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 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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Datesort ascending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
J. M. Higgins March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

Rachal Hough August 28, 1888 at Millers Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Rachal Hough in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Thomas Richards July 31, 1888 at the Air Line Railroad Bridge on Broad River, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Richards came to his death by accidentally falling or jumping off Train number fifty-one (51) on the Atalnta and Charlotte Air Line Division of the Richmond and Danville Railrad [and] was accidentally caught under and run over and killed by said train of cars

Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

Adolphus Littlejohn May 31, 1888 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Adolphus Littlejohn came to his death by being run over by the Ballast Train of the Richmond and Danville Roilroad about the incorporate limits of Gaffney City

Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Infant of Sarah McQueen Infant of Sarah McQueen November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Thomas Bryant August 16, 1887 at Rich Hill, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Bryant here lying dead did come to his death ... by the Spartanburg & Union Road cars unavoidably passing over him

Wyatt Harris April 22, 1887 at Limestone Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Whay Harris was killed by accident at Limestone Springs ... by a rock thrown by a blast at Simon's works striking him on top of the head while he was at work at Richardson's kiln and killing his instantly

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

George F. Farmer December 3, 1886 at Thicketty Station, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say taht the said George F. Farmer came to his death by jumping from the cars while they were crossing the Trestle over Big Thickety Creek near Thickety Station and by falling on timbers below ... the said fall caused by accident on the part of the deceased being the result of drunkenness

John A. Motz October 18, 1886 at the Brewer Gold Mine, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John A. Motz came to his death by a falling rock from the east side of the quarry at the Brewer Gold mine where he at that time was turning a drill, 10 minutes till 2 O'clock P.M. the falling rock strick his head, and pushed it against another rock, which crushed his brains out.

Benjamin Grady August 28, 1886 at Brocks Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Benjamin Grady came to his death by being accidently Drowned in Brocks Mill Pond on 27th day of August 1886

Edgar Daniel July 26, 1886 at Jack Daniel's residence, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Edgar Daniel came to his death by accidental drowning, he, of his own accord, going too far into the deep water Broad River of J. L. Allison's place

Elsie Williams June 28, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elsie Williams did on this place on the 29th day of June 1886-accidentally receive in her abdomen a pistol shot which caused her death on the 1st day of July 1886

Peter Chambers March 19, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Peter Chambers . . . in Thompsons Creek near Lunch's Bridge . . . came to his death by drowning good in our opinion by misfortune or accident.

George Wilkins January 7, 1886 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht George Wilkins came to his death by misfortune or accident from a gun shot in the hands of Jack Lewis

Augustus Johnson December 17, 1885 Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

Wee as sworn of in quest Believe Come to his Deth By Acdent

Tip Jackson November 29, 1885 near New Prospect, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Tip Jackson came to his death by accidentally falling down a steep bank about fourteen feet, his neck falling across a log causing suffocation new New Prospect on the Mills Gap Road about midnight

Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

Willie Senteel August 9, 1885 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Willie Senteel came to his death by accidental drowning at Clifton

Collen Baskins August 4, 1885 at Josh Baskins, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tat the Said Collen Baskins came to his death by being acly Drowned

Georgiana Fowler July 28, 1885 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Georgiana Fowler came to her death by a dislocation of the cervical vertebra from a fall in a fainting fit

Corvie Bowers July 24, 1885 at J S Blalocks place, Laurens County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Corvie Bowers came to her death in Laurens County on the 23d day of July AD 1885 by a strike of Lightning.

Elizabeth Knight June 27, 1885 at Joseph Knight's residence, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Elizabeth Knight in Manner and form aforesaid Came to her death by misfortune or accident By a gunshot wound on the right side of the Forehead which was caused by the careless handling of a gun in the hands of her little Brother

Dora Woods May 3, 1885 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "By accident or mishap by a fall from the banister or shelf of the piazza while playing there."

William McAbee April 8, 1885 Spartanburg County, SC
James Owens March 13, 1885 at James Owens's house, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that ... James Owens came to his death by misfortunte or accident

John Ellerbe March 2, 1885 at McKays Station at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say: That the said John Ellerbe in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Ephram Chapman February 15, 1885 at Thomson Creek Bridge on Cheraw Road, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the deceased came to his death by freezing on the night of the 12th of Feb. A D 1885 and the deceased was unknown to us all

George Dillard February 2, 1885 at Taylormill, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Dillard in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accidentally falling into the fire...

Sam McGee December 22, 1884 at the Rail Road Trestle at Badgetts Mill in Laurens County, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Sam McGee came to his death on the 22nd day of December AD 1884 by mischance or accident in being run over and crushed by a rail road train.

Augustus Barton December 9, 1884 Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that ... on said rail road ... the said Augustus [?] came to his death by accident falling from the top of a moving car and being crushed under the wheels of the said car

Sherod Holms October 10, 1884 at Sherod Holms House, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Mr S Homs Came to his death by accidentally by Mr Eddie Talbert horse knocking down Mr S Holms horse

John Rufus Russell October 10, 1884 at John L Russell House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said John Rufus Russell come to his death by suffocation Caused by accidentally falling with head downward into a hole in a pile of seed Cotton

Riah Simpson infant daughter of Jim and Manda Simpson June 28, 1884 at the Langly House on White Plains Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death in the hoise of Jim Simpson on the 28th of June between the hours of 8 & 9 oclock from the effects of a pistol shot in the hands of William Simpson accidentally through carelessness

Prophet Goodman May 24, 1884 at the residence of N A Green, Laurens County, SC pig

upon their oaths do say that the said Prophet Goodman came to his death on the 24th day of May AD 1884 from being torn and lacerated by a sow hog, which sais tearing and lacerating was done on N A Greens place in Laurens County And so the jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Prophet Goodman came to his death by mischance or accident.

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

Thomas Davis March 30, 1884 at John Davis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Davis came to his death by misfortune or accident

James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

Jane Smith March 24, 1884 at Tip Top, Laurens County, SC strychnine

upon their oaths do say that the said Jane Smith came to her death by a dose of Strychnine accidentally given her for Colomel and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, do say the aforesaid Jane Smith came to her death in the manner as before said.

Samuel Brock Sr. March 23, 1884 at Samuel Brocks Sr, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Samuel Brock Sr came to his death by being burned to death in his own hous supposed accidently

Male Infant Male Infant March 20, 1884 at the Jeff Sumerel place, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say; that the deceased male infant came to his death by suffocation or mischance. . .

James Edward Settle boy March 9, 1884 on Henry Hill Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon there [?] that said James Edward Settle Came to his death from Epellepcy and Starvation

John McManas December 4, 1883 at the Jail, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the deceased John McMenas . . .Came to his death by Concussion of the Brain Caused by a fall from the back door of the jail

Sylvester Robins September 20, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Sylvester Robbins came to his death ... from the effect of falling behind the bed and being caught by the chin and head between the railing of the bed and the wall of the house

Wesley Holiday September 14, 1883 at Joseph P. Nabor's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by its mother turning over on it in bed, which was as we believe an accident

Leander Pack August 14, 1883 at the residence of Elias Atkins, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Leander Pack came to his death ... by a blow of a fallen tree of which the decased were cutting

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