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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
negro child negro child February 17, 1850 at the plantation of James Ellises, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Female child came to its death by mischance being accidentally smothered

Charles negro man February 27, 1850 at Scotts Shoals on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he was drowned by accident, and that the body was too much decayed to admit of examination.

Henry Henderson March 19, 1850 at Henry Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes Do Say that the Said Henry Henderson came to his Death by accidentally fawling in to a Branch near his house while under mental Derangement on the 17th day of March about ten oclock at Knight [sic] and that Henry Henderson in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by Misfortune or accidental Drowning.

Norman Cameron March 28, 1850 at Mr. John McGoogan's, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Norman Cameron came to his death by misfortune or accidentally falling off his horse

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

Jesse May 15, 1850 at Lyles Ford on the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man came to his dead by drowing or accident to the Jurors unknown

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

Abram negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at Henry L Maysons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Abram came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the savanah river

Tom negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at H. L. Maysons in Beach island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro man Tom came to his death from being accidentally drowned in savanah river

Henry negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at New Savannah in beach Island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths Say that the negro man Henry came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the Savannah river

Richard negro boy Slave September 9, 1850 at Thomas Garretts, Edgefield County, SC machinery

Upon their Oaths do say, that. . .we believe the deceased came to his death by accident

Thomas child of Thomas M Chandler September 11, 1850 at Thos M. Chandler's house, and at the old Pottery, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death on the 8th ist by accidental drowning

Sally slave December 15, 1850 at Gerrymiah Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say . . .that the aforesaid sally . . .came to her death by misfortune or accident

Franklin Turner son December 26, 1850 at John Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the aforesaid Franklin Turner . . .came to his death by misfortune or accident

James McCravy January 4, 1851 at the house of Amos Holmes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James McCravy being intoxicated and out in the snow frozed [sic] to death

William Bently March 21, 1851 at Wm Bently's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that the said Wm Bently came to his death . . . by a wall plate that fell from the top of the house which he was Building which was by misfortune or accident

Henry Goodman May 4, 1851 at or near to William H Adams on little horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Goodman in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by drowning in said little horse Creek

John Scott May 10, 1851 at Vaucluse[?] Factory, Edgefield County, SC horse

came to his death by being accidentally thrown from his horse

William Prince July 9, 1851 at the house of John W Garrett, Edgefield County, SC

uppon their oaths do say that the aforesaid William Prince . . .come to his death by accidentally drowning himself

Alcy negro child July 22, 1851 at B. J. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the dieast came to its death by being overlaid by its mother

Ryal Negro Slave July 28, 1851 at Mr Thos McKies Batteau landing on Big Stephen's Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they boy Ryal went in the creek of his own accord and [?] to swim drowned

Charles slave July 31, 1851 at the house of John M. Norris Esqr in Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that by his head being mashed and and his scull broken at the gin house of John M. Norris . . .by the gin running gear, his head passing between the cogs and trunal[?] head, rounds or Wollower

O. P. Brown October 27, 1851 at Durbin Creek, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that he died of a wound received by the fauling of an arch of the Bridge near J.W. Meadors across Durbin Creek which did dislocate his neck and bruise his shoulders and body

John Shumport[?] November 7, 1851 at John Shumports[?], Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that John Shumport . . .did come to his death by misfortune or accident

Bill slave November 19, 1851 at Colonel Samuel Beaty's, Union County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that by being flung and dragged by the horse with his feet wound in the chain some hundred and fifty yards. . . came to his death by misfortune or accident

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

infant infant December 13, 1851 at A. J. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it was accidently smoothered by its mother

Lora slave January 6, 1852 at Gerrymiah Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child Lora she was accidently smothered by its mother

Kenneth Martor[?] January 15, 1852 at Thomas Samar's[?] Mills on horse creek, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say the decd came to his death . . .by becoming accidentaly entangled in, and with the running gear of Mr Thos G. Lamar's circular saw mill

James Parker February 4, 1852 at James Parker's house, Kershaw County, SC horse

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

Jack negro boy May 14, 1852 at the house of H. W. Posey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said negro boy Jack then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill by drowning in the mill pong

Henry colored man May 24, 1852 at Ephraim Few's, Greenville County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by lightening

Thomas Rosseter[?] August 30, 1852 at Hamburg SC, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that he, said Thos Rosseter came to his death by drowning . . .in the street in the town of Hamburg, during the high water Backed[?] out from the Savannah River

John Thomas October 6, 1852 at Line Creek, Greenville County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they think he much intoxicated, and in attempting to crop[?] the River fell off on a rock under the Bridge broke his skull and so stunned him that he was immediately drowned

slave slave December 4, 1852 at the plantation known as Stockton's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by his appearance from privation and exposure

Tom Slave, old negro man January 12, 1853 near the residence of Harry Scott, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, that the dead body of Tom lying in the branch near the residence of Henry Scott . . .came to his death, by accident or misfortune

Mary female Slave January 13, 1853 at Isaac Bowles[?], Edgefield County, SC

The jury find that the decased Mary came to her death by falling into the Said Mountain Creek and drowned

Adam Hempley February 1, 1853 near Wilson Wingo's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe it. . .was caused by the falling of a limb from a tree he cut down himself

Starkes Whitlock February 16, 1853 at J P Poters, Union County, SC

upon ther oaths do say that he was the cause of his own death . . .come to his own by Drinking & Exsposure by laying out in the wet & cole

Rowland Cash March 11, 1853 at the residence of Ephraim Jackson, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [deceased] came to his death by misfortune or accident

Anthony slave July 2, 1853 at Samuel J. Hannond's plantation, Anderson County, SC

do say the deceased came to his death by causes unknown. We find marks or bruises on the right side of the head and behind the right ear. We find no more marks or bruises on the deceased more than what might have been made by a fall.

Obediah Martin July 21, 1853 in the road near Hugh Caldwell's, Spartanburg County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental turning over of a waggon and a saw log rolling on him

negro man negro man August 7, 1853 at or near Wm [?] old Mill, Union County, SC

Can Clude that the Said negro man Came to his Death by drowing

infant slave infant slave September 28, 1853 at the house of James R. Jeter, Union County, SC

came to its death by misfortune or accident

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

Wilson Stanley December 19, 1853 at Peter Gosnels[?], Greenville County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson B. Stanley came to his death by a fall from his horse into the branch [?] the road near Hodges Mills

Thomas D. Cook April 10, 1854 at Stover's Ferry on Savannah River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Thomas D. Cook came to his death by accidental drowning

Charles slave July 1, 1854 at Kings W Iron Co[?] Rolling Mill, Union County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say that the say Boy Charles. . . came to his death by misfortune or accident

W. H. Gordon March 5, 1855 at the house of Alex.r Hampton, Horry County, SC buggy

upon their Oaths do say. That by an unjury caused by a fall from his Buggy on the side of the road

Duke negro man March 25, 1855 near Dennis Carpenters, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid negro slave name Duke. . .did come to his death from intemperance and exposure

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