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 enslaved child was as potentially valuable as a Lexus, infant death in the quarter was more rigorously investigated. Coupled with deep prejudices against enslaved mothers, inquests typically found that an unnamed “negro Child” was “negligently Smothered” by its mother, or that the enslaved child Lora was “accidentally smothered” in the family bed, or that the enslaved 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 101 - 150 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
George February 6, 1815 at the plantation of Daniel Brag, Laurens County, SC

doth say upon their oaths saith that on the 5th of this instant in crossing Enoree River got wash. Off his horse and got drowned.

Lewis Berry February 20, 1815 Union County, SC

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

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

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

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.

Robert McCants January 27, 1817 at the house of Samuel Alston, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Robert McCants came to his death at sometime about Half a Mile from his own House by intoxication and exposure to the cold.

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

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

Charles Hobbs October 1, 1817 on the highway near John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

Do say uppon there oaths after hearing all the Evidence that cold [sic] be obtained that it is there oppinion that through Intoxication he fell from his hors [sic] and Sufficated [sic] in the mud and watter as it was a Night of Very hard Rain and he was found in a hollow and partly covered with mud and the same.

Thomas Henry October 20, 1817 at the Dweling Hous of Samuel, Union County, SC

do Say on their oaths tha Said Thomas Came to his Death By a [?] fall that Nathan[?] Howard [?] him By throwing him [?] his hous[?] in a [????]

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

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

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

Samuel Whillow December 17, 1818 Laurens County, SC

We the Jurors after having been lawfully summoned, & sworn by James Watts having examined the body of decsd. Give it as our opinion that sd. Whillow came to his death by reason of his being very much intoxicated with ardent spirits & in attempting to go home some time about dark forced his young horse in saluda river at Childs' Ferry & drowned...

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

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

John Findley March 22, 1819 at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC

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

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

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

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

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 boat

came to his death by act of God

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC
Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
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

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

Ashford D. Clary March 17, 1822 near David Graham's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he being Intoxicated on Sunday the tenth day of this Instant (March) and had attempted to cross the branch aforesaid, and crossing had fallen into the same and was Drowned in the water of said Branch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Craig January 19, 1825 at the house of Mathew Richmond, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that, according evidence and their own belief a tree which he assisted to cutdown, by misfortune fell on him and broke his scull on the evening of the 18th.

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

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

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

George Fisher March 14, 1826 on the bank of the Broad River, Fairfield County, SC

[upon their oaths] do say that the said George Fisher going into a certain River] called Broad River to fish traps for fish of his own will at a late hour of the night it happened that accidentally, casually, and misfortunate [he] was in the water of the said river then suffocated and drowned...and there instantly died

John Cotton March 15, 1826 at the river bank in Mr. Jno. Nelson's field, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that on the second day January last that the said John Cotton came to his death by attempting to go to the shore from a boat that was lodged in the shoal near Jones Mills within said district and was drowned accidentally and not otherwise

John Strange May 10, 1826 at Rocky Mount Ferry on the Catawba River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths the the said John Strange being in a state of intoxication on attempting to swim across the aforesaid river was unfortunately drowned

William Thompson May 26, 1826 in town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC saltpeter

do say upon their oaths that it was by taking a dose of saltpetre though mistake

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

slave slave January 17, 1827 near McRae's mills, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to it by intemperate drinking & exposure to the cold in an open field

John Harry February 2, 1827 at the House of John Harry, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their oathes that they are of opinion that the deceased came to his death by falling from his hors [sic] when he was driving his waggon in his own plantation

Andrew Hunter August 26, 1827 Kershaw County, SC cart

do say upon their oaths that he was going from mill and his cart wheel struck on a shim and overset and caught him under the cart. . . on his right shoulder and across his neck and the fore gate across his right arm about the elbow

Charles negro male slave, boy September 20, 1827 at David Johnsons, Union County, SC

say upon our oaths that from the testimony before us we do believe that the aforesaid Charles was drowned in Big[? Broad?] River by Misfortune

William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

Elizabeth Belk April 20, 1828 near the Door house, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that in traveling to a neighboring house she fell down and being old & infirm was unable to rise & so perished

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

Edmond May 5, 1828 on the premises of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

After hearing the evidence we believe the aforesaid negro Edmond did voluntarily go into the water in a State of intoxication and by accident of mischance did drown.

infant June 8, 1828 house of Jessee Husk, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that after carefully examining the dead body of the s'd male child of the s'd Martha Gibson ... are all agreed that the s'd child died by the visitation of God but by the blood being [?]led in large spots to be seen through the skin all on his left side from his face to his foot they thought it was probable s'd child might have eat some poisonous herbs or berries of the woods as s'd Husk had settled in the woods

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