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
Frank Young June 28, 1874 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Frank Young (colored) while bathing in Broom's Mill Pond in said County before noon on the 27th day of Juned 1874, did then and there come to his death by accidental drowning;

Della Jenkins February 13, 1904 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Jane infant negro December 31, 1840 at E. M. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child was accidently overlayed by its mother

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

Jack negro boy May 14, 1852 at the house of H. W. Posey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said negro boy Jack then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill by drowning in the mill pong

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

Viola 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.

Unknown Unknown March 29, 1922 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

(We find that the deceased come to his death by being burned in the guard house at McBee, S.C. supposed to have been trying to burn his way to free on the morning March 29th 1922)

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

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

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

Edward Young December 26, 1833 at the house of Mrs. Mathews on the waters of Wateree Creek, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that accord=ing to the evidence adduced to them, they believe, that the evening of the 25th December instant Riding at a smart rate, in company with Robert Harper. The said Edward Young by his horse suddently taking a contrary side of a tree from what he expected, or intended. thereby was thrown or dashed against the same which we believe caused the death of the said Edward.

Eddie Summer August 6, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths ... do say that the said Eddie Summer came to his death ... from gun shot wounds received in the right side discharged accidentally

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.

Henry Ethredge June 2, 1899 at the plantation of P.B. Mayson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Henry Ethredge came to his death from foul air in the well

Betsy femail slave July 3, 1862 at William Eller's house, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say dec'd came to her death by an accidental shot from a horsemans[?] Pistole Loaded with buckshot 5 in number openly[?] hitting the Decsd just above the hip passing through inflicting one mortal wound causing her death in the hands of Wm Ellis he shooting at a dog in his yard & Decsd was sitting in the kichin of sd Wm Ellis ... the said Wm Ellis did the said Decsd by accident and Contrary to his will

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

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.

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.

Joe Alexander Ryan October 24, 1912 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that he came to his death in an accidental fall in the arms of his mother

Peter slave November 23, 1862 at Mrs Colemans, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Decsd Came to his by the hand of the Almighty he was Suppond[?] as he was subject to having fits & Falling at any place where he might be. We Conclude that the Decsd fell in the Branch in a Fit on his face & Drownd

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

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

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

Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody May 13, 1889 on the plantation of M.B. Pool, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child died by strangulation accidental.

Angus Jefferson Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Angus Jefferson Smith came to his death by accidental drowning in a water course known as Lawson's Fork 1 /12 miles distant from Spartangburg C.H.

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.

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

Major Crawford July 21, 1880 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that Major Crawford came to his death by accidentally falling from the trestle at Rocky River while in a state of intoxication

Aaron Rogers May 14, 1872 at Isham Johnson's Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Aaron Rogers (the deceased) came to his death by accidental drowning in Thompson's Creek, below Purvis' Bridge, on Sunday the 12th May AD 1872

Jesse May 15, 1850 at Lyles Ford on the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man came to his dead by drowing or accident to the Jurors unknown

James Owens March 13, 1885 at James Owens's house, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that ... James Owens came to his death by misfortunte or accident

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Chas McQueen February 5, 1895 at Chas. McQueen's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Chas McQueen came to his death from some bodily ailment unknown to us and by exposure in the cold

Friday slave October 6, 1830 at the house of Robt Martin, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the sd Friday a slave came to his death by accident . . .on tyson River by the water wheel of Gd[?] Mill catching him the sd Friday a slave between the arm of Gd[?] wheel and a sile near it

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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

Pressly Foster boy August 1, 1882 at Mr. Wm G[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .came to his death by falling in a branch in an epileptic fit & causing strangulation

Addora Wallace Fairfield County, SC

we the undersigned Jurymen do hereby find the following verdict That Addora Wallace came to her death by drowning not Known to the Jury.

James Hillian November 21, 1911 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

unknown negro unknown negro May 15, 1837 at the plantation of A. Murphy or Joseph Prins[?], Union County, SC

Doo say upon their oaths that the sade unknown . . .dide by the visitation of God by getting Drowned in Tigor River

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

Sam Slave June 14, 1858 at Henry Spiers[?], Edgefield County, SC

who came to his death by drowning in Butlers Mill Pond

Rachiel Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths. . .by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

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

Jim Mason free man of color January 9, 1850 near the residence of William Poole, Anderson County, SC

do say that he was of extremely intermperate habits, and altho there is no positive proof that he was drunk when last seen, the jury and unanimously of opinion before all the circumstances, that he was laboring under the influence of drink, and came to his death from the effect of his habits and exposure to the weather, during the rain and storm of Sunday night and monday last.

Fleetwood Moody May 20, 1936 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Fleetwood Moody received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burned in the hands of origin unknown . . . came to his death from burns and suffocation origin unknown

Unknown March 26, 1877 at James McGill's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death by being accidently overlain by its Mother, and was smothered to death.

Mary Harrison September 10, 1894 at Dornville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Mary Harris, aforesaid, came to her death. . .by accidental scalding with hot Water

Edward F. Lyles June 12, 1879 at Wm J. Martin's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands.

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