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 enslaved child was as potentially valuable as a Lexus, infant death in the quarter was more rigorously investigated. Coupled with deep prejudices against enslaved mothers, inquests typically found that an unnamed “negro Child” was “negligently Smothered” by its mother, or that the enslaved child Lora was “accidentally smothered” in the family bed, or that the enslaved 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
Violet Gray February 25, 1877 at the house of Violet Gray, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Violet Gray came to her death by accidentally falling into the fire and burning to death at her own home

Thomas Rosseter[?] August 30, 1852 at Hamburg SC, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he, said Thos Rosseter came to his death by drowning . . .in the street in the town of Hamburg, during the high water Backed[?] out from the Savannah River

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

Elijah February 8, 1860 at the house of D.r J. H. Norman, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant Slave "Elijah" the property of Eliza Jane Hughes (A Mintor) came to its death by accident by being overlain either by its mother or another child of hers

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

negro man negro man August 7, 1853 at or near Wm [?] old Mill, Union County, SC

Can Clude that the Said negro man Came to his Death by drowing

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

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

Butler Farmer December 20, 1890 on M B Pools Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Butler Farmer came to his death "from a gun shot wound from the hands of James Gowan or Henry Jones, supposed to be an accident."

Lilla Olophant female infant August 18, 1879 at Simpton[?] Pinns[?], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by accidental drownding on Sunday evening ... crossing Logg creek

John Groce June 12, 1876 at John Groce's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he John P. Groce came to his death . . . by accidental drowning in the mill pond of W J Bates while bathing in company with P D Bates, Morgan Flynn and Benjame Cannon[?]

Fannie Patton November 18, 1898 at Francis Williams house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that upon examination find that Fannie Patton Came to her death by accidental Drowning

Margret Ann Kinncade at W.B. Murry's Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death from a burn by accidently catching on fire, Sept the 3d, 1886[.]

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said child. . .came to his death by accidental Suffocation

slave slave January 17, 1827 near McRae's mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to it by intemperate drinking & exposure to the cold in an open field

Archie Oliver May 9, 1909 at the home of J. P. Thurman, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, so say: That the said Archie Oliver came to his death by a gun shot wound in the head= said gun being at the time in the hands of Willis Thurman said sun being discharged accidentally = without any effort of the said Willis Thurman = he at the time not knowing that the gun was loaded

Thomas child of Thomas M Chandler September 11, 1850 at Thos M. Chandler's house, and at the old Pottery, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death on the 8th ist by accidental drowning

African Negroe Man African Negroe Man January 20, 1807 at the Common Gaol, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid African negroe man slave, on the night between the nineteenth and twentieh day of this instant being confined in the common gaol of Laurens district aforesaid, then and there died of the visitation of God, he having forzen to death, not having since sufficient to keep on his clothing, which was furnished by the gaoler of the said District, he having in the room in which he was confined by himself, four blankets, and when found being entirely naked, and then and there in manner & form aforesaid came to his death and not otherwise.

Sallie Bell Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

Alexander January 2, 1862 at Dr. Austins, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander came to his death Jany 1st by accident having been caught in the running gear of the gin.

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

Minnie Cason June 9, 1883 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the death of said Minnie was caused by falling into a well from 25 to 30 feet deep?

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

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

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

James Edward Settle boy March 9, 1884 on Henry Hill Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon there [?] that said James Edward Settle Came to his death from Epellepcy and Starvation

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

Austin Dunlap April 10, 1894 at Waterman Robinson's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Austin Dunlap came to his death from the effects of burns received on the 9th of April 1894

Benjamin Franklin Zimmerman June 18, 1932 near Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning in the waters of big Juniper creek-1/2 miles north East of the Town of Patrick, S. C.

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC

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

Mike negro man September 13, 1844 at Dr John D. Nicholsons Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death at the said Mill the tenth instant when the said Mill broke and washed away, and at the falling in of the mill the deceased received a wound over his right eye which stuned him and caused him to drown

Infant of Albert Davis at Crosbyville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the cause of death was suffocation

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

George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Bob slave December 26, 1845 at the residence Mr. Parks, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being drunk and exposed to the weather which was wet and very cold

infant March 20, 1883 at Jerry Frey's House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Jerry Frey's House ... said infant child came to its death by being miscarried at a stage too early for it to possibly survive

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

Henry Davis October 30, 1857 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

are of the opinion that Henry Davis came to his death by excessive drink, cold and a fall which rendered him unable to take care of himself.

George Roseman January 30, 1883 at T. J. Sullivan's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by the accidental falling of a log across his breast.

Unknown July 13, 1830 at Rocky Mount Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that upon the evidence adduced that the said child was found on the evening of the 18th Inst. found in a fish Trap near the above named ferry prior to that time they are not able to asertain and from not being able to asertain any marks of violence do believe to[?] come to its death by being drowned

William Sandy Little June 18, 1890 at the Belk Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said W.S. Little came to his death by accient from falling in the well & being drowned

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Selena Allen child, boy, baby December 12, 1890 at Mrs Blacks[?] Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Selena Allen came to her death from Strangulation

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

Peter Gadsden November 28, 1873 near Doko[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That on the night of the twentieth day of November 1873, before the hour of midnight the said Peter Gadsden being alone in the house, on the Plantation of L.M.[?] Bookhart[?] was burned to death by the accidental catching of fire to the building near the chimney which resulted int he destruction of the building and the death of said Peter Gadsden, and that...Peter Gadsden...came to his death by accidental burning

Kenneth Martor[?] January 15, 1852 at Thomas Samar's[?] Mills on horse creek, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say the decd came to his death . . .by becoming accidentaly entangled in, and with the running gear of Mr Thos G. Lamar's circular saw mill

Infant of Solomon Huguy Infant of Solomon Huguy [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Fanny July 22, 1856 at "Gressetts Landing or Store Landing" on the Waccamaw River, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said slave Fanny the porperty . . . of the said R. G. W. Grissett did on Sunday the 20.th Inst came to her death by Misfortune or accidental drowning

Lucilla S. Gresham Chester Co., at Shelton Depot, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That L.S. Gresham in manner and form afresaid, came to her death by accident drown in broad river at Fish Dam Ferry on the 4th day of February 1895

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