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.

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" -- but also "very drunk." And Gabe Wilky "was 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 Spring 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 1 - 50 of 609
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Wily Royal at J.S. Hancocks, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that Wily Royal came to death … by Pistol shot wound accidently inflicted by Walter Deale

Albert Brunson at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say. That Albert Brunson came to his death by wreck of Enjine no. 6 … caused by rail road spikes being placed on rails … by parties unknown

Susan Churchwell at Allen Simkins House, Edgefield County, SC drugs

upon the oaths do say that Susan Churchwell Came to her death from dropsey[?] of the Chest

John Findley at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC alcohol, drowning

do say upon their oaths that … he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC log

death was caused from concussion of the brain caused from some blow or lick.

Samuel Negro Man Anderson County, SC drowning

the Decd had been missing ever since Sunday…he would search the Mill pond as he had been seen in the neighborhood…and found him floating on the water in the pond about 12 feet from the Dam….That he knew of no enemy the Decd had had never heard of any threats--thought it was accidental.

John Brown September 16, 1804 at Andrew Graham's plantation, near Beaver[?] Creek , Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths … they do believe that he died on Saturday evening the 15th … by excessive drinking of ardent spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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 fall

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

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

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 drowning, alcohol

[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 burning

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 exposure

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 fall

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 drowning

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

Lewis Berry February 20, 1815 Union County, SC exposure

do say on their oaths that the said Lewis Berry come to his death by being in [?] in the Cold

Angus McQueen January 17, 1816 at home of Kelly McDermit, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that the deceased came to his Death by the combined effects of Cold, Intoxication, and the falls he had therefrom.

Alfred Sowell December 1, 1816 Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that the said Alfred Sowell came to his death by misfortune, that is to say, but accidental firing of a smooth bored gun, being at the same time charged, which drove her charge of shot into the breast of the said Alfred Sowell

Jean Young December 6, 1816 Union County, SC wagon

Came to his death by the act of God a Waggon Whel running [?]

Alexander McKee January 4, 1817 in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC exposure

do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.

Bailey Redman June 28, 1817 at Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

do say upon there [sic] oaths … that his death was caused by [swimming] over the dam

Mordicae Bloice May 14, 1818 at the flat [?] of Edylis[?], Union County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say … that the deceased Mordica Bloice came to his death by accidental drowning

James Adis June 13, 1818 Union County, SC drowning

do say u[?] thr oaths that the desceased [?] come to his by being drowned

Daniel Gallis January 31, 1819 at house of Daniel Gillis, Kershaw County, SC tree fall

do say upon their oaths that … by cutting down a oak he was accidentally struck by a limb of the said tree and instantly killed

Gabriel Gibson April 18, 1819 at Elbethel Meeting house, Union County, SC fall

Doe say upon their oaths that … Gabriel Gibson Came to his End By Mischance & Say that he was Spliting Roling Down A Decent

Woodward King July 16, 1820 at Capt. Boles[?] Hamilton's, Spartanburg County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that from the examination of the corpse and information received from children they believe that he came to his death … by a shot from a pistol in the hands of his brother Mancel King aged ten years accidentally without any intention of killing

James Robison December 17, 1820 at the hous of John Birds, Union County, SC alcohol

do say upon his oath that the said James Robison did Come to his death by Drinking of Sherriouts Liqur … Com to his death by Entockacation

Nicholas Lowery December 28, 1820 on the Ridge Road near John Lowrey's, Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Nicholas Lowrey came to his death by being run against a tree by the Horse he rode

Oliver Neely March 5, 1821 at Thomas Hughs Senors[?], Union County, SC drowning

came to his death by act of God

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC drowning
John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

James McCannon May 1, 1821 at Joseph Hughes, Union County, SC drowning

say on our oths that the said James McCannon did come to his death by the act of God … by attmting to Crose a Creek by the name of Hughs Creek and was forthwith drownded

Scott September 14, 1821 near the mill pond of Duncan McRae, Esquire, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

[do say] that from every circumstance that he came to his death by intemperance

John McLeod August 23, 1822 at house of Widow McLeod in the fork of Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC burning

have unanimously agreed that the said John McLeod has received his Death by unavoidable accident as he was pouring liquor into a barrel or cask … which liquor caught on fire and busted the said cask and as we suppose one of the staves struck the said deceased by which which we think he rec'd his death together with the volume of flame which issued from s'd spirits as on examination we found his face mortally cut and his body much burnt

Rachel Evans August 25, 1822 at house of Elias Parish, Kershaw County, SC lightning

are unanimously agreed that the said Rachel who is now lying dead at the house of Elias Parish came to her death by the visitation of God on the 24 Instant by lightning [and] was struck dead

John Garrett October 22, 1822 at House of John Garrett, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths … Came to his death by being accid Draunded

Bob slave February 18, 1823 near Captain James W. Lang's Mills, Kershaw County, SC exposure

do say upon their oaths that the said Bob a Negro man slave came to his death by being exposed & was frozen to death on the night of the sixteenth Instant which exposure was probably produced by intoxication in the woods near Captain Lang's Mills

David Garison February 23, 1823 [?] the house of David Garison, Greenville County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that they suppose the said David Garison get chilled to death from the inclemency of the weather and exposure.

Booker negro March 30, 1823 at the plantation called Flint Hill[?], Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that … the sd. negro … was axacery [sic] to his own death by drinking to [sic] much spirits and being exposed to the inclemency of the weather

George Darby April 20, 1823 at Lores-ford on broad River, Union County, SC alcohol, drowning

do say upon their oaths that … the said George Dary came to his death by drowning while in a state of intoxication & making an effort to cross broad River at Lore's ford to some of the Islands

Bethel Ogelsby August 21, 1823 cotton fields belonging to John Doby Esq., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that they believe he came to his death by the visitation of God, no marks of violence appearing to us upon him

Abraham Bever Van Waganan February 2, 1824 Union County, SC alcohol/exposure

do say on our Oaths, that the Sd Waganan not Standing in the fear of god and not having a deep consideration of his immortal soul, did drink Spirit[?] Liquors … that it cuased him to come to his untimely death

slave slave March 12, 1824 on the river bank at the plantation of Edward Brevard, Kershaw County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man came to his death by (as we suppose) from the evidence profused the falling out of a Batteaux accidently and drowning

Somerset slave March 24, 1824 Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the said Somerset came to his death by accident arising from a fall from a horse

Henry Coil man supposed to be Henry Coil December 25, 1824 at the premises of [??], Union County, SC exposure

do say upon their Oaths that he with Strolling About Perisht with hunger & Coald … did kill and homicide himself

Robert Anderson January 31, 1825 at the camp near the Wateree Canal, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that the said Robert Anderson came to his death by a gun going accidentally off as William Forten was laying it up, the cock of said gun striking against the place where it was to be laid, which caused it to go off and the load was lodged in the neck of said Robert Anderson

James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC suffocation

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

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