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 551 - 600 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Jackson Boan January 12, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

Eloise Bird April 23, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Eloise Bird . . .came to her death . . .by misfortune or accident

[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 & [???] [???]

Elliott Wilson at A.W. Ladds', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say he was killed by a tree being accidentally fell upon him

James Adis June 13, 1818 Union County, SC

do say u[?] thr oaths that the desceased [?] come to his by being drowned

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

Unknown December 10, 1877 at Alexander Harris', Fairfield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to its death by being Smothered in bed. & that infant in manner and form afore-Said, came to its death by misfortune or accident

Abram Clement October 6, 1868 at Martin Williamston's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said deceased was killed by the falling of a limb from a tree which he had cut down near the old school house.

Jane slave April 16, 1849 at John J. E. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that . . .the said Jane was accidently or unknowinly smuthered by her mother or some one Else in bead

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to death.

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

Tilman Attaway April 14, 1849 at the corner of the Oharer[?] old field, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the said Tillman Attaway. . .was shot with a load of buck shot discharged from a gun, or pistol, and ... that he the said Samuel Webb Shot the said Tilman Attaway, with a doble barrel Shot gun accidently through a mistake for a Turkey

Duncan Fleming August 6, 1892 at Pervis Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Dunkin Fleming came to his death by accidentaly drowning while in washing in Thomson Creek

Mattie Woods at Jim[?] Sawyer's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say That from the evidence of Dr J E Douglass we conclude the deceased came to its death by a blow on full[?] on its head, caused by the carelessness of children left to attend to it who are not legally reponsible.

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

John Downey February 26, 1873 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors, find the following verdict, That the Deceased, John Downey, cam to his death the twenty fifth day of February 1873. From rupture of the spleen caus by misfortune or accident

Willie Sizemore August 7, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the said Willie Sizemore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Peter Redfearn December 28, 1870 at Hornsboro, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peter Redfearn came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the left foot the gun accidently firing while in the hands of Ben Lowry

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 Child of Caroline Hunter Infant Child of Caroline Hunter January 13, 1872 at Samuel J. Bryson plantion, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths d say We Jurors afforesaid did examine the dead body of the said infant do say that the dead infant came to its death by accidental Smothering. . .

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

Bill negro boy June 20, 1830 at Capt. John Thomas Hooey on Broad River, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .the said boy came to his untimely death by accidentally getting drowned

Wesley Holiday September 14, 1883 at Joseph P. Nabor's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by its mother turning over on it in bed, which was as we believe an accident

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...

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

Mary Thompson June 12, 1878 Anderson County, SC

find that the child has been burnt on the spinal [?] a place as large as a [?] also burnt on the [?] and near mostly all over its body as pieces between [?] as to the cause of her death is from constriction of the brain.

William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Sam Slave June 14, 1858 at Henry Spiers[?], Edgefield County, SC

who came to his death by drowning in Butlers Mill Pond

Beatrice McGuine March 23, 1896 at W. A. Buchannon's Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Beatrice McGuine came to her death from strangulation while sucking its mother

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

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
William Johnson July 31, 1866 at David Gunter's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . in John L. Southern's mill pond by being drowned accidentally while bathing

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

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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[?]

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.

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

Henrietta Brown January 9, 1878 at Thomas Blair's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to her death by her clothes taking fie, and was burned to death.

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

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

Aaron Hardin June 24, 1845 at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC

do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.

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

Peggyann Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

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

John Pike November 15, 1856 at William Pike's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by some means to the jurors unknown

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

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

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

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