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
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.

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[.]

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

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

John Larkin August 7, 1836 at the house of Daniel Berry[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that his death was an accident that on Saturday about 5 of the clock while attempting to cross Broad River at D Hueys ferry him and his horse fell from the flat into the river sunk and was taken up dead

Harcolas slave, negro man November 18, 1842 at an old house Standing in the plantation of Mrs. Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they do believe that from Exposure age and a burn which he had received some days previous was the cause of his death

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

Hattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

Jack slave [runaway] November 21, 1835 at Andersonville, Anderson County, SC

do say that Elias E. Harrison ... a certain gun of the value of seven dollars then and there charged with gun powder and leaden buck shot, which he the said Elias E. Harrison then and there had and held in both is hands, then and there accidently and by misfortune and against the will of him the said Elias E. Harrison discharged and....and shot out of the said gun him the said negro man in and upon the right arm, shoulder and back of the head....ten wounds with said shot, which were mortal wounds

Mingo Mosley January 13, 1883 at Samuel[?] Corley's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Mindo Mosley came to his death by accidental burning

Miles Pryor July 6, 1878 at Hobby's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he caused his death by accident, the accidental discharging of a gun, emptying its contents in the head

negro Child negro Child August 27, 1849 at James C. Mingo, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the said child was axcidently or negligently Smothered and killed by its mother in her Sleep

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

Mary Ann July 2, 1855 at the plantation of Henry Pitts on Walnut Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said nego Girl, Mary Ann, her lying dead came to her death by drowning in Walnut Creeke on the night of the first of July

Sallie Holmes December 20, 1893 at D. P. Bodies[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the said Sallie Holmes aforesaid came to her death from accidental burning

Elenora Yongue near Struther[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elenora Yongue came to her death by accidental burning.

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

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.

John D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

George Washington Crowder October 19, 1866 at Grannetville, Edgefield County, SC

by there oaths do say that the said George Washington Crowder came to his death became entangled in the bands[?] carried the factory at Grannetville in the state aforesaid and was drawn up by a board of the of the shaff[?]. . . by Misfortan or accident

George Keerison November 22, 1856 at Alston Depot, G & C.[?] R. Road, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say,- that according to the testimony given, the said George Keerison was crossing Broad River on the G & 6 R.R. Bridge at Alston in a state of intoxication on the 4th instant, and accidentally fell off said Bridge, which was the cause of his death

Sam Malloy May 30, 1899 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

From the evidence I got from the party's there the deceased was accidentaly drowned

James McCannon May 1, 1821 at Joseph Hughes, Union County, SC

say on our oths that the said James McCannon did come to his death by the act of God . . .by attmting to Crose a Creek by the name of Hughs Creek and was forthwith drownded

Tom slave May 5, 1805 at plantation of John Chesnut, Esquire, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that the said negro in escaping from him [the overseer] attempted to swim the river, and was drowned

John T. Wood August 14, 1865 at the house of Dr. B.F. Kilgore, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John T. Wood. . .was drowned in a hole of water near Dr. Kilgore's

Thomas Thompson at Capt. Manus' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Thompson came to his death from the affect of a burn caused by falling in the fire[.]

Mary Love January 17, 1876 at Mrs. Clovers Spencers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Mary Love came to here Death by being accidently burned

Emma Hunter May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say from the Testimony given that Emma Hunter Died from the Effects of fire; That she died on Tesday the 17th inst having been burnt in a house, that was burnt down on the plantation of M.B. Pool on the night of the 16th inst. All Accidental...

Thomas J. Geer November 23, 1860 Thomas J. Geer's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say the said Thomas Green did . . . in the fore noon of the same day came to his death by fits and accidental drowning

slave slave December 4, 1852 at the plantation known as Stockton's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by his appearance from privation and exposure

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

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

John August 16, 1859 at Edw Garreth, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Boy John aforesaid came to his death by going in to the water and by accident got into deep water and not being able to swim was drowned.

[illegible] [illegible] November 17, 1920 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jurors find that the Cause to her death by Coming in Cantack with live wire [???] Light & [???] [???]

West Myers boy August 8, 1866 on Washington [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that sd West Myers was accidentally drowned by Cicero Caveton[?]

Eldrige Padgett February 9, 1859 at Eidson Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the decased came to his death by being intoxicated and caught on fire and burnt to death in his own house

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

John Elmore January 3, 1883 at Aaron Elmore home on LE Foleys plantation, Laurens County, SC

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

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

[No official declaration]

Cudjo Johnson November 29, 1875 at the Poor House, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceased came to his death by a gun shot wound in at the hands of Thomas N. Smart, and that the said Thomas N. Smart fired [in the dark] without intending to shoot deceased or any human being, but believed it was a dog or some other brute animal

A. J. Means March 1, 1875 at Sam'l Means, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths . . .do say that the aforesaid Means came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in the hands of Pinkney Brewton [?]

Walter Manningall November 21, 1906 at Clearview in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say Walter Manningall came to his death by accidental burning

Josephine A. Brookes Thrift infant child March 28, 1860 at Delila Jenkinses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the child came to its death by being smothered by its mother by accident

Daniel October 8, 1834 at Maj. John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths that from evidence that the said Negro came to his Death by Mischance by plunging into the River at or near the head of Maj. John Black's Millhouse in said District through fear dogs which were threatened by calling & encouraging of a Negro man, Doc, the property of Reginald Duncan by order of John Odell, supposing him to be a runaway.

Infant child of Amanda Williams at the residence of Alex Cockerell, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say having viewed the dead body of Amanda Williams infant and heard the evidence of witnesses and this our verdict that it came to its death form congestion of the lungs.

Samuel Brock Sr. March 23, 1884 at Samuel Brocks Sr, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Samuel Brock Sr came to his death by being burned to death in his own hous supposed accidently

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

Willis Watson June 14, 1876 at the river bank on Saulda one mile above Gambell old Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that said decd came to his death by accidental drowning in the River of Saluda.

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