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 201 - 250 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

Lodrick Dobson February 18, 1836 at the dwelling house of John Sarratt, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [he] came to his death by misfortune being intoxicated his clothes caught fire & was burned

Koon female child April 23, 1836 at the house of Davin M[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said child . . .died by the visitation of God by accidentally Getting Droud in the Spring

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

John Larkin August 7, 1836 at the house of Daniel Berry[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that his death was an accident that on Saturday about 5 of the clock while attempting to cross Broad River at D Hueys ferry him and his horse fell from the flat into the river sunk and was taken up dead

Herman Peters November 2, 1836 on the Camden Road near the house of Hugh Y.[?] Rosborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe according to all evidence adduced to them, the said Herman Peters came to his death from intoxication and inclemency of the weather, some time of the morning of the 2nd instant, on the Camden Road four miles from Winnsborough

Crispan Smith December 5, 1836 at the house of George Smith, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he died by the visitation of god in a natural way by accidentaly getting frozen to death

James McCants December 8, 1836 at the residence of the deceased, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he came to his death by the fall of a dead tree on fire, in his New Ground, about 12 oclock Meridian.

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to death.

Eliza February 15, 1837 at the house of Mr. John Cockrell, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced to them they believe, that upon the morning of the 15th instant, the said Eliza came to her death, by a tree falling on her; Breaking her scull, also her thigh and perhaps other injuries we know- nothing of.

William Gaston April 30, 1837 at the house of James N. Gaston, Spartanburg County, SC

say upon their oaths that the aforesaid William Gaston ... came to his death by the accidental falling of a tree

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

Ann June 28, 1837 at the house of Andrew Yongue[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they do believe agreeable to evidence that the said Ann came to her death by accidentily falling into the Creek and getting drowned and not otherwise.

Danison[?] Gault July 25, 1837 at the plantation of Henry Gault, Union County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the said Danchsson[?] gault . . .died by the vissation of god by accident [?] kiled[?] by his horse and plans[?]

Thomas Moore August 8, 1837 at Tumbling Shoals, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that he came to his death by accidental drowning in Reedy River, being in a State of Intoxication.

William Applewhite January 22, 1838 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm. Applewhite came to his death by falling in the fire

negro negro February 3, 1838 at Maj. John Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we find that the boddy upon examination is a negro man and it is our opinion that he came to his death by drowning & probably was drowned in crossing the Camden Ferry on the night of the 23d of Dec'r last

William Clifton March 4, 1838 at the house of the Deceasd of Will Clifton, Union County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths. . . that he died by the Visitation of god by being thrown by his horse

Samuel Culbertson July 1, 1838 at the house of Samuel Colbertson, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Samuel Colbertson . . .died by the visitation of god by accidently getting drounded in Broad River

Alias July 14, 1838 at the plantation of Samuel Mobley, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that they believe from the evidence given that the two aforesaid Negro Men came to their death by Lightning and by no other way

Matt July 14, 1838 at the plantation of Samuel Mobley, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that they believe from the evidence given that the two aforesaid Negro Men came to their death by Lightning and by no other way

Jesse Bell January 20, 1839 at the House of Mrs Elizabeth Ward, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - We find that the deceased came to his death on the night of the 19th Instant by immersing himself in Little River near Laurens Court House having been chased by dogs and pursued by men until he was over heated - That we are of opinion that the length of time he remained in the water was the principle cause of his death...

William Penny March 5, 1839 at Mr. Thomas A. Rabbs, Fairfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that from all testimony and Every Circumstance Connected therewith they are of the opinion that the deceased came to his death on the public high way by a fall from his horse

Henry Jinnings August 31, 1839 at Mr. William Martins, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that on hearing all the testimony and after Examinin the dead Body of the aforesaid Henry jennings they are of the opinion that he came this death by being dragged by a Mule his leg being fastned by a trace Chain

Truman Miles October 22, 1839 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

do say that said Truman Miles. . . .at Anderson Court House was found dead that he had no marks of violence afore him and died by the [?] of God from the many severe falls he received when in a state of intoxication and not otherwise

Samuel McCulley December 29, 1839 in Broadway Creek, Anderson County, SC

do say that sd, Samuel McCulley on the 28th day of December 1839 was found dead in Broadway Creek . . . and had no marks of violence on him and died of the [?] of God partly by intemperance partly by cold and partly by drowning

Jonathan McCulloch January 7, 1840 at the house of Thomas Jefferson[?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the Said Jonathan McCulloch came to his death by being accidentally drund in a fit of Derangement

William Lindsey January 10, 1840 at Isaac Lindsey's, Spartanburg County, SC horse

that Wm. Lindsey came to his death by a fall from a horse

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

M. N. Chapman February 20, 1840 at or near Mt. Zion, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he was drowned by accidentally falling into the waters of Wilson's Creek while in the act of fishing

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

Enoch McLean August 27, 1840 at Wm C. Brown's, Union County, SC

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

slave slave October 30, 1840 at Wiley Kelly's, Kershaw County, SC

do say on their oaths that the slave infant came to her death by Accident

Sam October 31, 1840 at the house of Nelson [?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Sam came to his death by the shot of a gun -which gun was accidently shot by a negro boy Allen about 8 years of age

Spencer Bradford November 2, 1840 at the house of Spencer Bradford, Fairfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that [?] [?] Bradford was thrown from his Horse against the Body[?] of a tree near [?] Bridge on Little River

William Hutchins December 9, 1840 at Equilla Burns's[?], Spartanburg County, SC

on oath that we believe that said child comes to his death by accident of falling or slipping in [the Maple Swamp] creek and being drowned near Wm. Smith's mill

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

William Davis January 16, 1841 at or near the residence of Alex. McMakin, Spartanburg County, SC

[do say that] not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil came to his untimely end. . .by drinking intoxicating spirits to an excess and attemting [sic] to vomet [sic] and strangled so that he finally lost his Breath and departed this life

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

William Boken April 17, 1841 at Flint Mill, Spartanburg County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the dec'd came to his death by misfortune & axidente [sic] by a team of horses that he was driving taking frite [sic] & . . .flung him off & Braking [sic] his head over & about his Right eye

Chaney female slave June 15, 1841 at Mrs. Catherin Bateses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .a certain negro boy the property of the Sd Mrs Bates was handling a shot gun being loaded without his knowledge which went off by accident and blew the contents into the forehead of the said Chaney

T. Clark Singleton August 27, 1841 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC laudanum

upon their oaths do say that the said T. Clark Singleton infant did come to his death by the administration of an over portion of laudnum given to him by his mother Margaret

Sarah McCulley wife of Barney McCulley September 1, 1841 at the house of Barney McCulley, Anderson County, SC

do say that she the sd deceased died of violence on the night of 31 Augt 1841 in her own house & by her own husband Barney McCulley

William Bradley December 29, 1841 at Elizabeth Eubank's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . drink & ardent spirits to an excess so as to intoxicate him so much as to render him incapible of helping himself to where he could have the benefit of fire, and only reached the edge of the field where in his residence was ... and there fell down and perished with Coald.

H. McKnight April 14, 1842 at the house of Thomas Tegues, Esq in the Town of Camden ... upon the view of the dead body of Henry McKnight who was found dead in the Wateree River near the bank of said river & raised by means of a hoop, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry McKnight came to his death by the visitation of God having fallen into the river supposed to have been in a fit and alone

William Butler stage driver August 2, 1842 at the house of Joseph Hughes, Union County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say . . .do believe the said William Butler did come to his death by a fall from his seat on the back which he was driving near the dwelling house of Joseph Hughs . . .by misfortune or accident

Patrick Williams August 23, 1842 at the house of patrick Williams decsd, Union County, SC

do say that . . .Patrick Willaims came to his death by the fall of a certain oak tree which we found lying upon his Mangled body

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

Louisa Jane Low minor child November 3, 1842 Union County, SC horse

the Decd came to her death . . .by accidently falling from a horse

Siller female slave November 12, 1842 at an oald wast house in the plantation of Mrs Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that . . .the said Siller axcidently caught fire in her beding whilst a sleep, and from inability to help her Self ware burned to death

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