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
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.

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

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

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.

John Larkin August 7, 1836 at the house of Daniel Berry[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that his death was an accident that on Saturday about 5 of the clock while attempting to cross Broad River at D Hueys ferry him and his horse fell from the flat into the river sunk and was taken up dead

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

Isaac Oliphant November 9, 1882 at Ritch Thomson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said Isaac Oliphant Came to his death by a Gun Shot Wound unfortunately or accidentally in his own hands

Anna Queen Fuller five year old child November 18, 1893 at Flatwoods, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was burnt. And Anna Queen Fuller in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by misfortune or accident.

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

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

Washington negro man February 1, 1857 at Pullok[?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe Decsd Came to his death by misfortune though intoxication & exposure to rain & cold

Andrew Dawkins June 25, 1895 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

From testimony produced, I find he died from a fracture of the skull received from a fall while engaged in unloading a Lumber car, at the Factory at Laurens County. I also find that there was no one to blame for same.

Maggie 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

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

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

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

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.

Mrs. M. C. Williams October 13, 1908 [at] Mrs. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Mrs. M.C. Williams did some to her death by a gun shot wound by George Williams . . .

Sally E. Hanna October 19, 1875 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Sallie E Hanna came to her death by being smothered, accidently during the night of the 18th Inst

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

Aaron Hardin June 24, 1845 at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC

do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.

Dolly Young child March 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upont their oaths do say that the said Dolly Young . . . came to her death by accident or smuthering or by misclued[?]

Margret Ann Kinncade at W.B. Murry's Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death from a burn by accidently catching on fire, Sept the 3d, 1886[.]

Julia Hightower child November 9, 1890 at Mr Sam Marshes Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death from being burn by accident

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

H. McKnight April 14, 1842 at the house of Thomas Tegues, Esq in the Town of Camden ... upon the view of the dead body of Henry McKnight who was found dead in the Wateree River near the bank of said river & raised by means of a hoop, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry McKnight came to his death by the visitation of God having fallen into the river supposed to have been in a fit and alone

Wyatt Harris April 22, 1887 at Limestone Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Whay Harris was killed by accident at Limestone Springs ... by a rock thrown by a blast at Simon's works striking him on top of the head while he was at work at Richardson's kiln and killing his instantly

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 [????]

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.

Simon slave December 24, 1830 at the house of Mrs. Mary Moore, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .he was burnt to death by accident in one of the the Negro houses of Mrs. Mary Moore

Arthur Ben at Jenkinsville, Fairfield County, SC

upon oaths do say that George Bone the said Artur Ben, by misfortune and contrary to his will, in maner and form aforesaid, did kill and Slay Artur Ben by the accidental discharge of a gun.

infant June 8, 1828 house of Jessee Husk, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that after carefully examining the dead body of the s'd male child of the s'd Martha Gibson ... are all agreed that the s'd child died by the visitation of God but by the blood being [?]led in large spots to be seen through the skin all on his left side from his face to his foot they thought it was probable s'd child might have eat some poisonous herbs or berries of the woods as s'd Husk had settled in the woods

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

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

Emma Hunter May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say from the Testimony given that Emma Hunter Died from the Effects of fire; That she died on Tesday the 17th inst having been burnt in a house, that was burnt down on the plantation of M.B. Pool on the night of the 16th inst. All Accidental...

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

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

Elenora Yongue near Struther[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elenora Yongue came to her death by accidental burning.

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.

Ryefield boy October 24, 1846 near the Island Ford on Broad River, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say That they suppose the body before them to be that of the younger Ryefield drowned at Smiths Ford some days back, and that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

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.

Tom slave October 25, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Tom [a] slave of Joseph Murphy came to his death by a fall from a log and broke his neck

Richard Mims August 1, 1899 at the plantation of Mrs. H. Carter, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: that Richard Mims came to his death by a pistol Shot in the hands of John McManus . . . accidental Shot of John McManus

Richard Stenhouse November 1, 1857 at the house of Richard Stenhouse, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Richard Stenhouse was killed . . . by the accidental falling of a tree near his own house.

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

Crafford Brantley November 4, 1927 at House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

upon there oathes do Say that Crafford Brantley came to His Death By accidental gun shot wound on Nov 4th at about 11 am 1927

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lawrence Frazier child January 14, 1895 at D.B. Holingsworths, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lawrence Frazier came to his by accident or misfortune

John Pike November 15, 1856 at William Pike's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by some means to the jurors unknown

Peter Negro man December 30, 1859 at the Plantation of Mr Wm Bunch, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Peter. . .came to his death by the accidental falling of the top of a tree he appears himself to have cut down

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