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
Unknown June 26, 1856 at a spot near the Wateree River and on or near the Road leading to Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after such examination as was in their power to make they are clearly of opinion that the decased came to his death by falling into the ditch leading from Bolton's[?] Branch while in a state of intoxication and being unable to help himself was drowned

M. A. Lipscomb March 11, 1880 at late residence of David Lipscomb, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to her death from hemorhage caused by premature labor, said labor produced by diarhea

Oliver Lee February 17, 1892 at Cokers Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Oliver Lee came to his death by accidently falling upon a circular saw while in motion cutting of both legs near the body causing instantly death on the 17th day of February 1892 about 10 Oclock am at Cokers Saw Mill

negro negro February 3, 1838 at Maj. John Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we find that the boddy upon examination is a negro man and it is our opinion that he came to his death by drowning & probably was drowned in crossing the Camden Ferry on the night of the 23d of Dec'r last

James Edwards little boy January 14, 1876 at Enoree Church, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid James Edwards came to his death by being accidentally burnt by his clothers taken on fire

Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Harry slave August 13, 1807 at McRae & Cantey's Merchant (grist) mill, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave came to his death by misfortune

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

William Vaugh August 28, 1842 at the dweling house of Patrick Williams, Union County, SC

adduced that William Vaughn came to his death by the fawling of a certain oak tree a part of which was found [?] his mangled limbs which had [?] shattered his Skull

M. Harrison son December 16, 1876 at John Harrison's residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . .by accident gun shot wound at his own hands

Woodward King July 16, 1820 at Capt. Boles[?] Hamilton's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that from the examination of the corpse and information received from children they believe that he came to his death. . .by a shot from a pistol in the hands of his brother Mancel King aged ten years accidentally without any intention of killing

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

Starkes Whitlock February 16, 1853 at J P Poters, Union County, SC

upon ther oaths do say that he was the cause of his own death . . .come to his own by Drinking & Exsposure by laying out in the wet & cole

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[?]

James McCravy January 4, 1851 at the house of Amos Holmes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James McCravy being intoxicated and out in the snow frozed [sic] to death

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

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[.]

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
slave slave January 17, 1827 near McRae's mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to it by intemperate drinking & exposure to the cold in an open field

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

Kitty Young near Rock City, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Kity Young came to her death from a pistol shot wound, the pistol being fired by her little brother Johnnie Young, and that the shooting was purely accidental.

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, 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

Aggey September 14, 1830 near the house of Edward P. Mobley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that said Negroe Aggey came to her death on the night of the 11th this instant by the breaking of a joist or two in a house, which fell on her

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

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

Unknown infant December 28, 1880 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said Infant child came to his death by being accidently smothered

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.

Henry July 6, 1834 at the house of John Holly, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe said Henry came to his death by going in to little river to wash or bathe himself it happened that accidently casually and by misfortune he the said Henry suffocated and drowned

Lesthia Ridlehouse[Ridlehover?] January 5, 1892 at the Residence of Mrs Edny Mary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by being accidenttly burned to death

George February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

doth say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in crossing Enoree River got wash. Off his horse and got drowned.

Macomb Campbell March 10, 1873 at R. E. Evans', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Macomb Capbell came to his death by being accidently Burned

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

Sallie Bell Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

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 Harry February 2, 1827 at the House of John Harry, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their oathes that they are of opinion that the deceased came to his death by falling from his hors [sic] when he was driving his waggon in his own plantation

Spartin L. Gaddis August 30, 1876 near John O. [?], Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .Gaddis came to his death. . .by misfortunte cutting a [?] tree and the said tree falling on the said Spartin

Willie Gooding at [?] Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Willie Gooding came to his death from accidental burning by fire

Robert Reynolds July 30, 1892 at J.W. Reynolds Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Robt Reynolds came to his death from burnes received by Explosion from Engine owned by J. H. Bussy

Medora Williams April 4, 1878 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Medora Williams while alone in her house ... fell into the fire and was burned to death while suffering from a fit or fainting

Robert Gresham Chester Co., at Shelton Depot, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oath do say that the said Robert Gresham was drowned at Fish Dam Ferry in Chester County on the [1]4 day of February A.D 1895

Griffin Infant Childe December 26, 1860 at Andy [?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say the child come it death by accident or mischance by smuthering or some way unknown

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

Tom Slave, old negro man January 12, 1853 near the residence of Harry Scott, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that the dead body of Tom lying in the branch near the residence of Henry Scott . . .came to his death, by accident or misfortune

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

Peter Knox July 23, 1878 near Calrandellers[?] Ferry on Tugalo River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Peter Knox . . . in Tugaloo River came to his death accidentally by drowning in attempting to cross said river

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

Charley Geeter October 27, 1881 at Violets Geeter's house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Charley Geeter came to his death by accident from fire

Hanah infant Child November 2, 1861 at Cooperville, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child was found dead . . .from bieng overlaid by its parents or some other unknown means to them in bed

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