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
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

James Spradley August 19, 1808 near Sander's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that ... the said James Spradley happening to be close behind the said George Nettles looking at the dogs afighting received the contents of the said gun consisting of a load of powder and buck shot in his forehead just over his left eye which shot shot away a considerable part of his skull and brains [and] in one hour after his receiving the said wound, [he] died of the same

Benjamin Anderson December 22, 1873 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Benjamin Anderson came to his death from excessive use of Liquor & exposure to cold

Joseph Powel August 18, 1879 at [??], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the said Jos Powel came to his death by accidental drouding on Sunday evening crossing Logg creek

Wade Harper September 3, 1924 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Wade Harper, about 17 years old, son of J. F. Harper, of Cheraw S.C. came to his death at Anderson's Mill, Cheraw, by mischance, without blame on the part of another person

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

Berry Butler October 9, 1892 at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that he Bearry Butler Came to his death by a pistol in the hands of John Gamillion

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

William H Maharey May 25, 1863 at Haslin Factory on the Procelian Manufacturing Company, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the aforesaid Wm H Mahorey did come to his death . . .by Mischance of Misfortune or accident caused by Fixing of the Machinery of the Meed Mill and was chrushed to By the Cog Wheel of said of Mill

Sarah Ratcliff January 3, 1873 at Mr. Isaac Smith's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to her death by accedental burning on the plantation of Mr Isaac Smith on Tusday the 31t day of December 1872

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

Rachal McKinstry December 2, 1873 at the plantation of Thomas Sloan, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death bye accidental burning

John Young June 27, 1891 at the residence of John Young, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Young came to his death from sum Strok

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."

Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

infant child infant child January 10, 1892 at Trenton, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deat was produced from suffocation . . . after a long spell of sickness

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

George Gardner January 22, 1935 in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Gardner received . . . mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hand of Rance Cue some being unavoidable accident

Thomas Bramblet May 28, 1889 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Bramblet came to his death by being accidentally struck by the Hose Reel, near the Greenville Laurens RR trestle on the evening of the 27 of May 1889.

M. N. Chapman February 20, 1840 at or near Mt. Zion, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he was drowned by accidentally falling into the waters of Wilson's Creek while in the act of fishing

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

upon their oaths do say - that the said Handy Papley came to his death "by the Explosion of an Engine boiler."

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

D. Stepp June 9, 1883 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said D. W. Stepp came to his death by being drowned accidentally in the Mill Pond at Hutchinson's Tan Yard

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

Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

Joe Malloy October 25, 1893 at George Lany's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joe Malloy came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in his own hands

Henry male infant slave November 23, 1860 at Berry Shells House, Union County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the Decest Came to his death by accidental overlaying of his Mother & smothering to death

Addora Wallace Fairfield County, SC

we the undersigned Jurymen do hereby find the following verdict That Addora Wallace came to her death by drowning not Known to the Jury.

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

Unknown December 10, 1877 at Alexander Harris', Fairfield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to its death by being Smothered in bed. & that infant in manner and form afore-Said, came to its death by misfortune or accident

Samuel McCulley December 29, 1839 in Broadway Creek, Anderson County, SC

do say that sd, Samuel McCulley on the 28th day of December 1839 was found dead in Broadway Creek . . . and had no marks of violence on him and died of the [?] of God partly by intemperance partly by cold and partly by drowning

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC
Thomas Milane March 7, 1811 near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Milane came to his death by misfortune by a fall from his horse on this day.

Infant of Albert Davis at Crosbyville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the cause of death was suffocation

William Johnson January 20, 1871 at William Johnson's residence in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Johnson came to his death ... from a sudden attack of illness occasioned by his having eaten oysters which were probably tainted

Toney Clawson February 16, 1873 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Toney Clawson came to his death by accidental drowning while attempting to cross a small streamunusually swollen from heavy rains

Charles Flowers June 13, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I find that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

Major Crawford July 21, 1880 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that Major Crawford came to his death by accidentally falling from the trestle at Rocky River while in a state of intoxication

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.

Edmond May 5, 1828 on the premises of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

After hearing the evidence we believe the aforesaid negro Edmond did voluntarily go into the water in a State of intoxication and by accident of mischance did drown.

Angus Jefferson Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Angus Jefferson Smith came to his death by accidental drowning in a water course known as Lawson's Fork 1 /12 miles distant from Spartangburg C.H.

Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Austin Putnam July 14, 1867 at Spencer Mills, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Austin Putnam came to his death by drowning, by mischance or accident, on said Spencer's Mill - pond about 4 oclock P.M.

Ella Davis at the dwelling house of Alice Simms, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ella Davis, being a child of six years, and having been left alone in the dwelling house of said Alice Simms by the said Alice, the mother of said child, in the afternoon of the day aforesaid, no one being present and able to protect her, accidently took fire on her clothing and died from burning and suffocation[.]

John Maddox June 15, 1881 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the aforesaid John Madox came to his death by his own act of going into the Saluda in said county^ River and getting drowned.

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

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

Samuel Culbertson July 1, 1838 at the house of Samuel Colbertson, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Samuel Colbertson . . .died by the visitation of god by accidently getting drounded in Broad River

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