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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Harry negro boy September 9, 1858 at the residence of the Rev. J. L. Brooks, Edgefield County, SC

say upon their oaths, that. . .the said boy name Harry. . .while in the business of driving the mules to work the machinery of the Cotton gin by some careless action of his own he was caught by wheel or wheels of the machinery and crushed to death

Clem slave, boy October 3, 1858 at Tabitha Abney's, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Lem[?] came to his death by the accident firing of a gun in his own hands

Eldrige Padgett February 9, 1859 at Eidson Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the decased came to his death by being intoxicated and caught on fire and burnt to death in his own house

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

John April 23, 1859 at the Residence of Dr. D A Richardson, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say. That the said slave John at the Residence of Daniel A Richardson on the 12th day of April in the afternoon came to his death, By accident the result of a fall producing a dislocation of the neck

Dick male slave July 13, 1859 at Ted Scurrys residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say. . .that he came to his death by going in to the Saluda River and got in Deep water an drowned

John August 16, 1859 at Edw Garreth, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Boy John aforesaid came to his death by going in to the water and by accident got into deep water and not being able to swim was drowned.

John Davis September 6, 1859 at Jas. H. Parks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - That he came to his death by misfortune and accident by a plate falling struck him on the head about 1 o cl'k on the 5th Inst. Which caused his death in about six hours.

Berry slave October 8, 1859 near the Residence of Richard Hay on the Greenville & Columbia Railroad, Greenville County, SC cart

upon their oaths say, that the boy Berry a slave . . . came to his death from injuries received from the cart[?] of the down train . . . the cart[?] in their opinion having passed over his body

Nicy female slave October 8, 1859 at Philip Downs[?] Hous, Union County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that from . . .marks found on the arm and head of Decsd that decsd Came to her death by the cars [?] attemting to cross the track before the cars . . .by misfortune or accident

Tom slave October 25, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Tom [a] slave of Joseph Murphy came to his death by a fall from a log and broke his neck

S. W. Murtishaw December 22, 1859 at Alston Depot, G & C R. Road, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, that according ot he testimongy given in the case. S.W. Mustishaw in attempting to cross the Greenville and Columbia R. Road only a few paces in front of the down passenger train, when said train was in pretty rapid motion on a decending grade was run over & crushed instantly to death.

Peter Negro man December 30, 1859 at the Plantation of Mr Wm Bunch, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Peter. . .came to his death by the accidental falling of the top of a tree he appears himself to have cut down

Elijah February 8, 1860 at the house of D.r J. H. Norman, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant Slave "Elijah" the property of Eliza Jane Hughes (A Mintor) came to its death by accident by being overlain either by its mother or another child of hers

Ludley February 8, 1860 at Conwayboro in Horry District (near the River Landing), Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say tha the said Slave "Ludley" the property of D. W. Jordan came to his death by accidentally falling from a Flat the property of his master into the Reiver and was drowned

John Baswell February 16, 1860 at the plantation of Abner McVay, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Baswell came to his death by misfortune or accident

A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it

Peter slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Betsey slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Louisa slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Simon slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Ellen slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Liz slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Josephine A. Brookes Thrift infant child March 28, 1860 at Delila Jenkinses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the child came to its death by being smothered by its mother by accident

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

John Radford April 12, 1860 at the residence of John Radford, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say and upon our oaths do find and declare that the said dead boy being that of John Radford. . .did come to his death by accident or mischance in that it was by the accidental runing the waggon of J L Miller over the body of chest of said Radford

Smith T. T. Richboury May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Jerry R. McLeod May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Samuel H. Young May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Sarah Ann Howell May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Margaret McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Amelia A. Alexander May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin. . .by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons

Jane Kelly May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Mary Jenkins May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Louisa Nettles May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Selena Crosby May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
William LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Louisa McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Lewis July 13, 1860 at William Young's darm, Laurens County, SC lightning

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

Abram man slave August 17, 1860 at the Residence of Gen[?] Jas B. Griffin, Edgefield County, SC snake

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Abram came to his death by being bitten twice by a snake

Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

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