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.

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" -- but also "very drunk." And Gabe Wilky "was 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 Spring 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 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Sarah McCulley wife of Barney McCulley September 1, 1841 at the house of Barney McCulley, Anderson County, SC

do say that she the sd deceased died of violence on the night of 31 Augt 1841 in her own house & by her own husband Barney McCulley

A. L. Lattimore July 2, 1883 at Pacolet Cotton Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid A. L. Lattimore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death … by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing … or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

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

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
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.

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

infant January 28, 1863 at Cannon's Old Grave yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased child came to its or her death by carelessness or mismanagement or misfortune at the house of Jefferson Saterfield

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
John Hinson July 20, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the the aforesaid John Hinson ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

Frank Young infant January 11, 1877 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its by accidentaly being overlaid by its mother.

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

Rowland Cash March 11, 1853 at the residence of Ephraim Jackson, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [deceased] came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

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 misfortune or 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

female child female child May 19, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the unknown female child … came to her death … by mischance or accident or from causes to this jury unknown

Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say … that the aforesaid sally … came to her death by misfortune or accident

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

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

Franklin Turner son December 26, 1850 at John Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say … that the aforesaid Franklin Turner … came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

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

James Graham June 8, 1858 at the place known as the public square in Logtown, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Jame Graham here lying dead came to his death from intemperance and exposure

Thomas R. Sparks January 1, 1851 at George Greghams, Union County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do Say that he came to his death by an appoplectic fit in consequence of in temperance[?]

Edinborough Ryan December 30, 1882 at Mrs D. L Bussy Plantation, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon there oaths do say … that the said Edinborough Ryan Came to his death from cause unknown

Gabe Wilky November 29, 1880 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Gabe Wilky came to his death ... from his own impudence & excessive use of alcohol and the visitation of God

John Matthews October 13, 1829 at the house of William Adams, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

do say upon their Oaths, that he John Matthews died a natural death in William Adams lane then and there in a State of intoxication

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

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.

James Kirkpatrick November 24, 1846 at Union CourtHouse in James C Kitchens Hotel, Union County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that … the deceased was put to bed … in a state of intoxication and … must have come to his death by a fit of appoplexy or some other natural cause

Joseph Poor December 17, 1857 at William Holand's residence, Anderson County, SC alcohol

do say the said Joseph Poor…came to his death most likely by intoxication.

Betsy Scott February 25, 1842 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that Betsy Scott came to death from the effects of intemperance

Martin B. Elam January 28, 1851 at Mrs Mary Elams, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that they suppose the deceased came to his death by the hand of providence or some other cause unknown

Caleb Chappell January 22, 1835 at or near house of John Ledbetter, Anderson County, SC alcohol

was seen to fall from his feet by two Evidences who gave in their testimony on oath before us and that he died immediately and that he had no mark of violence upon him and died by the visitation of God by excessive use of ardent spirits.

Hiram Linder March 12, 1840 on the premises of Isaac Young's, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

do say uppon [sic] there [sic] oaths that he had no marks of violence uppon [sic] him & died by intemperance or the visition of God in a natural way and not otherwise

Bethel Ogelsby August 21, 1823 cotton fields belonging to John Doby Esq., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that they believe he came to his death by the visitation of God, no marks of violence appearing to us upon him

William Foster December 20, 1845 at Bishop's old field, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by freezing to death from being intoxicated

J. E. Black May 8, 1861 at the Residence of J. E. Black, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon there oaths do say the said J. E. Black came to his death by accessive drink of intoxicating spirits

James Robison December 17, 1820 at the hous of John Birds, Union County, SC alcohol

do say upon his oath that the said James Robison did Come to his death by Drinking of Sherriouts Liqur … Com to his death by Entockacation

John Edmonson July 26, 1854 near the road leading from Anderson Court House to the Double Branches., Anderson County, SC alcohol

the verdict of the above jury is that he came to his death by intoxication or some other unknown cause.

Elijah Pike December 28, 1856 at the residence of Elijah Pike, Greenville County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death at his Residence … by excessive use of ardent spirits

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

R. Mackgrath January 5, 1852 at the house of John Dobey, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said R Mackgrath came to his death … by an act of Providence, or some other cause unknown to the Jurors probably bt the effects of [?] Spirits

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

[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

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

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

A. G. Leek February 23, 1859 at A. G. Leeks Residence, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon there oaths do say … he came to his Death by Excessive hard Drink

John Soseby December 22, 1857 by the side of the road near Lawson's fork, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the death of the said John Soseby was caused by intoxication

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Jusin Turner … came to his death by mischance being exposed during a cold night without doors and from evidence quite intoxicated

James Petty June 19, 1825 at an out House of the plantation of John Norman, Union County, SC alcohol

upon there Oaths do Say that from the Effects of Intoxication that the Said James did Come to his death

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