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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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.

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

M. A. Lipscomb March 11, 1880 at late residence of David Lipscomb, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to her death from hemorhage caused by premature labor, said labor produced by diarhea

Washington negro man February 1, 1857 at Pullok[?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe Decsd Came to his death by misfortune though intoxication & exposure to rain & cold

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

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

William Perry January 7, 1894 in the county and state aforesaid, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid William Perry came to his death from gun shot wound in the hands of Calib Hunter. . .said wound was accidental

William Bently March 21, 1851 at Wm Bently's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that the said Wm Bently came to his death . . . by a wall plate that fell from the top of the house which he was Building which was by misfortune or accident

Lee Campbell December 24, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Lee Cambell came to his death from a gun shot woud who was shot by Tracy Blackwell. The shooting was acdently done.

Duke negro man March 25, 1855 near Dennis Carpenters, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid negro slave name Duke. . .did come to his death from intemperance and exposure

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

Emanuel Griffin July 28, 1873 at T. H. Clark's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emanuel Griffin came to his death by accidental drowning

John Johnson March 2, 1814 at the plantation of John Mitchel, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the sd. John Johnson came to his death on the night of the 26th February last, by Drowning

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

Ally Pollard February 5, 1868 on the farm of J.G. Mabury, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he froze to death while intoxicated in the public road near J.G. Mabury'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

William Johnson Senior December 30, 1869 at the first Swamp on the Road leading from the public Road to Hughes Landing on Little Pee Dee River, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that we Suppose he came to his death by mischance

Georgia Brower December 27, 1879 at A. E. Evans, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Georgia Brown came to her death by being accidentally burned by fire on this October 27th 1879

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

William McCode January 20, 1870 at Luke McCoy's [?], Anderson County, SC

do say that he came to his death . . . from exposure in the rain & cold on the roadside . . . and came to his death by accident.

Tom slave October 25, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Tom [a] slave of Joseph Murphy came to his death by a fall from a log and broke his neck

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

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Rock Pearson January 15, 1878 at G.B. Pearson's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by mischance. That Rock Pearson in manner and form aforesaid, caem to his death by misfortune or accident

Martin Wheeler November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say "that he came to his death from the Explosion of Mr Badgetts Boiler."

Elijah Sullivan April 24, 1898 at Cow-buel[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he died from heart failure and the falling of tree across him by accident

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death . . .by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing . . .or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

Lizzie Clyburn October 10, 1924 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon taking the testimony of the three witnesses herein enclosed I concluded that the empaneling of a jury was unnecessary, as it was clearly shown by the witnesses that deceased dies of natural causes.

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

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.

Jesse 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.

Infant of Lucy Fowler Infant of Lucy Fowler April 23, 1870 at the Barrieing [sic] ground near the Residence of John Ball, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say the said child came to its death by accidental suffication [sic].

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

Polly Henderson December 28, 1876 at James Mitchell's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased came to her death . . . by freezing through misfortune or accident

Mrs. M. C. Williams October 13, 1908 [at] Mrs. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Mrs. M.C. Williams did some to her death by a gun shot wound by George Williams . . .

Franklin Turner son December 26, 1850 at John Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the aforesaid Franklin Turner . . .came to his death by misfortune or accident

Duff Gist June 20, 1893 at Beaver Dam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Duff Gist came to his death from Congestion of the Bowels.

Ephram Chapman February 15, 1885 at Thomson Creek Bridge on Cheraw Road, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to his death by freezing on the night of the 12th of Feb. A D 1885 and the deceased was unknown to us all

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Eva Blocker February 11, 1893 at J. P. Wrights Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eva Blocker. . .came to her death by accidental burning

Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

Evans Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Evans Campbell came to his death by Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

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

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

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

Rowland Cash March 11, 1853 at the residence of Ephraim Jackson, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [deceased] came to his death by misfortune or accident

Unknown at the House of Frank Stephanie, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceasd came to his death from Accidental Smothering in bed at its Fathers house[.]

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.

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

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