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 451 - 500 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Cyrus slave September 15, 1860 at the shanty [?] upon the grounds of the Blue Ridge Rail Road Company at Anderson, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the said Cyrus came to his death by reason of coming into contact with a bridge over the track of the Blue Ridge Rail Road known as Hanson's [?] Bridge about seven miles from Anderson C. H. . . while on the top of of [sic] a freight car attending to the brake conguardely raised himself erect just as the train of came over & under said Bridge, causing his head to come in contact with the bridge from the affect of which blow his death ensued and...came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Joseph Jay October 4, 1860 at Joseph Jays, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon there oaths do say the deceased was seized with a fainting fitt and in that condition fell from the horse

Henry male infant slave November 23, 1860 at Berry Shells House, Union County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the Decest Came to his death by accidental overlaying of his Mother & smothering to death

Thomas J. Geer November 23, 1860 Thomas J. Geer's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say the said Thomas Green did . . . in the fore noon of the same day came to his death by fits and accidental drowning

Lousay November 25, 1860 at Doct John E. Padgett, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Loosey came to here death by accidnetal Burning

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

Stephen slave December 18, 1860 at Mr. M. Mungo, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Stephen came to his death from a fall and which caused his neck to break

Griffin Infant Childe December 26, 1860 at Andy [?], Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say the child come it death by accident or mischance by smuthering or some way unknown

Tom slave, boy February 5, 1861 brawd River Makes[?] Mill, Union County, SC boat

have come to the decision that the boy with others was washed from a small boat in the early part of the night of the fouth in attempting to cross the river . . .got gast[?] in a [?] trap and perished from cold

Roanoake slave April 3, 1861 at James R Jeters, Union County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that . . .Roanoake came to his death from being struck with lightning

Unknown April 15, 1861 At Pendleton, Anderson County, SC laudanum

do say that the deceaced came to his death, they believe by taking Laudanum

George Delaughter April 30, 1861 at the Hamburg Passenger Depot, Edgefield County, SC train

upon there oaths do say the said George Delaughter came to his death from falling of the Rail Road cars

infant child infant child September 15, 1861 at the residence of Mrs Margret Willis, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said infant child of Elizabeth Hallman was. . .born dead being prematurely Delivered its Delivery being caused by and injury received by the mother in a fall

Hanah infant Child November 2, 1861 at Cooperville, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child was found dead . . .from bieng overlaid by its parents or some other unknown means to them in bed

Alexander January 2, 1862 at Dr. Austins, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander came to his death Jany 1st by accident having been caught in the running gear of the gin.

David West boy January 30, 1862 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that it was by accidently drowning in the Graniteville Factory canel

Ransom Hollaway May 14, 1862 at Ransom Holaways, Edgefield County, SC lightning

do say upon there oaths that he was killed by Lighting during a Thunder storm

Betsy femail slave July 3, 1862 at William Eller's house, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say dec'd came to her death by an accidental shot from a horsemans[?] Pistole Loaded with buckshot 5 in number openly[?] hitting the Decsd just above the hip passing through inflicting one mortal wound causing her death in the hands of Wm Ellis he shooting at a dog in his yard & Decsd was sitting in the kichin of sd Wm Ellis ... the said Wm Ellis did the said Decsd by accident and Contrary to his will

Peter slave November 23, 1862 at Mrs Colemans, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Decsd Came to his by the hand of the Almighty he was Suppond[?] as he was subject to having fits & Falling at any place where he might be. We Conclude that the Decsd fell in the Branch in a Fit on his face & Drownd

infant January 28, 1863 at Cannon's Old Grave yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased child came to its or her death by carelessness or mismanagement or misfortune at the house of Jefferson Saterfield

Belaus[Velaus?] slave, boy March 30, 1863 at Robert Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say-that he came to his death. . .by going in to the Mill Pond of B W Hatchers. . .and was by Misfortune of accidently drowned

Richard negroe Boy April 21, 1863 in the District of Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC train

by the oaths of the Jurors they do say the said boy came to his death by being on the above named night Express train comeing to Augusta Ga Contrary to the order of his Master as he was run away and was Killed in the Smash up of Cars at the Brooks Culbert

William H Maharey May 25, 1863 at Haslin Factory on the Procelian Manufacturing Company, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the aforesaid Wm H Mahorey did come to his death . . .by Mischance of Misfortune or accident caused by Fixing of the Machinery of the Meed Mill and was chrushed to By the Cog Wheel of said of Mill

Hosea Jackson free person of color July 10, 1863 upon the Rail Road of the Spartanburg & Union, Spartanburg County, SC train

herewith decide that the said boy Hosea Jackson came to his death by his own carelessness and from no carelessness whatever on the part of the engineer

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said slave John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

Margaret Coats April 6, 1865 at Williams Coatses, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Margaret Coats came to her Death by the accidental dis charge of gun, in the hands of the deceased and in the hands of Lieutenant Young

James Gage April 12, 1865 at the house of R.T. Yarboroughs house, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say. That according to the evidence of witnesses, in above case, James Gage came to his death by the accidental falling upon his head, a large and heavy Well Bucket, filled by him with water and mud, while he was cleaning out Mr. R.T. Yarborough's well-Said accident having occured, by the slipping loose of a knot in the end of the rope, which said James Gage, himself, had tied and affixed to the well Bucket.

Caroline Rhodes April 17, 1865 at Burnt Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by accidental drowning in Tyger River just below A. Floyd's mill dam

William C. Goff May 7, 1865 at Bethany Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that W.C. Goff came to his death by Mischance or accidentally falling in big saluda when fishing

Charles June 17, 1865 at Dr. M.M. Hunters, Laurens County, SC wagon

by their oaths do say on the 16th June 1865. The slave Charles was thrown from a wagon loaded with wheat - by a large limb causing accidental death instantly by the face.

John Shockley July 27, 1865 at John Shockley's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said disseast came to his death by misfortune or accident

John T. Wood August 14, 1865 at the house of Dr. B.F. Kilgore, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John T. Wood. . .was drowned in a hole of water near Dr. Kilgore's

Toney Moore November 29, 1865 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the said Toney Moore came to his death by Mischance from the accidental explosion of a Steam Boiler

Allen Bauknight freedman June 11, 1866 at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Bauknight came to his death by a discharge of a Gun in the hands of Suson Bauknight freeman his wife by the Gun going of axcidentally

William Johnson July 31, 1866 at David Gunter's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . in John L. Southern's mill pond by being drowned accidentally while bathing

West Myers boy August 8, 1866 on Washington [?], Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that sd West Myers was accidentally drowned by Cicero Caveton[?]

George Washington Crowder October 19, 1866 at Grannetville, Edgefield County, SC

by there oaths do say that the said George Washington Crowder came to his death became entangled in the bands[?] carried the factory at Grannetville in the state aforesaid and was drawn up by a board of the of the shaff[?]. . . by Misfortan or accident

Spencer Mays freedman November 8, 1866 at John Buslys, Edgefield County, SC pistol

the said Spencer Mays freedman came to his death do say that the said Spencer came to his death by a Pistol shot in the hands of Charles Warren freedman the ball entering just above the left knee

Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

Sloan freedman November 19, 1866 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say upon their oaths that [Sloan] came to his death by being burnt to death by the accidental burning of the Gin house of Major A. M. Hamilton. . .as the jury could ascertain in cause of the fire the presumption being that It was through matches, in the possession of the said Sloan

Frank a negro boy December 11, 1866 [at] Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Boy Frank came to his death by a shot from a pistol accidentally fired by his brother named Lee

Elleck free boy December 13, 1866 at Johnathan Gregorys, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a Gun. . .that Elleck free boy in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accident

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

Polly December 25, 1866 at Darlings Lake, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that She came to her death by accident or mischance

Richard J. Barton December 28, 1866 at Mrs Lucinda Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the aforesaid R.J. Barton came to his death by the accidental discharg of a Gun in his own hands

James L. Hill January 10, 1867 at James L Hills, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said James L Hill came to his death by Mischance or accident

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

Milledge Fuller freedman February 18, 1867 at John Ransford plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .came to his death by a gun shot wound accidently done in the hands of Ellie a freedwoman

Sally Shedd February 19, 1867 at the plantation of James Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

the Jury after hearing the evidence in the cause of the death of Sally Shed and examined the dead Body. Come to the conclusion that the Said Sally came to her death by the discharge of a gun in the hands of the Girl Rachel, by accident.

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