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
Chas McQueen February 5, 1895 at Chas. McQueen's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Chas McQueen came to his death from some bodily ailment unknown to us and by exposure in the cold

Benjamin Franklin Zimmerman June 18, 1932 near Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning in the waters of big Juniper creek-1/2 miles north East of the Town of Patrick, S. C.

William Pettifoot free black January 21, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by being accidentally overlaid & smothered in the course fo the night by its mother

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Georgianna Watts October 11, 1891 at R.O. Hairstons, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say, that she came to her death, By being burnt in the house, it being burnt on her By Accident.

John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

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

Stephen slave December 18, 1860 at Mr. M. Mungo, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Stephen came to his death from a fall and which caused his neck to break

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

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

Sam Malloy May 30, 1899 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

From the evidence I got from the party's there the deceased was accidentaly drowned

Frank Young June 28, 1874 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Frank Young (colored) while bathing in Broom's Mill Pond in said County before noon on the 27th day of Juned 1874, did then and there come to his death by accidental drowning;

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

Wilson M. Gilligan July 25, 1855 at the Jail of the Districtaforesaid in Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by Dorwning, cause unknown

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

James W. Craven October 12, 1830 at the Tumbling shoals, Laurens County, SC

A jury being summoned and sworn do find that the said James V Craven came to his death by Accidentally having been drowned in the 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

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

John Stafford December 16, 1831 Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths he came to his death by accidentally drowning in a state of intoxication

Viola Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Henry Goodman May 4, 1851 at or near to William H Adams on little horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Goodman in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by drowning in said little horse Creek

William McAbee April 8, 1885 Spartanburg County, SC
Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
William Hampton July 3, 1877 at T. J. [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm A Hampton came to his death by the accidental discharge of his gun in his own hands

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

Infant of Sarah McQueen Infant of Sarah McQueen 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

George Darby April 20, 1823 at Lores-ford on broad River, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .the said George Dary came to his death by drowning while in a state of intoxication & making an effort to cross broad River at Lore's ford to some of the Islands

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 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.

Lizzie Darian child November 21, 1894 at Waldo Richardsons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Lizzie Darion came to her death by mischance, the burning of the house it was left in by what means it caught on fire is unknown

Georgia Brower December 27, 1879 at A. E. Evans, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Georgia Brown came to her death by being accidentally burned by fire on this October 27th 1879

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

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.

Blanchy Wilson November 30, 1893 on the plantation of Robert Hastings, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at woods childs house. . .by a single barrel shot gun lying in the loft of said house and started to fall and Siche Chiles caught the gun and it struck the joist and fired

John L. Thorton Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John. L. Thornton Smith came to his death by accidental drownign in a water-course known as Lawson's Fork 1 1/2 miles distant from Spartanburg

Lila Washington February 20, 1879 at Wesley Barns Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Lila Washington came to her death by accident in catching on fire and Burning to death

Samuel Williams at Major Wilkes' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Samuel Williams came to his death by the falling timbers from the house, caused by a severe storm on the night of the 19th of February 1884.

James Perry December 27, 1894 at Mt Enon Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon oaths do say that the said Jim Perry aforesaid came to his death from the firing of his own Gun. . .by first fireing of his gun at a Rabbit Broke his gun stock threw up the Barrel and discharged the other load which caused his death

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

Jesse Bell January 20, 1839 at the House of Mrs Elizabeth Ward, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - We find that the deceased came to his death on the night of the 19th Instant by immersing himself in Little River near Laurens Court House having been chased by dogs and pursued by men until he was over heated - That we are of opinion that the length of time he remained in the water was the principle cause of his death...

Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

Thomas Thompson at Capt. Manus' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Thompson came to his death from the affect of a burn caused by falling in the fire[.]

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.

Mitilda Gilbert September 26, 1876 at Isaac Gilbert's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death . . . being found lying at length in said spring being there drowned by misfortune or accident

Margaret Coats April 6, 1865 at Williams Coatses, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Margaret Coats came to her Death by the accidental dis charge of gun, in the hands of the deceased and in the hands of Lieutenant Young

infant female infant female November 25, 1880 at T. H. Long, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . . the said infant came to its death by being smothered by its Mother accidentally while she was asleep in bed

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.

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

Willis Watson June 14, 1876 at the river bank on Saulda one mile above Gambell old Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that said decd came to his death by accidental drowning in the River of Saluda.

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

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