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
Charles slave July 31, 1851 at the house of John M. Norris Esqr in Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that by his head being mashed and and his scull broken at the gin house of John M. Norris . . .by the gin running gear, his head passing between the cogs and trunal[?] head, rounds or Wollower

Adam Davis February 5, 1841 at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC

uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated

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

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.

John Watson May 23, 1892 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death "by Accidental Gun Shot in his own hand on the 22 day of May 1892

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

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

[No official declaration]

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.

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

Henry Castleberry January 7, 1815 at the house of James Hannah, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths, that the Deceased came to his Death by misfortune upon the fall of a horse on the Public road near the house of James Hannah.

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

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 . . .

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.

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

Elliott Wilson at A.W. Ladds', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say he was killed by a tree being accidentally fell upon him

Charles Hobbs October 1, 1817 on the highway near John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

Do say uppon there oaths after hearing all the Evidence that cold [sic] be obtained that it is there oppinion that through Intoxication he fell from his hors [sic] and Sufficated [sic] in the mud and watter as it was a Night of Very hard Rain and he was found in a hollow and partly covered with mud and the same.

Ora Weaver February 21, 1891 at the plantation of D B. H Holfarth[illegible - ink blot], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ara Weaver came to her death from accidental Burning

John Shockley July 27, 1865 at John Shockley's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said disseast came to his death by misfortune or accident

H. T.[?] Davis at Alston, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said H T[?] Davis came to his death by having his back broken in some unknown manner to the Jury[.]

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

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

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.

Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson June 18, 1890 at Laurens Simpsons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant child came to its death by "Accidental Smothering."

John Ronnie February 15, 1898 Kershaw County, SC
Clem slave, boy October 3, 1858 at Tabitha Abney's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Lem[?] came to his death by the accident firing of a gun in his own hands

Lena Hutchinson October 20, 1873 Anderson County, SC

do say according to their knowledge and belief according to the evidence that she came to her death by accident by being burned to death

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said slave John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

Older son of Joe Cunningham Older son of Joe Cunningham March 26, 1908 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child was . . .smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

Unknown March 26, 1877 at James McGill's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death by being accidently overlain by its Mother, and was smothered to death.

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

William Johnson January 20, 1871 at William Johnson's residence in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Johnson came to his death ... from a sudden attack of illness occasioned by his having eaten oysters which were probably tainted

Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love 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

Allen Bauknight freedman June 11, 1866 at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Bauknight came to his death by a discharge of a Gun in the hands of Suson Bauknight freeman his wife by the Gun going of axcidentally

Duncan Fleming August 6, 1892 at Pervis Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Dunkin Fleming came to his death by accidentaly drowning while in washing in Thomson Creek

Furman Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Willie Parker December 21, 1892 at S. Parkers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Willie Parker came to his death by being struck on his head by a falling Tree Accidinetly

Lewis Bradley Laurens County, SC

we the jury find in our opinion that Lewis Bradlet Died in Laurens County on the 29th day of Decr. 1894 from great Exposure in the [extreme?] cold, and that no one is to blame as far as we know, for his death.

infant April 15, 1879 at the house of Mrs. Mary Smith, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the infant aforesaid came to its death ... from the ignorant neglect of said child by Sarah D. Smith, the mother of said child without intent to murder the child upon her part

Beatrice McGuine March 23, 1896 at W. A. Buchannon's Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Beatrice McGuine came to her death from strangulation while sucking its mother

App Chapman July 31, 1883 at the residence of J. D.[?] Chastern[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said App Chapman came to his death by misfortune.

Selena Crosby May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

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

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC
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

Avery slave November 14, 1831 at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated

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

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