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 151 - 200 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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...

Larie February 3, 1829 at the premises of Capt Nathan Sims, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Mr. Lary came to his death, in our opinion for want of attention in consequence of his own conduct exposing himself in bad weather from intoxication

Soloman Hilliard February 11, 1829 Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that he . . . shot gun, property of John Barnes[?] & [?] which was the occasion of his death supposed to be [?] 30 or 40 shot lodged in his head.

Unknown June 6, 1829 at the plantation of John Holinshead on Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say (viz) from the evidence of Mrs. Hugheys and John beal, with other circumstances that the negro boy belonged to a speculator who had brobibly traded for him in the district of Newberry and carried him into this district some distance when the boy took his master's horse and returned to Hugheys ferry...she [Mrs. Hughey] heard a considerable splash in the watter...John beal made oath that he was walking on the bank of the river near a mile below the said, ferry on the fifth..he states that he seen a negro [?] on a rock he procured a canoe the same evening and had him brought to the bank the negro was dead and from every cricumstances he believed the negro had been drowned and appeared he had been in the river one or two days

Absalom June 26, 1829 at Nathaniel Holleys, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that said Absalom came to his death by a stroke of lightning

David Dantzler June 29, 1829 at Nazareth Meeting House, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths after examination [that] he came to his death by accidental drowning

Henry negro boy Slave September 17, 1829 at John Gayes[?], Union County, SC rope

do say upon their oaths . . .by accidentaly hanging himself by swing by a rope used for suspending a Waggon Body

John November 24, 1829 at the house of Robert G Bagley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to such and all evidence it is their belief that on the night of the 23rd instant the before mentioned Alexander Caldwell and his little son (the deceased) was in a Small House and A Sleep an they believe that a pallet whereon the deceased lay or the house caught fire, by accident, and consumed the house and the child...

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

Jack February 12, 1830 at John McClintock's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths they believe he came to his death by burning and not otherwise.

Bill negro boy June 20, 1830 at Capt. John Thomas Hooey on Broad River, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .the said boy came to his untimely death by accidentally getting drowned

William Brice July 11, 1830 at the house of Jesse Wakefield, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that in the dusk of the evening of the 10th day of said month as he was returning from muster in the yard or about a distance of 25 steps from the dwelling house of Jesse Wakefield in sd' district by an act of God he was killed by a stroke of Lightning

Unknown July 13, 1830 at Rocky Mount Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that upon the evidence adduced that the said child was found on the evening of the 18th Inst. found in a fish Trap near the above named ferry prior to that time they are not able to asertain and from not being able to asertain any marks of violence do believe to[?] come to its death by being drowned

Aggey September 14, 1830 near the house of Edward P. Mobley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that said Negroe Aggey came to her death on the night of the 11th this instant by the breaking of a joist or two in a house, which fell on her

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

James W. Craven October 12, 1830 at the Tumbling shoals, Laurens County, SC

A jury being summoned and sworn do find that the said James V Craven came to his death by Accidentally having been drowned in the river.

Rody Kennedy November 30, 1830 at the house of Rody Kennedy, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rody Kennedy came to his death on the morning of this day on his own plantation by means of the contents of a loaded shot gun being discharged in his body. The Jurors aforesaid say they have no positive evidence the gun was discharged, but from the circumstances coming before them and have no doubt it was discharged by the said Rody Kennedy himself.

Simon slave December 24, 1830 at the house of Mrs. Mary Moore, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .he was burnt to death by accident in one of the the Negro houses of Mrs. Mary Moore

Henry slave December 25, 1830 on public highway from Pendleton to Pickensville [modern-day Easley], Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Henry did come to his death?on the night of the 24th instant, by intoxication, or being intoxicated and lying out in the wet died of expsoure or?.came to his death by misfortune by the act of God.

Carey slave February 1, 1831 at the house of John Williams, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths We the Jurors . . .believe he got his Death accidentally by fire to the best of our knowledges and the evidence given by Mary Carraway and Nathan Waters before us proves nothing more

Caleb Woodruff February 5, 1831 at Bethel Meeting House, Spartanburg County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that. . .he came to his death by a fall from his horse and the abuse of said horse his foot hanging by the stirrup

Ned February 15, 1831 near the house of Joseph Gladney Little River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that on the 25th December in attempting to cross little river at a Ford [he] was thrown off a mule on which he rode and then and there was drowned, without any Person being accessory to his death but think they have some reason to believe he was in some degree intoxicated which might in some manner procured his being thrown from said mule

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

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

Avery slave November 14, 1831 at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated

John Stafford December 16, 1831 Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths he came to his death by accidentally drowning in a state of intoxication

Charles February 25, 1832 at the house of Littleton Kelly, Fairfield County, SC tree fall
Phebe February 25, 1832 at the house of Littleton Kelly, Fairfield County, SC tree fall
William Bonner Jr. August 20, 1832 at the house late the Residence of William Bonner Jr., Fairfield County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced to them they believe, that on the vening of the 11th day of August instant, in sight, of the said Williams House, the said William Bonner Jr. came to his death by his Horse running against a tree. The Gig in which he was being suddenly stopped therewith, and he either against the tree or by a kick from his horse as he fell from his Gig or afterwards, they cannot tell how, received a mortal wound on his head thereby breaking his scull, which cause his death about ten hours afterward, without violence of any kind from the hand of man.

Isaac December 31, 1832 the house of Mrs. Jane Brown of Horse branch of Wateree Creek, Fairfield County, SC horse

do say upon their Oaths, they believe the said Negroe Isaac, in the act of riding a race was thrown off the Mare on which he rode, and the injury he then received caused his death

Saul slave January 9, 1833 at Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Saul did unfortunately and accidentally fall from the dam or bridge

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

Rachel McBurney October 21, 1833 in the house of Major James Barkley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced, they believe that on the morning of the 20th this instant, or some time in the night of the 19th, a small house adjoining the dwelling of the said Major James Barkley, occupied by said Rachel McBurney as a Bed Room, caught fire, how, not known, was consumed with the contents, and her, the said Rachel.

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

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.

Broderick Mason April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Cinthy April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Henry slave June 7, 1834 at the House of John McBeth, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the S. Henry . . .died by the visitation of God by getting drowned accidentaly in Tyger River

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

Henry July 6, 1834 at the house of John Holly, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe said Henry came to his death by going in to little river to wash or bathe himself it happened that accidently casually and by misfortune he the said Henry suffocated and drowned

Daniel October 8, 1834 at Maj. John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths that from evidence that the said Negro came to his Death by Mischance by plunging into the River at or near the head of Maj. John Black's Millhouse in said District through fear dogs which were threatened by calling & encouraging of a Negro man, Doc, the property of Reginald Duncan by order of John Odell, supposing him to be a runaway.

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson . . .died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Joseph Mulligan February 27, 1835 below Doct[?] Dogans[?] near the branch near this Village, Union County, SC freezing

do say upon their oaths that the said Joseph Mulligan . . .died by the visitation of God by freezing

slave slave March 10, 1835 at the house of W.W. Dickies, Spartanburg County, SC

are of the opinion that she came to her death by taking a fit or spazm and falling into the fire and not being able to extricate herself burnt to death

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.

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child . . .died by accidentally getting Smothered

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

Jack slave [runaway] November 21, 1835 at Andersonville, Anderson County, SC

do say that Elias E. Harrison ... a certain gun of the value of seven dollars then and there charged with gun powder and leaden buck shot, which he the said Elias E. Harrison then and there had and held in both is hands, then and there accidently and by misfortune and against the will of him the said Elias E. Harrison discharged and....and shot out of the said gun him the said negro man in and upon the right arm, shoulder and back of the head....ten wounds with said shot, which were mortal wounds

Ned December 12, 1835 at Joel Dendys, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths the deceased came to his death by the Effects of Cold and other causes not Known.

Edward Simpson January 9, 1836 at William Simpson's, Spartanburg County, SC horse

do say uppon [sic] there [sic] oaths that he was riding a horse at full speed. . .on the wagon road [and[ was thrown against a tree which gave him one mortal wound from his hip on the right side extruding to his shoulder on the same right side

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