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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

Lafayette Valentine January 1, 1873 at Jack Valentines, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lafayette Valentine came to his death by the accidental firing of a Pistol in the hands of J.B. Watts.

Louisa Wooden October 13, 1893 at Mose Woden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Louisa Wooden came to her death by an accidental gunshot wound in the hands of Moses Wooden

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

John Rufus Russell October 10, 1884 at John L Russell House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said John Rufus Russell come to his death by suffocation Caused by accidentally falling with head downward into a hole in a pile of seed Cotton

William Potter February 14, 1875 in Spartanburg County, Cherokee Township, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William came to his death by the mischance or accident of being drowned

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.

H. L.[?] Davis Fairfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Jeff Bird January 8, 1878 at G.B. Pettigrews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun

F. H. McNair February 2, 1899 on E.M. Wells' Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the jurors aforesaid do say that F H McNair in manner aforesaid came to his death by natural causes

Henry Goodman May 4, 1851 at or near to William H Adams on little horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Goodman in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by drowning in said little horse Creek

Washington Cash March 8, 1873 at Cash's Depot, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Washington Cash came to his death by tetanus or lock jaw caused by some accident unknown to the Jury.

Willie Senteel August 9, 1885 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Willie Senteel came to his death by accidental drowning at Clifton

John Findley March 22, 1819 at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

Thomas Welheu[?] June 19, 1868 at Benjamin Better[?] wheat field on the Columbia & Augusta Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a pistol shot accidentally discharged by his own hands

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

Enoch Adams November 23, 1916 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death by caving in of Cotton Seed upon him at the Cheraw oil mill being smothered.

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[.]"

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

William Pettifoot free black January 21, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by being accidentally overlaid & smothered in the course fo the night by its mother

infant child infant child December 9, 1891 at a colored cemetary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death from the burns that was found upon its body

Sherman Bowden May 7, 1878 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said Sherman Bowden while bathing in the Lawson's Fork Creek ... accidentally fell into water over his head and was drowned

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

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

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

Charles Flowers June 13, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I find that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

Priner Davis near Simm Davis' Spring, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Priner Davis came to his death from apoplectic Fit-brought on by drinking bad whiskey and exposure near the Public Road in Fairfield Co SC, leading form Winnsboro to Kincades Bridge on or between the night of the 13th and the morning of the 15th of January 1883[.]

S. F. White November 22, 1889 at or on General Bates Plantation, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Mr. S. F. White came to his death by falling into the fire while suffering from an epileptic fit

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

James slave December 4, 1843 at J. C. Jeter's graveyard, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .he must have come to his death by exposure to cold from being lying out in the woods or some cause to the jury unknown

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.

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

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

Charley Geeter October 27, 1881 at Violets Geeter's house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Charley Geeter came to his death by accident from fire

William H Maharey May 25, 1863 at Haslin Factory on the Procelian Manufacturing Company, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the aforesaid Wm H Mahorey did come to his death . . .by Mischance of Misfortune or accident caused by Fixing of the Machinery of the Meed Mill and was chrushed to By the Cog Wheel of said of Mill

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

Glasco Ferly at the house of Glasco Ferly, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said colored Ferly came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentily inflicted upon himself

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

J. W. Park May 24, 1870 at Black Jack, Fairfield County, SC

The Jury having heard the testimony came to the conclusion that the deceased came to his death from drowning

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

Willie Parker December 21, 1892 at S. Parkers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Willie Parker came to his death by being struck on his head by a falling Tree Accidinetly

Joseph Ruffington January 9, 1893 at Thos O Attaways, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph Ruffington came to his death accidentally by the falling of a tree cut by Pick Deloach

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.

James Lee March 1, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Lee received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Exposure Caused by Extreme Drunkenness

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

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

M. Harrison son December 16, 1876 at John Harrison's residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . .by accident gun shot wound at his own hands

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