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
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

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

J. G. Finney February 13, 1877 at the Residence of John Finney, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said deceased J G Finney came to his death by concussion of the brain caused by a fall from his horse on the 11th day of Feb 1877.

Callen O'Neall November 11, 1855 at Luke Havirds[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Callen Oneall came to his death. . .By drinking too much liquor and supposed to have strangled to death by Throwing up

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

R. T. Bailey June 13, 1858 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said R. T. Bailey came to his death by falling into Reedy River newar Greenville CH this day and was accidentally drowned.

negro Child negro Child August 27, 1849 at James C. Mingo, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the said child was axcidently or negligently Smothered and killed by its mother in her Sleep

Edward Norris December 26, 1882 at the residence of Aaron Wells, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That on Friday the 22nd day of December 1882 Bil Norris went to Greenwood, and returned home late in the night, very drunk, and that on Saturday morning the 23rd day of Dec about 9 o'clock am the boy Edward decd. Was kicked by Bill Norris in his right-side the decd. lingered til the 26th day of December and died...

Abram McJunkin March 14, 1867 at the [??], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .by drowning came to his death by accident

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

W. T. Reid at Ridgeway, Fairfield County, SC

thinks that he came to his dath from extreme alcholism and exposure.

Edward F. Lyles June 12, 1879 at Wm J. Martin's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands.

George Roseman January 30, 1883 at T. J. Sullivan's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by the accidental falling of a log across his breast.

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.

M. D. Smith December 24, 1906 at W. K. Sellars, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said M.D. Smith Came to his death by burns by fire.

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

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. . .

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

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

Calvin Lemmon at Dawkins, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he was instantly killed by the explosion of J.S. Swygerts engine, while deceased was firing the engine[.]

slave slave October 30, 1840 at Wiley Kelly's, Kershaw County, SC

do say on their oaths that the slave infant came to her death by Accident

James Gage April 12, 1865 at the house of R.T. Yarboroughs house, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say. That according to the evidence of witnesses, in above case, James Gage came to his death by the accidental falling upon his head, a large and heavy Well Bucket, filled by him with water and mud, while he was cleaning out Mr. R.T. Yarborough's well-Said accident having occured, by the slipping loose of a knot in the end of the rope, which said James Gage, himself, had tied and affixed to the well Bucket.

F. H. McNair February 2, 1899 on E.M. Wells' Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the jurors aforesaid do say that F H McNair in manner aforesaid came to his death by natural causes

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 . . .

Sarah Robison June 30, 1806 at Abraham Maddens Mill, Laurens County, SC

Do say on there oaths that fore said Sarah Robison came to her Death by Misfortune.

Ben F. Williams March 13, 1895 at M. C. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ben F. Williams came to his death by accident or misfortune

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.

Enoch Douglass August 11, 1879 near Wesly Barrs on the rail road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Enoch Douglass came to his death by accident

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

Charles negro male slave, boy September 20, 1827 at David Johnsons, Union County, SC

say upon our oaths that from the testimony before us we do believe that the aforesaid Charles was drowned in Big[? Broad?] River by Misfortune

Evans Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Evans Campbell came to his death by Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

William McCode January 20, 1870 at Luke McCoy's [?], Anderson County, SC

do say that he came to his death . . . from exposure in the rain & cold on the roadside . . . and came to his death by accident.

Lilla Olophant female infant August 18, 1879 at Simpton[?] Pinns[?], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by accidental drownding on Sunday evening ... crossing Logg creek

John Findley March 22, 1819 at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

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.

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

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

Hewlet Swangum July 21, 1883 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by drowning in Saluda River.

Angus McQueen January 17, 1816 at home of Kelly McDermit, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the deceased came to his Death by the combined effects of Cold, Intoxication, and the falls he had therefrom.

Tom Purvis February 5, 1912 at T. A. Hendricks Res, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tom Purvis came to his death By Accidental Gun Shot wound in the Hands of Ray Hendrick

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

Maty slave December 10, 1833 at the dwelling house of Jesse Hammet, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they are of the opinion that the said slave came to her death by the visitation of God in afflicting her with fits or spasms and being neglected by those who had her in their care

Betsey Smith January 19, 1807 at the Dweling hous of Miles[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the Said Betsey Smith Came to her Death [??] Close[?] catching[?] fire and and[?] and[?] thereby [?] her to Death

John McLeod August 23, 1822 at house of Widow McLeod in the fork of Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

have unanimously agreed that the said John McLeod has received his Death by unavoidable accident as he was pouring liquor into a barrel or cask . . . which liquor caught on fire and busted the said cask and as we suppose one of the staves struck the said deceased by which which we think he rec'd his death together with the volume of flame which issued from s'd spirits as on examination we found his face mortally cut and his body much burnt

John April 23, 1859 at the Residence of Dr. D A Richardson, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say. That the said slave John at the Residence of Daniel A Richardson on the 12th day of April in the afternoon came to his death, By accident the result of a fall producing a dislocation of the neck

Sherman Bowden May 7, 1878 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said Sherman Bowden while bathing in the Lawson's Fork Creek ... accidentally fell into water over his head and was drowned

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

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

William Perry January 7, 1894 in the county and state aforesaid, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid William Perry came to his death from gun shot wound in the hands of Calib Hunter. . .said wound was accidental

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