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 slave child was as potentially valuable as a Lexus, infant death in the quarter was more rigorously investigated. Coupled with deep prejudices against slaves as mothers, inquests typically found that an unnamed “negro Child” was “negligently Smothered” by its mother, or that the slave child Lora was “accidentally smothered” in the family bed, or that the slave 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 501 - 550 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Abram McJunkin March 14, 1867 at the [??], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .by drowning came to his death by accident

Abner Evans June 14, 1867 at P.A. Parker's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the Deceased came to his Death By mischance that Abner Evin came to his deat By Falling in the Well and was Drowned

John Williams freed person infant June 23, 1867 at John Meadows, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it came to its death by being smuthered by him in her sleep

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.

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

Bartholomew Darby October 11, 1867 near Emanuel Allen's on the road between Willis Layton's & said Allen's, Spartanburg County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that his death was caused by his horses running with his waggon & throwing him from his saddle against a stump & the wheel of the waggon running over his head or neck & breaking his neck & deeply cutting him under the right ear

Female Infant of Milly Campbell Female Infant of Milly Campbell October 17, 1867 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that it came to its death by accidental Suffocation.

Jacob Cromer December 4, 1867 at the residence of Jacob Cromer, Anderson County, SC mule

do say that the deceased came to his death by the hand of Providence, the true cause being unknown.

Gilbert Grissett December 20, 1867 at Snow Hill, Horry County, SC boat

upon there oaths do Say. That he the Said Grissett came to his death on the 20.th day of December A. D. 1867 by accidental drowning

John G. Tyler January 28, 1868 at M.r Allens Store, Horry County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do Say the Deceased came to Death from the effects of ardent Sperits administered of himself by his own act

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

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

Thomas Welheu[?] June 19, 1868 at Benjamin Better[?] wheat field on the Columbia & Augusta Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a pistol shot accidentally discharged by his own hands

Robert Butler boy July 12, 1868 at Robert Butler's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death accidentally by being cought in the gearney of a thrashing[?] [?]

Auson Peeler July 25, 1868 near Kalmia[?] Mills, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse

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.

Isaac Grimer December 10, 1868 at Jacobs Branch on the Spaun Church road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Isaac Grimer came to his death on the Spann Church road near Jacobs Church ... by misfortune or accident

George Low col June 6, 1869 at Sand Bar Ferry, Edgefield County, SC stems of yellow jasmine

upon their oaths do say That they find that the said George Low came to his death through drinking a tea made of the stems of the yellow Jessamine having mistaken the same for the cross Vine of which he intended to make tea

Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

Hampton Weaver colored July 17, 1869 at the house of and on the farm of James T Outz, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

the said Hampton Weaver came to his death do say . . .by the accidental discharge of a single barreled shot gun held in his own hands inflicting a mortal wound under his right Jaw

Joseph B. Hughes August 6, 1869 at the late residence of Joseph B. Hughes in Flat Rock Township, Flat Rock, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph B. Hughes came to his death ... from a wound in the back of the right shoulder ... by a falling tree

A. R. Steel girl child August 28, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep

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

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

Jonathan Newman October 9, 1869 at the late residence of Jonathan C. Newman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say said deceased came to his death by the accidental or providential caving of a well at his own residence

Unknown October 10, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say That the deceased came to his death by dispensation of providence, [?] lying on the Rail Road track ... by being run over by a train & [?] & cut to pieces by said train

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

Hetty McRa December 26, 1869 at L.B. Stephen's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Hetty McRa came to her death ... from a wound in the left side inflicted by a [?] fired from a gun in the hands of Moses Stephens

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

Green Kerley December 31, 1869 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the said Green Kerley came to his death by a fall from a third story window in the Hotel to the pavemen, while laboring under a fit of delerum [?].

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.

John D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

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].

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

London Byard October 8, 1870 at [?] Byers[?], Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hand of Providence by the falling of the earth on him in a ore[?] bank

Peggy McLeod December 25, 1870 at George Rorie's dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peggy McLeod, in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by being accidently burnt

Hannah White December 25, 1870 near William Pitts' dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hannah White in manner and form aforesaid came to her death, by being accidently burnt

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

Mariah Teel December 30, 1870 at the Poor House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the deceased, Maria Teel came to her death, by being accidently burnt

William Johnson January 20, 1871 at William Johnson's residence in Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Johnson came to his death ... from a sudden attack of illness occasioned by his having eaten oysters which were probably tainted

Joseph D. Reasonover January 21, 1871 at a place four miles south of Camden, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph D. Reasonover came to his death from a kick received from a horse on his breast or stomach

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

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

N. C. Smith July 19, 1871 at N.S. Smith's residence, Chesterfield County, SC tree fall

upon their oaths, do say: That N.C. Smith came to his death by a tree falling on him causing instant-death this happening on the plantation of N.S. Smith, on the 18th day of July 1871

Eli David Junkins July 24, 1871 at or near the hosue of John Martin (colored) near Richard Robinson Mill, Anderson County, SC shotgun

do say that the said Eli David Jenkins came to his death by being shot with a small single barrelled shot gun in the hands of Leslie Martin a colored boy some 16 or 17 years old. . .the said Leslie Martin did not intend or had any idea of the gun going off or doing the boy any injury whatever and believe it was entirely accidental

John Love August 3, 1871 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that ... the aforesaid John Lowe came to his death from a stroke on lightning

John Calhoun Clemson August 11, 1871 at Pendleton, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the deceased came to his death . . .by the unavoidable running of the lumber train of the G & C R Road into the passenger train of the Blue Ridge Railroad

Edmund Cleveland December 4, 1871 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that sd. deceased came to his death by the falling of the wall of Duncan's new building in the town of Spartanburg

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. . .

Ransom Hinton March 29, 1872 at Purvis' Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Ransom Hinton caem to his death by being accidently drowned near Purvis' Bridge, across Thompson's Creek on or about 26th day of March AD 1872

colored colored May 9, 1872 at Ja's Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant. . .came to its death by misfortunte or accident

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