January 1883[.]

slave child slave child December 31, 1846 at the plantation of Nathan Hawkins, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that it was either Smothered accidentaly or otherwise dyed natrualy

Unknown March 26, 1877 at James McGill's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death by being accidently overlain by its Mother, and was smothered to death.

Titus July 19, 1857 at the Thoroughfair landing, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro slave Titus came to his death by accidental drowning

Oliver Lee February 17, 1892 at Cokers Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Oliver Lee came to his death by accidently falling upon a circular saw while in motion cutting of both legs near the body causing instantly death on the 17th day of February 1892 about 10 Oclock am at Cokers Saw Mill

Infant Boy Child Infant Boy Child June 18, 1883 at Marsh Grobe Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say . . .the Child come to its death accidentally or by being smutherd

William Gaston April 30, 1837 at the house of James N. Gaston, Spartanburg County, SC

say upon their oaths that the aforesaid William Gaston ... came to his death by the accidental falling of a tree

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

Isabella McClain September 15, 1873 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that She Came to her death by a Gun Shot Inflicted by one Cesar Beaty, though we Consider the whole transaction accidental

Saul slave January 9, 1833 at Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Saul did unfortunately and accidentally fall from the dam or bridge

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

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

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.

Emanuel Griffin July 28, 1873 at T. H. Clark's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emanuel Griffin came to his death by accidental drowning

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Thomas Henry October 20, 1817 at the Dweling Hous of Samuel, Union County, SC

do Say on their oaths tha Said Thomas Came to his Death By a [?] fall that Nathan[?] Howard [?] him By throwing him [?] his hous[?] in a [????]

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

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Ally Pollard February 5, 1868 on the farm of J.G. Mabury, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he froze to death while intoxicated in the public road near J.G. Mabury's

Mary Love January 17, 1876 at Mrs. Clovers Spencers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Mary Love came to here Death by being accidently burned

Adam Davis February 5, 1841 at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC

uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated

Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

J. W. Park May 24, 1870 at Black Jack, Fairfield County, SC

The Jury having heard the testimony came to the conclusion that the deceased came to his death from drowning

Samuel F. Evans Sr. January 23, 1878 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Samuel F. Evans Sr. came to his death by accidental burning

W. W. Miller Sr. white man July 10, 1891 at J M. Mays place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Deceased came to his death from Heart failure and Exposure

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.

Bluford Papley November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Bluford Paply came to his death ("by the Explosion of Thos L Badgetts Boiler")

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.

Mariah Teel December 30, 1870 at the Poor House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the deceased, Maria Teel came to her death, by being accidently burnt

John Williams freed person infant June 23, 1867 at John Meadows, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it came to its death by being smuthered by him in her sleep

Ora Weaver February 21, 1891 at the plantation of D B. H Holfarth[illegible - ink blot], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ara Weaver came to her death from accidental Burning

Henry slave December 25, 1830 on public highway from Pendleton to Pickensville [modern-day Easley], Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Henry did come to his death?on the night of the 24th instant, by intoxication, or being intoxicated and lying out in the wet died of expsoure or?.came to his death by misfortune by the act of God.

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.

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

Peter Chambers March 19, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Peter Chambers . . . in Thompsons Creek near Lunch's Bridge . . . came to his death by drowning good in our opinion by misfortune or accident.

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

Truman Miles October 22, 1839 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

do say that said Truman Miles. . . .at Anderson Court House was found dead that he had no marks of violence afore him and died by the [?] of God from the many severe falls he received when in a state of intoxication and not otherwise

Alfred Gage May 21, 1890 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say that the said Alfred Gage came to his death "By Accidental Drowning in little river at the Mills at Milton.

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

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

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

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

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