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 251 - 300 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Charles negro boy November 14, 1842 On Mr Thos Oliver's Plantation, at or near Said Oliver's residence, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the boy Charles . . .came to his death by being burnt to death in an old house, accidently caught fire in some unknown or misterious way to us

Harcolas slave, negro man November 18, 1842 at an old house Standing in the plantation of Mrs. Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they do believe that from Exposure age and a burn which he had received some days previous was the cause of his death

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

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

W. J. Summers youth August 18, 1843 at Goshen[?] Hill, Union County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by the kick of a mule the property of the Father of the deceased

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

Solomon negro man June 24, 1844 near the Mill of George A. McKee on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said negro came to his death by drowning

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

Mike negro man September 13, 1844 at Dr John D. Nicholsons Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death at the said Mill the tenth instant when the said Mill broke and washed away, and at the falling in of the mill the deceased received a wound over his right eye which stuned him and caused him to drown

John Vandiver March 28, 1845 at residence of Daniel Gentry, Anderson County, SC horse

do say that the Deceased came to his death by accidentaly falling from his horse which produced an extensive fracture of skull about an inch and a half above the year [ear] on the left side and copious affusion on the same side within the cranium thereby producing fatal compressions of the brain.

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.

infant negro child infant negro child October 18, 1845 at the plantation of John Gregory, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they do belive that the child was Smothered to death accidently by its mother in her Sleap

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

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

Bob slave December 26, 1845 at the residence Mr. Parks, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being drunk and exposed to the weather which was wet and very cold

Edward Whitt March 1, 1846 near John Baurman's, Anderson County, SC horse

do say from the evidence and circumstances that they believe he came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse which dislocated his neck joint and they suppose he was intoxicated.

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

John Hester May 13, 1846 at Hamburg in the shop of J.J. Kenedy, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, He died in the said shop . . .while working at the bench in a fit . . .came to his death by misfortune or visitation of God

William Lundy August 28, 1846 at house of John Rainsford, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that decd came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun that was in his hands the load entering his left temple and passing out of the top of his head carrying part of the brain & skull off

Lewis Glanton September 8, 1846 near the church of Antioch, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Lewis Glanton came to his death by being thrown from his horse against a pine tree in a small[?] near Scotts road

Ryefield boy October 24, 1846 near the Island Ford on Broad River, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say That they suppose the body before them to be that of the younger Ryefield drowned at Smiths Ford some days back, and that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child was . . .smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

slave child slave child December 31, 1846 at the plantation of Nathan Hawkins, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that it was either Smothered accidentaly or otherwise dyed natrualy

William Pettifoot free black January 21, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by being accidentally overlaid & smothered in the course fo the night by its mother

Nancy Smith February 10, 1847 at the resident of Elijah Smith, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the sd. Nancy Smith. . .died by a visitation of God by a stroke of lightning

Benjamin Cockroft March 18, 1847 in the woods near the house of Beryman[?] Bledsoe, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oats do say that the said Benjamin Cockroft came to his death from the effects of being dissipation and lying on the cold ground

Charles negro man May 2, 1847 at J Greens, Union County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths. . . that he came to his death by the visitation of God in sending a Streak of lightning which said lightning caused the instant death of the said Charles

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

female infant Slave female infant Slave May 15, 1847 at A. S. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon oaths do say that . . .they do believe the child must have been Smothered by its mother in bed

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave May 30, 1847 at the house of Mrs Sarow Brandons, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child dyed by the visitation of god or [?] have been axcidently Smothered by its mother

Uriah Koon October 16, 1847 at the house of Col John Hunt, Edgefield County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by a wagon wheel runing over the breast of decd breaking the 6th-7th & 8th ribs of the left side and the probible rupture of some important blood vessels-on the Columbia Road

Kate slave December 5, 1847 at the house of Mrs. Jane Love, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe from the testimony of Jas. Love son that she came to her death by the falling of a tree accidentally upon her body

Thomas Robinson December 23, 1847 at the house of William Clyburn, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Thos. Robinson came to his death by a fall from his horse

Nelson Pettifoot free black February 11, 1848 at the edge of the town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say the deceased came t his death by the wagon running over him

Henry Langley April 2, 1848 at Wm Vances, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say upon their Oaths, that the said Henry Langley came to his death by a fall from his wagon. . .we believe by accident

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

Francis Sanders April 27, 1848 at Sakin's[?] Mill, Fairfield County, SC

we the Jurors do find and [?] that the said Francis Sanders; came to his death by drowning in the Broad River on the 26th[?] April 1848.

Loney November 20, 1848 at Harrisons Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

do find the following- verdict that Loney the Slave of John Harrison came to his death by accidental drowning in Wattoree River, and further we find no marks of violence oon his Body or person

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

Dave negro man Slave March 16, 1849 at Kilcrease's Ferry, Edgefield County, SC boat

Upon their Oaths do say, that the said Dave came to his death by being drowned. . .by accidently falling out of a boat used for carrying and other produce to Market

Tilman Attaway April 14, 1849 at the corner of the Oharer[?] old field, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the said Tillman Attaway. . .was shot with a load of buck shot discharged from a gun, or pistol, and ... that he the said Samuel Webb Shot the said Tilman Attaway, with a doble barrel Shot gun accidently through a mistake for a Turkey

Jane slave April 16, 1849 at John J. E. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that . . .the said Jane was accidently or unknowinly smuthered by her mother or some one Else in bead

George May 6, 1849 at C... Garlington Mill pond, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say by accidental drowning.

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer . . .from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

Milton Barter[?] youth August 24, 1849 at Capt. Andrew J Hammonds Mills, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say . . .by accidental drowning in Mr Andrew Hammonds Mill Pond

negro Child negro Child August 27, 1849 at James C. Mingo, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the said child was axcidently or negligently Smothered and killed by its mother in her Sleep

John slave November 13, 1849 at the house of Mrs. J.S. McRae, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the falling of a tree

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

Jim Mason free man of color January 9, 1850 near the residence of William Poole, Anderson County, SC

do say that he was of extremely intermperate habits, and altho there is no positive proof that he was drunk when last seen, the jury and unanimously of opinion before all the circumstances, that he was laboring under the influence of drink, and came to his death from the effect of his habits and exposure to the weather, during the rain and storm of Sunday night and monday last.

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