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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

Hattie Smalls at C.B. Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hattie Smalls, in manner and form aforsaid came to her death by having burned[?] to death accidently

W. H. Parker at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say We the undersigned Jurors in the within stated case find that the deceased person supposed to be one W.H. Parker from papers found on his person, come to his death Accidentally by a moving train

Lizzie Coleman at A.P. Irby's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child Lizzie, Coleman, came to her death by burning in a house on the Plantation of Capt A.P. Irby's the 21st of Nov 1884 the origin of the fire unknown to the jury[.]

Peggyann Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Pauline Paulding[?] at Captain John Thomas' Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Pauline Pauling died of suffocation[?]

John Henry Butler[?] at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

Adaline Cason at Kase Williamson's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their [oaths] do say that Adaline Cason came to her death by Accidental Burning on the 11th of March 1885

Jesse Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Tom Griffin at the freight depot in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

it appears that the deceased Tom Griffen was killed by being run over by a railroad train on the tracks by the side of the freight depot at Winnsboro, S.C. on the twenty ninth day of November A.D. 1897.

infant of Sam Coleman at the residence of Sam Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say that they believe the infant of Sam Coleman came to its death by asphyxia

Isaac Miller at Thomas W. Rables[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by a tree falling on him accidently.

Frank Young in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Fairfield County, SC

We find that the deceased Frank Young came to his death by accidental drowning

Maggie Henderson at the Dr. Sam Mobley place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Maggie Henderson came to her death from pistol shot wound, discharged by her sister, Millie Henderson accidentily between midnight and day on the 13th of Feb 1886 at the residence of Hall Henderson on the place of Caleb Craig[.]

Viola Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Crosby Irby at Perry Irby's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his home. . .from a gun shot wound accidently fired[.]

Elenora Yongue near Struther[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elenora Yongue came to her death by accidental burning.

William Hopkins at J. Feaster Lyles' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun in the hands of Robert Hopkins[.]

Infant of Albert Davis at Crosbyville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the cause of death was suffocation

William Watson near the Harrison Ferry on the Wateree River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Watson came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun in his own hands, on the bank of the Wateree river on the afternoon of 30th day of Jan AD 1894[.]

Proph[?] Fryday at Willson Fryday's, Fairfield County, SC

I am satisfied that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound on the evening of the 29 of March at or near his fathers house and that the gun was fired accidentally.

Thomas Yongue near Strother, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Tomas Yongue came to his death from accidental burning

W. T. Reid at Ridgeway, Fairfield County, SC

thinks that he came to his dath from extreme alcholism and exposure.

Infant son of Lee & Eliza Moore at the plantation of Mrs. N. Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say this child came to his death from some natural cause unknown to the Jury

Thomas Thompson at Capt. Manus' place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Thompson came to his death from the affect of a burn caused by falling in the fire[.]

Lewis Bradley Laurens County, SC

we the jury find in our opinion that Lewis Bradlet Died in Laurens County on the 29th day of Decr. 1894 from great Exposure in the [extreme?] cold, and that no one is to blame as far as we know, for his death.

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

William McDonald December 25, 1803 in the District aforesaid, Laurens County, SC

Say upon there Oaths that the aforesaid Wm McDonal in Manor & form aforesaid was hurt & came to his Death By Misfortune...

Tom slave May 5, 1805 at plantation of John Chesnut, Esquire, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that the said negro in escaping from him [the overseer] attempted to swim the river, and was drowned

John Dedman March 15, 1806 at Mr Jno Kings, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths that the s. Dedman, (arguably to the Testimony of Jas. Parker E.S. Roland and A. Bishop, persons present when he died) was killed by fall from a Horse at Home of Chas. Simmons in the District aforesaid

Sarah Robison June 30, 1806 at Abraham Maddens Mill, Laurens County, SC

Do say on there oaths that fore said Sarah Robison came to her Death by Misfortune.

Zechariah Tottey December 4, 1806 at the Mill River, Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Totty Came to his Death we Belive By toxication[?] in [?] and [?] By haggs[?] in a [?]

Betsey Smith January 19, 1807 at the Dweling hous of Miles[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the Said Betsey Smith Came to her Death [??] Close[?] catching[?] fire and and[?] and[?] thereby [?] her to Death

African Negroe Man African Negroe Man January 20, 1807 at the Common Gaol, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid African negroe man slave, on the night between the nineteenth and twentieh day of this instant being confined in the common gaol of Laurens district aforesaid, then and there died of the visitation of God, he having forzen to death, not having since sufficient to keep on his clothing, which was furnished by the gaoler of the said District, he having in the room in which he was confined by himself, four blankets, and when found being entirely naked, and then and there in manner & form aforesaid came to his death and not otherwise.

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

Harry slave August 13, 1807 at McRae & Cantey's Merchant (grist) mill, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave came to his death by misfortune

Jerry May 16, 1808 at the Mill House of Henry Brockman, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, the said Negrow man Jerry came to his Death by being Intoxicated in Liquor and Indeavoring to cross the Enoree River... between Laurens & Spartanburgh Districts that then & there the sd. Negrow Jerry got strangled sufficated & Drowned & from all appearance contrary to the wife sd. Negrow by mischance or accident.

James Spradley August 19, 1808 near Sander's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that ... the said James Spradley happening to be close behind the said George Nettles looking at the dogs afighting received the contents of the said gun consisting of a load of powder and buck shot in his forehead just over his left eye which shot shot away a considerable part of his skull and brains [and] in one hour after his receiving the said wound, [he] died of the same

Starling Kingsland single man November 15, 1810 Union County, SC horse

do upon their oaths . . .that the above Starling Kingston Came to his Death by [?] a fall from his horse

Thomas Milane March 7, 1811 near Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Milane came to his death by misfortune by a fall from his horse on this day.

William Giles Capt May 13, 1811 at his own Dweling, Union County, SC

do Say on their Oaths that . . .William Giles Came to his Death by fall of a Limb from a tree which appears to have Broake his skull and one of his arms

George Watts December 2, 1811 Kershaw County, SC ferry

[do say] the said George Watts came to his death . . .by falling out of the flat of Camden Ferry. . . on the evening of Friday, the twenty-second day of November last past while intoxicated

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

Sarah Arledge April 22, 1812 at Meeting House Branch, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oath that the said infant child as aforesaid came to its death by being lost in the woods & perished to death by hunger and cold on the night of the twelfth of this Instant on Meeting House Branch

William Arledge December 1, 1813 near Sander's[?] Creek, Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that they found William Arledge . . . lying . . . in the middle of the road and upon examination believe his neck to be broken and from other marks and evidence suppose it arose from his having fallen from his horse

Mary Tottey January 3, 1814 Union County, SC

do upon their oaths say that the said Mary Came to her Death By the act of God By Droning

John Johnson March 2, 1814 at the plantation of John Mitchel, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the sd. John Johnson came to his death on the night of the 26th February last, by Drowning

Henry Castleberry January 7, 1815 at the house of James Hannah, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths, that the Deceased came to his Death by misfortune upon the fall of a horse on the Public road near the house of James Hannah.

Daniel Bragg February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in striving to save a negroe man he got drowned.

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia