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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

William Hopkins at J. Feaster Lyles' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun in the hands of Robert Hopkins[.]

John Pope August 29, 1828 at the house of James Watson, Laurens County, SC

do say upon there oathes (after hearing all the testimony and Examining the body of the afore Said John Pope) all are of opinion that the afore said John Pope were intoxicated by spirituous liquors and received a fall from his horse which occasioned his death...

Cland Elam child March 17, 1892 at A. J. Norris Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Child Came to its death from a wound inflicted by fire accidentily

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

William Vaugh August 28, 1842 at the dweling house of Patrick Williams, Union County, SC

adduced that William Vaughn came to his death by the fawling of a certain oak tree a part of which was found [?] his mangled limbs which had [?] shattered his Skull

George Craig January 19, 1825 at the house of Mathew Richmond, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that, according evidence and their own belief a tree which he assisted to cutdown, by misfortune fell on him and broke his scull on the evening of the 18th.

James Edwards little boy January 14, 1876 at Enoree Church, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid James Edwards came to his death by being accidentally burnt by his clothers taken on fire

Elmer Brookfield March 17, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Elmer Brookfield received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun in the hands of Woodroe McQunn

Titus July 19, 1857 at the Thoroughfair landing, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro slave Titus came to his death by accidental drowning

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.

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

Ella Davis at the dwelling house of Alice Simms, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Ella Davis, being a child of six years, and having been left alone in the dwelling house of said Alice Simms by the said Alice, the mother of said child, in the afternoon of the day aforesaid, no one being present and able to protect her, accidently took fire on her clothing and died from burning and suffocation[.]

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.

Sally Shedd February 19, 1867 at the plantation of James Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

the Jury after hearing the evidence in the cause of the death of Sally Shed and examined the dead Body. Come to the conclusion that the Said Sally came to her death by the discharge of a gun in the hands of the Girl Rachel, by accident.

John Cotton March 15, 1826 at the river bank in Mr. Jno. Nelson's field, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that on the second day January last that the said John Cotton came to his death by attempting to go to the shore from a boat that was lodged in the shoal near Jones Mills within said district and was drowned accidentally and not otherwise

Georgianna Watts October 11, 1891 at R.O. Hairstons, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say, that she came to her death, By being burnt in the house, it being burnt on her By Accident.

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

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

Allen Bauknight freedman June 11, 1866 at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Bauknight came to his death by a discharge of a Gun in the hands of Suson Bauknight freeman his wife by the Gun going of axcidentally

Isaac Oliphant November 9, 1882 at Ritch Thomson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said Isaac Oliphant Came to his death by a Gun Shot Wound unfortunately or accidentally in his own hands

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 Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Wyatt Harris April 22, 1887 at Limestone Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Whay Harris was killed by accident at Limestone Springs ... by a rock thrown by a blast at Simon's works striking him on top of the head while he was at work at Richardson's kiln and killing his instantly

Mary Brown's infant at William Brice's place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that said infant came to its death by Accidental Suffocation.

Austin Putnam July 14, 1867 at Spencer Mills, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Austin Putnam came to his death by drowning, by mischance or accident, on said Spencer's Mill - pond about 4 oclock P.M.

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. . .

Bob May 31, 1831 at Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being accidentally drowned in the Catawba River at Rocky Mount Ferry

Tom Waldrum colored man (Free) January 20, 1857 in the woods near Mr Avory Franklins, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Tom Waldrum in manner and form aforesaid he was frozen to death in the woods. . .some time during the snow storm

James L. Hill January 10, 1867 at James L Hills, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said James L Hill came to his death by Mischance or accident

William Foster December 20, 1845 at Bishop's old field, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by freezing to death from being intoxicated

Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Adam Davis February 5, 1841 at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC

uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated

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.

Oscar Matthews November 23, 1877 at C.H.[?] Matthews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths say that the aforesaid Oscar Mathews came to his death on the 22nd day of November 1877 at the Mill dam by the accidental falling from the pear[?] trial[?] of the grist mill or from drowning after the fall unknown to the jury[.]

slave slave June 24, 1843 at Thomas Holland's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that according to evidence believe the said child was strangled to death by its mother's milk

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

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

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

Willis Cumings child October 10, 1890 at C. M. Lanhams, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Willis Cumings came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of John Cumings by accident

Delila Tucker July 31, 1835 at the house of Isaac M Caffertys, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Delila Tucker came to her death by [?] from the wounds probably caused by a fall from a fence

William Prince July 9, 1851 at the house of John W Garrett, Edgefield County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Prince . . .come to his death by accidentally drowning himself

Cornelius Johnson at Samuel Johnson's Residence, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death [at] his Fathers house, on the 15 [Dec] 1892 from burns frm Accidentaly catching on f[ire][.]

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.

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

Bluford Papley November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Bluford Paply came to his death ("by the Explosion of Thos L Badgetts Boiler")

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jusin Turner. . .came to his death by mischance being exposed during a cold night without doors and from evidence quite intoxicated

Howard Gale June 13, 1879 at Jacksons Holinns[?] Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oath do say that the Said Howard Gale came to his death by accidental droning

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC
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

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