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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Rebecca Sherman child January 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the deceased Rebeccas Sherman came to her death . . .from the effects of an accedental burn

Daniel Fountain Unknown, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths [do] say that he was shot accidentally by [a] pistol in the hands of his brother [?] Fountain about seven years old, about three Oclock yesterday evening and died [?] morning near Wallaceville[?].

Maty slave December 10, 1833 at the dwelling house of Jesse Hammet, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they are of the opinion that the said slave came to her death by the visitation of God in afflicting her with fits or spasms and being neglected by those who had her in their care

Benjamin Franklin Zimmerman June 18, 1932 near Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning in the waters of big Juniper creek-1/2 miles north East of the Town of Patrick, S. C.

George Lindsay May 7, 1945 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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].

Ben F. Williams March 13, 1895 at M. C. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ben F. Williams came to his death by accident or misfortune

slave slave January 25, 1836 at the plantation of Daniel L. Desaushore[?], Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being intoxicated, falling in a rut or gully and thereby the storm[?] rain & sleet has drowned or frose [sic] to Death

Emma Beser November 24, 1877 at Broom's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Emma Beser[?] came to her death by accidental drowning

Nancy Crawford August 9, 1876 at Cooly's Grave Yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death. . .near the door of her house (being in labor) by misfortune or accident

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.

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Eldrige Padgett February 9, 1859 at Eidson Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the decased came to his death by being intoxicated and caught on fire and burnt to death in his own house

John T. Parker November 23, 1945 at Chesterfield, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John T. Parker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burns suffered in House fire, Origins Unknown

Peter Knox July 23, 1878 near Calrandellers[?] Ferry on Tugalo River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Peter Knox . . . in Tugaloo River came to his death accidentally by drowning in attempting to cross said river

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

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

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

Pauline Abraham child November 19, 1882 at Archey Ramsey's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Pauline Abrham came to her death by some cause to them unknown

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][.]

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

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

Tom Slave, old negro man January 12, 1853 near the residence of Harry Scott, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that the dead body of Tom lying in the branch near the residence of Henry Scott . . .came to his death, by accident or misfortune

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.

John Dawkins July 14, 1904 [in] Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

before their oaths do say that the said John Dawkins caused to his death by his own negligence

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

John Harry February 2, 1827 at the House of John Harry, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their oathes that they are of opinion that the deceased came to his death by falling from his hors [sic] when he was driving his waggon in his own plantation

Samuel F. Evans Sr. January 23, 1878 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the Said Samuel F. Evans Sr. came to his death by accidental burning

Robert E. Tuck December 14, 1879 at the residence of L M. Gentry, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rob't E. Tuck came to his death at the residence of L M. Gentry ... from exposure tot he rain and cold ... while in a state of intoxication

Lizzy Rardon September 28, 1879 at Clansey Holloways plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say the said Lizzy Rardon came to her death by falling into the creek and strugling and from exaustion and being chilled

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

Priner Davis near Simm Davis' Spring, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Priner Davis came to his death from apoplectic Fit-brought on by drinking bad whiskey and exposure near the Public Road in Fairfield Co SC, leading form Winnsboro to Kincades Bridge on or between the night of the 13th and the morning of the 15th of January 1883[.]

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

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

David West boy January 30, 1862 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that it was by accidently drowning in the Graniteville Factory canel

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

John Prince July 15, 1856 at Miles[?] Southerns[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by the excessive use of [?] liquors and lying in the hot sun.

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

Unknown Unknown February 16, 1923 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he came to his death from cold & exposure

James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

Minnie Johnson December 22, 1892 at John Bettis plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Minnie Johnson came to her death by strangulation caused by an accidental fall into shaws creek

Oliver Lee February 17, 1892 at Cokers Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Oliver Lee came to his death by accidently falling upon a circular saw while in motion cutting of both legs near the body causing instantly death on the 17th day of February 1892 about 10 Oclock am at Cokers Saw Mill

Glasco Ferly at the house of Glasco Ferly, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said colored Ferly came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentily inflicted upon himself

J. W. Park May 24, 1870 at Black Jack, Fairfield County, SC

The Jury having heard the testimony came to the conclusion that the deceased came to his death from drowning

Alexander Martin September 8, 1867 at the residence fo B.W. Knight, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander L. Martin came to his death by the falloing of a tree some of the limbs striking dec'd on the back of the head neck and shoulders

Starkes Whitlock February 16, 1853 at J P Poters, Union County, SC

upon ther oaths do say that he was the cause of his own death . . .come to his own by Drinking & Exsposure by laying out in the wet & cole

Gus Sexton August 11, 1894 at Tildy Austin's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Gus Sexton came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted by his own hand.

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

J. J. Gulladge December 24, 1869 at the house of J. J. Gulladge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J J Gulledge did come to his death by accident

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