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 501 - 550 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Edmund Cleveland December 4, 1871 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that sd. deceased came to his death by the falling of the wall of Duncan's new building in the town of Spartanburg

Wilson Campbell December 26, 1880 at Henry Sorrels, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say it appears that the deceased came to his death by mischance by freezing to death the finding shall conclude That that Wilson Campbell, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said slave John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

John Whitlock boy September 8, 1869 at Grainteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an act of Providence being subject to fits

Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Thomas Anderson March 24, 1835 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Anderson being highly intoxicated, walked into a deep pool of water inadvertently and was drowned.

Daniel Gallis January 31, 1819 at house of Daniel Gillis, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . . by cutting down a oak he was accidentally struck by a limb of the said tree and instantly killed

Robert Gresham Chester Co., at Shelton Depot, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oath do say that the said Robert Gresham was drowned at Fish Dam Ferry in Chester County on the [1]4 day of February A.D 1895

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

Margret Douglass March 10, 1892 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Margaret Doublass came to her death by drowning while attempting to cross Thompson Creek near Craigs mill

Leander Pack August 14, 1883 at the residence of Elias Atkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Leander Pack came to his death ... by a blow of a fallen tree of which the decased were cutting

Robert Burns February 3, 1873 at Alston, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by axidental Drowning

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

John Young June 27, 1891 at the residence of John Young, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Young came to his death from sum Strok

Lodrick Dobson February 18, 1836 at the dwelling house of John Sarratt, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [he] came to his death by misfortune being intoxicated his clothes caught fire & was burned

Peggy McLeod December 25, 1870 at George Rorie's dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peggy McLeod, in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by being accidently burnt

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.

Kitty Young near Rock City, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Kity Young came to her death from a pistol shot wound, the pistol being fired by her little brother Johnnie Young, and that the shooting was purely accidental.

Jane Forgy March 10, 1896 on the plantation of Mattie McPherson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she the said Jane Forgy came to her death from the Effects of a gun shot wound from the hands of Tom Forgy by Accident on the 9th day of March inst.

Chaney Pilgrim August 12, 1877 at the plantation of James Anderson, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Chaney Pilgrim came to her death while in the bed with her mother Julia Pilrim. . .from some cause or causes unknown to the jury

Dora Woods May 3, 1885 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "By accident or mishap by a fall from the banister or shelf of the piazza while playing there."

Samuel Harrison February 18, 1881 at [inelligible - faded], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say they Believe that . . .Samme Harison Came to his death by the Carlesnes of his Mother Milley Worthington

Samuel H. Young May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say . . .that the aforesaid sally . . .came to her death by misfortune or accident

Dobydick Golding May 12, 1875 at Office Trial Justice Bird, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Deceased Dobydick Golding came to his death in the County & State aforesaid on Saturday May 8th AD 1875 by a Gun Shot wound with a Shot Gun in the hands of one Duck Miller alias Fuller and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid. Do say that the aforesaid Doby Dick Golding came to his death by mischance by accidental discharge of a double barrel shot gun very carelessly handled by one Duck Miller alias Fuller.

Muse slave September 18, 1831 at the resident of Roger Parish, Kershaw County, SC

do upon their oaths sayeth that the sd. Slave above mentioned died by the visitation of God a natural death on the 18 Instant. . .by lying in the open air the weather being very cool and he being very old and very thin clothed

Sarah Robison June 30, 1806 at Abraham Maddens Mill, Laurens County, SC

Do say on there oaths that fore said Sarah Robison came to her Death by Misfortune.

John Harrington February 25, 1896 at Dr. J. W. McKay's Plantation on the Pee Dee River, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That John Harrington came to his death by accidental drowning

Charles slave July 31, 1851 at the house of John M. Norris Esqr in Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that by his head being mashed and and his scull broken at the gin house of John M. Norris . . .by the gin running gear, his head passing between the cogs and trunal[?] head, rounds or Wollower

Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

infant infant January 24, 1893 at Clintonwards, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant of Millie Hamond came to its death by a cause unknown

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

William Fortune November 24, 1873 at Jerkens Stabberd, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We find that the deceased Wm Fortune came to his death by excessive use of ardent spirits and exposure to cold, producing Lung congestion of the lungs and other viscera.

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson . . .died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Zilpha Fisher July 19, 1882 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said Zilpha Fisher came to her death from sun stroke

Chas. Youngue at the plantation of Dr.[?] B. Estes, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that-Charles Youngue died from the effect of being drowned

Georgiana Fowler July 28, 1885 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Georgiana Fowler came to her death by a dislocation of the cervical vertebra from a fall in a fainting fit

James Perry December 27, 1894 at Mt Enon Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon oaths do say that the said Jim Perry aforesaid came to his death from the firing of his own Gun. . .by first fireing of his gun at a Rabbit Broke his gun stock threw up the Barrel and discharged the other load which caused his death

W. H. Davis November 1, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that W. H. Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by gun shot in the hands of self-inflicted accidentally

Lucy Ellen Jane Rivers November 9, 1882 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Lucy Ellen Jane Rivers came to her death by accidental burning Nov 9th 1882

Martha Hubbard January 1, 1912 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Sam October 31, 1840 at the house of Nelson [?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Sam came to his death by the shot of a gun -which gun was accidently shot by a negro boy Allen about 8 years of age

Male Infant Male Infant March 20, 1884 at the Jeff Sumerel place, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say; that the deceased male infant came to his death by suffocation or mischance. . .

Booker negro March 30, 1823 at the plantation called Flint Hill[?], Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the sd. negro. . .was axacery [sic] to his own death by drinking to [sic] much spirits and being exposed to the inclemency of the weather

female infant Slave female infant Slave May 15, 1847 at A. S. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon oaths do say that . . .they do believe the child must have been Smothered by its mother in bed

John slave November 13, 1849 at the house of Mrs. J.S. McRae, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the falling of a tree

Jackson Boan January 12, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Charles negro man February 27, 1850 at Scotts Shoals on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he was drowned by accident, and that the body was too much decayed to admit of examination.

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