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
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.

Pauline Paulding[?] at Captain John Thomas' Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Pauline Pauling died of suffocation[?]

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jusin Turner. . .came to his death by mischance being exposed during a cold night without doors and from evidence quite intoxicated

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer . . .from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

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

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

James Hindman February 11, 1875 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion the said James Hindman came to his death by misfortune caused by fits or convulsions producing derangment ina high degree being found drowned in James Creek

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

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

Jackson Boan January 12, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

Abram Clement October 6, 1868 at Martin Williamston's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said deceased was killed by the falling of a limb from a tree which he had cut down near the old school house.

Bob slave December 26, 1845 at the residence Mr. Parks, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being drunk and exposed to the weather which was wet and very cold

James slave December 4, 1843 at J. C. Jeter's graveyard, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .he must have come to his death by exposure to cold from being lying out in the woods or some cause to the jury unknown

Solomon negro man June 24, 1844 near the Mill of George A. McKee on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said negro came to his death by drowning

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

H. C. Rudisail December 31, 1881 at Campobello, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht the said H. C. Rudisail deceased came to his death by apoplexy caused from over work by violent exertion of the body

Green Kerley December 31, 1869 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the said Green Kerley came to his death by a fall from a third story window in the Hotel to the pavemen, while laboring under a fit of delerum [?].

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

Robert Willingham October 6, 1876 at the residence of Mrs. L.E. Kirkland, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Robert Willingham in manner [?] from aforesaid, came to his death by Smothering in a bank of dried[or seed?] cotton

Jerry R. McLeod May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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.

Eugenia Richardson on James McGill's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she was accidently over layed by her mother and smothered to death, and came to her death by misfortune or accident.

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

West Myers boy August 8, 1866 on Washington [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that sd West Myers was accidentally drowned by Cicero Caveton[?]

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

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

Sebron Machan November 27, 1878 at James A [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sebron Macham came to his death by some means to the jury unknown

Larrence Valentine December 28, 1893 at Mt[?] Willing, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .find that said Larrence Valentine aforesaid came to his death by a gun shot wound in his own hands, from the evidence we believe it was purely accidental

William Lundy August 28, 1846 at house of John Rainsford, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that decd came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun that was in his hands the load entering his left temple and passing out of the top of his head carrying part of the brain & skull off

Sandy McNair December 14, 1878 at Peter Ingrahams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say- That the said Sandy McNair came to his death by exposure to cold, producing congestion of the lungs and the internal organs; and that deceased died on the night of the 12th inst.

John Groce June 12, 1876 at John Groce's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he John P. Groce came to his death . . . by accidental drowning in the mill pond of W J Bates while bathing in company with P D Bates, Morgan Flynn and Benjame Cannon[?]

Cap Bryan February 25, 1893 at the plantation of Mrs Doziers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say That the aforesaid Cap Bryan came to his death from a lick with a rock thrown by a blast from the Quary which we consider purely accidental

W. H. Davis November 1, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that W. H. Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by gun shot in the hands of self-inflicted accidentally

Benjamin Cockroft March 18, 1847 in the woods near the house of Beryman[?] Bledsoe, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oats do say that the said Benjamin Cockroft came to his death from the effects of being dissipation and lying on the cold ground

Alick Croker boy September 29, 1878 at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC

Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding

infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said child. . .came to his death by accidental Suffocation

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

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

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.

John D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

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.

George Fisher March 14, 1826 on the bank of the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

[upon their oaths] do say that the said George Fisher going into a certain River] called Broad River to fish traps for fish of his own will at a late hour of the night it happened that accidentally, casually, and misfortunate [he] was in the water of the said river then suffocated and drowned...and there instantly died

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.

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

Alexander McKee January 4, 1817 in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.

William Prince July 9, 1851 at the house of John W Garrett, Edgefield County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Prince . . .come to his death by accidentally drowning himself

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

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