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
John Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning . . . near McBees Mills in Reedy River

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

Jonathan Newman October 9, 1869 at the late residence of Jonathan C. Newman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say said deceased came to his death by the accidental or providential caving of a well at his own residence

J. J. Gulladge December 24, 1869 at the house of J. J. Gulladge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J J Gulledge did come to his death by accident

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

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.

unknown negro unknown negro April 24, 1855 at Savannah Bluff, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say tha the Said engro (to them unknown) came to his Death by Drowning

J. F. Styron April 21, 1891 at residence of J. F. Styron[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said J. F. Styron dropped dead in his field from being over heat while engaged in burning logs and in such heat drinking big drought of cold water and as the Physician tells us from heart failure

Joe Coleman near Buck Head, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Joe Coleman in manner and form aforsaid, came to his death 'from old age and freezing[.]"

Mary Tottey January 3, 1814 Union County, SC

do upon their oaths say that the said Mary Came to her Death By the act of God By Droning

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lizzie May Crosby at Feasterville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions from the evidence brought before them the infant came to its death from causes unknown to the Jury

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.

Harry negro boy September 9, 1858 at the residence of the Rev. J. L. Brooks, Edgefield County, SC

say upon their oaths, that. . .the said boy name Harry. . .while in the business of driving the mules to work the machinery of the Cotton gin by some careless action of his own he was caught by wheel or wheels of the machinery and crushed to death

William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

Carey slave February 1, 1831 at the house of John Williams, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths We the Jurors . . .believe he got his Death accidentally by fire to the best of our knowledges and the evidence given by Mary Carraway and Nathan Waters before us proves nothing more

Crispan Smith December 5, 1836 at the house of George Smith, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he died by the visitation of god in a natural way by accidentaly getting frozen to death

Thomas Yongue near Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Tomas Yongue came to his death from accidental burning

William Hopkins at J. Feaster Lyles' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun in the hands of Robert Hopkins[.]

J. McGee September 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said J. H. McGee came to his death from a fall from a scaffold by misfortune or accident

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

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

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

Alexander McKee January 4, 1817 in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.

John Pope August 29, 1828 at the house of James Watson, Laurens County, SC

do say upon there oathes (after hearing all the testimony and Examining the body of the afore Said John Pope) all are of opinion that the afore said John Pope were intoxicated by spirituous liquors and received a fall from his horse which occasioned his death...

Lizzie Coleman at A.P. Irby's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child Lizzie, Coleman, came to her death by burning in a house on the Plantation of Capt A.P. Irby's the 21st of Nov 1884 the origin of the fire unknown to the jury[.]

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

Sebron Machan November 27, 1878 at James A [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sebron Macham came to his death by some means to the jury unknown

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

Sarah Arledge April 22, 1812 at Meeting House Branch, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oath that the said infant child as aforesaid came to its death by being lost in the woods & perished to death by hunger and cold on the night of the twelfth of this Instant on Meeting House Branch

Joe Malloy October 25, 1893 at George Lany's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joe Malloy came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in his own hands

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.

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

Dick Keith January 6, 1877 at George Lound's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Dick Keith came to his death by freezing to his death from exposure to the cold

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

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

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

Henry Henderson March 19, 1850 at Henry Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes Do Say that the Said Henry Henderson came to his Death by accidentally fawling in to a Branch near his house while under mental Derangement on the 17th day of March about ten oclock at Knight [sic] and that Henry Henderson in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by Misfortune or accidental Drowning.

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

Titus July 19, 1857 at the Thoroughfair landing, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro slave Titus came to his death by accidental drowning

J. B. Deas February 6, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J. B. Deas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Single Barrell Shot gun in the hands of Durant Easterling & Sinclair Sellers

Willie Sizemore August 7, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the said Willie Sizemore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Lewis Berry February 20, 1815 Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Lewis Berry come to his death by being in [?] in the Cold

Gus Sexton August 11, 1894 at Tildy Austin's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Gus Sexton came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted by his own hand.

William 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

Will Smith December 9, 1882 at Reidville, Reidville, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say by pistol shot accidentally & falling from the mantel piece ... that the said Will Smith ... came to his death by accident

Lincoln Gregory March 5, 1938 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lincoln Gregory received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hands of Bryalus McManns

William Bradley December 29, 1841 at Elizabeth Eubank's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . drink & ardent spirits to an excess so as to intoxicate him so much as to render him incapible of helping himself to where he could have the benefit of fire, and only reached the edge of the field where in his residence was ... and there fell down and perished with Coald.

Richard Stenhouse November 1, 1857 at the house of Richard Stenhouse, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Richard Stenhouse was killed . . . by the accidental falling of a tree near his own house.

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

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