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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
unknown negro unknown negro April 24, 1855 at Savannah Bluff, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say tha the Said engro (to them unknown) came to his Death by Drowning

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

Mary Ann July 2, 1855 at the plantation of Henry Pitts on Walnut Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said nego Girl, Mary Ann, her lying dead came to her death by drowning in Walnut Creeke on the night of the first of July

Wilson M. Gilligan July 25, 1855 at the Jail of the Districtaforesaid in Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by Dorwning, cause unknown

George West August 26, 1855 at the plantation of William Jesse Taylor, Kershaw County, SC elephant

do say that the aforesaid George West came to his death by wounds inflicted by the tusks of an Elephant

Hugh Duffey Sr. August 26, 1855 at Bethany Church, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say, that the said Hugh Duffey senr did come to his death by accident by his horse falling into a large ditch with him, the horse was blind

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

Andrew negro man October 6, 1855 on the track of the South Carolina Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say. . .that Andrew came to his death by being run over by the engine and passenger train

Callen O'Neall November 11, 1855 at Luke Havirds[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Callen Oneall came to his death. . .By drinking too much liquor and supposed to have strangled to death by Throwing up

John Seigler February 13, 1856 at J.H. Christians, Edgefield County, SC buggy

upon their oaths do say, that John Seigler came to his death by fall or jump, from his buggy, while his horse was running away

William Harlin February 19, 1856 at a new place sitting by Mr James Swearingem(Jr) on the Akien Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased William Harlin, came to his death by the cavin in and filling up with dirt the well in which he was engaged digging on the Siken Road

Emanuel slave March 12, 1856 at Matthew McGraw's plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say-that Emanuel was Killed by the fall of a tree

Curry slave March 17, 1856 at Mrs Elizabeth Middletons Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

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

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Edward Lawrence March 29, 1856 at Pendleton village, Anderson County, SC wagon

do say that he came to his death by accidentally falling from a wagon heavily loaded with stone, and one of the wheels running over him inflicted severe injuries, which caused his death in a few minutes

Hollan April 29, 1856 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, tha the said Girl Hollan came to her Death by accidental Drowning

Unknown June 26, 1856 at a spot near the Wateree River and on or near the Road leading to Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after such examination as was in their power to make they are clearly of opinion that the decased came to his death by falling into the ditch leading from Bolton's[?] Branch while in a state of intoxication and being unable to help himself was 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.

Fanny July 22, 1856 at "Gressetts Landing or Store Landing" on the Waccamaw River, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said slave Fanny the porperty . . . of the said R. G. W. Grissett did on Sunday the 20.th Inst came to her death by Misfortune or accidental drowning

July infant slave September 8, 1856 at the House of Mrs Elender[?] Martin, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say . . .the Decsd came to its Death by misfortune or accident occasioned by the overLaying of its mother

Sam negro man October 19, 1856 on the track of the South Carolina Rail Road between the Paper Mill and Marsh's, Edgefield County, SC train

that said boy came to his death. . .by being Run over by the night express train

James Rivan November 3, 1856 at the forks of the Rutherfordton[?] Road, Greenville County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by a loaded wagon accidentally running over him

John Pike November 15, 1856 at William Pike's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by some means to the jurors unknown

George Keerison November 22, 1856 at Alston Depot, G & C.[?] R. Road, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say,- that according to the testimony given, the said George Keerison was crossing Broad River on the G & 6 R.R. Bridge at Alston in a state of intoxication on the 4th instant, and accidentally fell off said Bridge, which was the cause of his death

Isaac negro man December 1, 1856 at a point on the South Carolina Rail Road [?] Brooks Mill creek, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say and declare. . .that the said negro Isaac, as aforesaid came to his death, by having been Run over by the engine and train

Miles Robuck December 16, 1856 at the house of S.S. Roebuck, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by having his head crushed between the head block and one of the arms of the Cog wheel of a Cotton Gin, that the said Miles Roebuck came to his death in manner and form aforesaid, by misfortune or accident.

Hary January 10, 1857 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say Hary was helping lead a waggon with Cotton and the boy fell from the waggon[.] he was taken to[?] a[?] house[?] not[?] fifty yards before he died but was dead in a few minutes

Tom Waldrum colored man (Free) January 20, 1857 in the woods near Mr Avory Franklins, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Tom Waldrum in manner and form aforesaid he was frozen to death in the woods. . .some time during the snow storm

Washington negro man February 1, 1857 at Pullok[?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe Decsd Came to his death by misfortune though intoxication & exposure to rain & cold

Charles negro boy March 7, 1857 at Archy Clark residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say. . .he came to his death by lying down and going to sleep on the wet and cold ground and the Rain and water running over him

Henry slave, boy May 1, 1857 at Arthur Glovers House, Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .from drinking an [?] quantity of water when heated. . .came to his death by misfortune

J. B. Benson June 21, 1857 at John Benson's, Greenville County, SC cart

upon their oaths do say the said John B Benson came to his death by the running away of a yoke of oxen and the wheel of the cart running[?] over the head

Titus July 19, 1857 at the Thoroughfair landing, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro slave Titus came to his death by accidental drowning

Jethro July 27, 1857 at the residence of Cornelius B. Sarvis, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jethro came to his death by accidental drowning

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

John Young October 1, 1857 in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the jury after hearing the evidence offered to us on the above inquest find that the deceased came to his death by an injury or hurt received in the suffer with James Guy, either by a from said Guy or by falling upon Guys knee when said was fallen down

Henry Davis October 30, 1857 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

are of the opinion that Henry Davis came to his death by excessive drink, cold and a fall which rendered him unable to take care of himself.

Richard Stenhouse November 1, 1857 at the house of Richard Stenhouse, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Richard Stenhouse was killed . . . by the accidental falling of a tree near his own house.

David McClellan November 27, 1857 at residence of David McClellan, Anderson County, SC

do say that by the evidence of his wife & daughter that he was hunting a cow & found her mired was found dead near the cow lying across a pole from apperion[?] he had been trying to prize the cow out and we come to the conclusion that he came to his death by the fall

Billy November 28, 1857 at the South Carolina Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC wagon

came to his death by being thrown from a two horse waggon

Dorcas Crossly December 4, 1857 at the house of John Wofford, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say by falling the ifre and burning to death there being no person present at the time we suppose she had a fit as she was subject to having fits

infant slave infant slave December 30, 1857 at Isaac Gregorys house, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that . . . it came to its death by accidental overLaying or strangling by the mothers breast

Joseph A. McJunkin March 15, 1858 at Wm Hawkins House, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that they believe the Decd came to his death from what testimony they can get from a [?] Fits[?] & in that condition had fallen in to the river where he Decsd was Fishing & drowned

John R. Edwards March 24, 1858 Spartanburg County, SC

find J.R. Edwards came to his death by fall or drowning

Silas Cockrum April 28, 1858 at Jacks Bridge, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, that he was drowned near Jacks Bridge in Reedy river in said District, by accident or mischance

James Graham June 8, 1858 at the place known as the public square in Logtown, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jame Graham here lying dead came to his death from intemperance and exposure

R. T. Bailey June 13, 1858 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said R. T. Bailey came to his death by falling into Reedy River newar Greenville CH this day and was accidentally drowned.

Sam Slave June 14, 1858 at Henry Spiers[?], Edgefield County, SC

who came to his death by drowning in Butlers Mill Pond

Joseph Shaw July 26, 1858 at the residence of John H Shaw near Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joseph Shaw bathing in the Mill pond of Col H. H. Pickens. . .came to his death by accidental drowing

John Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning . . . near McBees Mills in Reedy River

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