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
John Thomas October 6, 1852 at Line Creek, Greenville County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they think he much intoxicated, and in attempting to crop[?] the River fell off on a rock under the Bridge broke his skull and so stunned him that he was immediately drowned

Alcy negro child July 22, 1851 at B. J. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the dieast came to its death by being overlaid by its mother

Maggie Henderson at the Dr. Sam Mobley place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Maggie Henderson came to her death from pistol shot wound, discharged by her sister, Millie Henderson accidentily between midnight and day on the 13th of Feb 1886 at the residence of Hall Henderson on the place of Caleb Craig[.]

Sally E. Hanna October 19, 1875 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Sallie E Hanna came to her death by being smothered, accidently during the night of the 18th Inst

Clarrisa Boyd May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death from the Effects fire being in a house that was burnt over her all by Accident or misfortune.

Lucius Walker October 5, 1869 at James Doziers plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "That Lucius Walker came to his death by having accidentally fallen into the machinery of the Cotton gin of Mr James Dozier. His body passing through a pair of cog wheels in motion and breaking his spine

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

Willie Hendrix Stricklin March 23, 1901 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I have this day helt a perliminary examination over the dad body of Willie Hendrix Stricklin and from the evidence of witnesses I do not deam it nesary to hold an inqest but from Such witness find that the sed Willie Hendrix Stricklin came to his dath from none others than natural causes

Joseph A. McJunkin March 15, 1858 at Wm Hawkins House, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe the Decd came to his death from what testimony they can get from a [?] Fits[?] & in that condition had fallen in to the river where he Decsd was Fishing & drowned

James Spradley August 19, 1808 near Sander's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that ... the said James Spradley happening to be close behind the said George Nettles looking at the dogs afighting received the contents of the said gun consisting of a load of powder and buck shot in his forehead just over his left eye which shot shot away a considerable part of his skull and brains [and] in one hour after his receiving the said wound, [he] died of the same

Abram negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at Henry L Maysons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Abram came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the savanah river

Sloan freedman November 19, 1866 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [Sloan] came to his death by being burnt to death by the accidental burning of the Gin house of Major A. M. Hamilton. . .as the jury could ascertain in cause of the fire the presumption being that It was through matches, in the possession of the said Sloan

Unknown June 26, 1856 at a spot near the Wateree River and on or near the Road leading to Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after such examination as was in their power to make they are clearly of opinion that the decased came to his death by falling into the ditch leading from Bolton's[?] Branch while in a state of intoxication and being unable to help himself was drowned

Sallie Young December 8, 1890 at Mr A. F Broadwaters Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Sallie Young came to her death by being burned to death by fire from accident

Edward Norris December 26, 1882 at the residence of Aaron Wells, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That on Friday the 22nd day of December 1882 Bil Norris went to Greenwood, and returned home late in the night, very drunk, and that on Saturday morning the 23rd day of Dec about 9 o'clock am the boy Edward decd. Was kicked by Bill Norris in his right-side the decd. lingered til the 26th day of December and died...

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

Samuel Culbertson July 1, 1838 at the house of Samuel Colbertson, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Samuel Colbertson . . .died by the visitation of god by accidently getting drounded in Broad River

Robert Butler boy July 12, 1868 at Robert Butler's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death accidentally by being cought in the gearney of a thrashing[?] [?]

Peter Negro man December 30, 1859 at the Plantation of Mr Wm Bunch, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Peter. . .came to his death by the accidental falling of the top of a tree he appears himself to have cut down

Benjamin Freeman June 24, 1833 at the home of Isaac Hill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the sd. Benj. Freeman went into Tyger River a swimming or by some cause became drowned

Jim Rice on James Jones' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oaths do "say" that Jim Rice in manner and form aforesaid caem to his death by a bucket fallin acidently on his head while walking in a well

Infant of George and Ann Crawford Infant of George and Ann Crawford May 8, 1906 At G A S[??]cers, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: By strangulation the cause of which is unknown to Jury

Joseph Powel August 18, 1879 at [??], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the said Jos Powel came to his death by accidental drouding on Sunday evening crossing Logg creek

Nancy Crawford August 9, 1876 at Cooly's Grave Yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death. . .near the door of her house (being in labor) by misfortune or accident

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

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

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.

John Hester May 13, 1846 at Hamburg in the shop of J.J. Kenedy, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, He died in the said shop . . .while working at the bench in a fit . . .came to his death by misfortune or visitation of God

Smith June 9, 1876 near R. H. Anderson's Tanyard, Anderson County, SC

do say that . . .the said Smith was accidentally drowned in a race dith; that is to say the said Smith in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by misfortune or accident.

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Berry Butler October 9, 1892 at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that he Bearry Butler Came to his death by a pistol in the hands of John Gamillion

George Wilkins January 7, 1886 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht George Wilkins came to his death by misfortune or accident from a gun shot in the hands of Jack Lewis

Mattie 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.

Walden C. Sullivan September 12, 1893 at the house of Mr. John A. Sullivan, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Walden C. Sullivan came to his death by accidental smothering at the Residence of John A. Sullivan

Henry slave June 7, 1834 at the House of John McBeth, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the S. Henry . . .died by the visitation of God by getting drowned accidentaly in Tyger River

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

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

O. P. Brown October 27, 1851 at Durbin Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that he died of a wound received by the fauling of an arch of the Bridge near J.W. Meadors across Durbin Creek which did dislocate his neck and bruise his shoulders and body

infant of Sam Coleman at the residence of Sam Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say that they believe the infant of Sam Coleman came to its death by asphyxia

Daisy Polk May 20, 1889 at Chesterfield CH, Chesterfield County, SC

upon thire oaths do Say That the said Daisy Polk came to her death by the accidental burning of the house

Samuel McCulley December 29, 1839 in Broadway Creek, Anderson County, SC

do say that sd, Samuel McCulley on the 28th day of December 1839 was found dead in Broadway Creek . . . and had no marks of violence on him and died of the [?] of God partly by intemperance partly by cold and partly by drowning

John McManas December 4, 1883 at the Jail, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the deceased John McMenas . . .Came to his death by Concussion of the Brain Caused by a fall from the back door of the jail

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

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

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

George Grant January 16, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Geo Grant came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound accidently inflicted by the hands of Edward Martin.

George Gardner January 22, 1935 in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Gardner received . . . mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hand of Rance Cue some being unavoidable accident

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

Larrence Valentine December 28, 1893 at Mt[?] Willing, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .find that said Larrence Valentine aforesaid came to his death by a gun shot wound in his own hands, from the evidence we believe it was purely accidental

Nancy Weaver December 20, 1893 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that we the jurors aforesaid do say that Nancy aforesaid, came to her death, by a gun shot wound in the hands of Savanah Gray accidently

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia