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
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

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child . . .died by accidentally getting Smothered

infant slave infant slave September 28, 1853 at the house of James R. Jeter, Union County, SC

came to its death by misfortune or accident

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

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

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

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

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

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

Aaron Rogers May 14, 1872 at Isham Johnson's Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Aaron Rogers (the deceased) came to his death by accidental drowning in Thompson's Creek, below Purvis' Bridge, on Sunday the 12th May AD 1872

Samuel F. Evans Sr. January 23, 1878 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Samuel F. Evans Sr. came to his death by accidental burning

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

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

Sarah Lucas October 30, 1890 at Mr. M L Holson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death by being Burned to death by fire from accident

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

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

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

Berry McLauren August 1, 1881 at Jas P. Brock's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Berry M Clarran came to his death by being accidently drowned in Brocks Mill.

Elizabeth Belk April 20, 1828 near the Door house, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that in traveling to a neighboring house she fell down and being old & infirm was unable to rise & so perished

infant child infant child January 18, 1892 at the Plantation of L. G. Swearinger, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

William Davis January 16, 1841 at or near the residence of Alex. McMakin, Spartanburg County, SC

[do say that] not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil came to his untimely end. . .by drinking intoxicating spirits to an excess and attemting [sic] to vomet [sic] and strangled so that he finally lost his Breath and departed this life

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

Duke negro man March 25, 1855 near Dennis Carpenters, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid negro slave name Duke. . .did come to his death from intemperance and exposure

Everett Hook July 18, 1891 at the saw Mill of M J Hook, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by accidently falling upon a cicular Saw While in Motion

William Applewhite January 22, 1838 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm. Applewhite came to his death by falling in the fire

Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

John Henry Goudelock June 3, 1882 at Bethlehem Grove Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being burned in the dwelling house of Jane Goudelock which is included in Laurens County, State of South Carolina. The cause or origin of the said fire is to this jury unknown.

Jack Thomas at Mickles Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said, Jack Thomas, came to his death by accidental drownding

Fleetwood Moody May 20, 1936 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Fleetwood Moody received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burned in the hands of origin unknown . . . came to his death from burns and suffocation origin unknown

Margaret McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Arthur Ben at Jenkinsville, Fairfield County, SC

upon oaths do say that George Bone the said Artur Ben, by misfortune and contrary to his will, in maner and form aforesaid, did kill and Slay Artur Ben by the accidental discharge of a gun.

Larie February 3, 1829 at the premises of Capt Nathan Sims, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Mr. Lary came to his death, in our opinion for want of attention in consequence of his own conduct exposing himself in bad weather from intoxication

Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings July 8, 1883 at J.C. Rason's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said child came to its death on Friday 6th day of July in its mothers house from Suffocation, And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid child came to his death by misfortune or accident.

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.

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

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

Rosa M. Smith October 11, 1877 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rosa M. Smith came to her death by means of accidental burning

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

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.

colored colored May 9, 1872 at Ja's Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant. . .came to its death by misfortunte or accident

Lousay November 25, 1860 at Doct John E. Padgett, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Loosey came to here death by accidnetal Burning

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Jerry May 16, 1808 at the Mill House of Henry Brockman, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, the said Negrow man Jerry came to his Death by being Intoxicated in Liquor and Indeavoring to cross the Enoree River... between Laurens & Spartanburgh Districts that then & there the sd. Negrow Jerry got strangled sufficated & Drowned & from all appearance contrary to the wife sd. Negrow by mischance or accident.

Dorcas Crossly December 4, 1857 at the house of John Wofford, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say by falling the ifre and burning to death there being no person present at the time we suppose she had a fit as she was subject to having fits

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.

Samuel Negro Man Anderson County, SC

the Decd had been missing ever since Sunday. . .he would search the Mill pond as he had been seen in the neighborhood?and found him floating on the water in the pond about 12 feet from the Dam. . .That he knew of no enemy the Decd had had never heard of any threats--thought it was accidental.

William Watson near the Harrison Ferry on the Wateree River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Watson came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun in his own hands, on the bank of the Wateree river on the afternoon of 30th day of Jan AD 1894[.]

Jesse May 15, 1850 at Lyles Ford on the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man came to his dead by drowing or accident to the Jurors unknown

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.

Rody Kennedy November 30, 1830 at the house of Rody Kennedy, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rody Kennedy came to his death on the morning of this day on his own plantation by means of the contents of a loaded shot gun being discharged in his body. The Jurors aforesaid say they have no positive evidence the gun was discharged, but from the circumstances coming before them and have no doubt it was discharged by the said Rody Kennedy himself.

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

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