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 1 - 50 of 1096
Namesort descending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it

A. J. Means March 1, 1875 at Sam'l Means, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths . . .do say that the aforesaid Means came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in the hands of Pinkney Brewton [?]

A. L. Lattimore July 2, 1883 at Pacolet Cotton Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid A. L. Lattimore ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

A. R. Steel girl child August 28, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep

Aaron Hardin June 24, 1845 at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC

do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.

Aaron Rogers May 14, 1872 at Isham Johnson's Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Aaron Rogers (the deceased) came to his death by accidental drowning in Thompson's Creek, below Purvis' Bridge, on Sunday the 12th May AD 1872

Abby Davis May 29, 1877 at Quarly[?] Davis, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid Abby Davis came to her death to the best of their belief from the evidence given, by misfortune or accident.

Abner Evans June 14, 1867 at P.A. Parker's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the Deceased came to his Death By mischance that Abner Evin came to his deat By Falling in the Well and was 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

Abram man slave August 17, 1860 at the Residence of Gen[?] Jas B. Griffin, Edgefield County, SC snake

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Abram came to his death by being bitten twice by a snake

Abram Clement October 6, 1868 at Martin Williamston's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said deceased was killed by the falling of a limb from a tree which he had cut down near the old school house.

Abram McJunkin March 14, 1867 at the [??], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .by drowning came to his death by accident

Absalom June 26, 1829 at Nathaniel Holleys, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that said Absalom came to his death by a stroke of lightning

Absalom McAbee January 6, 1883 at Almarine Willis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by mischange by being partially paralised and falling into water and strangled or drowned being a man of 80 years or more and very feeble

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

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

Adam Davis February 5, 1841 at or near John B. Bailey's, Union County, SC

uppon our oaths do say that we think the said Adam Davis came to his death by accidently falling into the fire when intoxicated

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

Adam Wood December 5, 1880 at Cowpens Station on the A&C Air Line R.R., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased came to his death . . . by being run over or struck by the train on said road, receiving thereby such wounds as to cause his death

Addora Wallace Fairfield County, SC

we the undersigned Jurymen do hereby find the following verdict That Addora Wallace came to her death by drowning not Known to the Jury.

Adolphus E. Tucker August 11, 1943 at Ruby, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Adolphus E. Tucker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Ford Car in the hands of J. C. Hinson

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

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.

Aggey September 14, 1830 near the house of Edward P. Mobley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that said Negroe Aggey came to her death on the night of the 11th this instant by the breaking of a joist or two in a house, which fell on her

Albert Brunson June 26, 1895 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

Albert W. Wilkins November 22, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths do say that Albert W. Wilkins received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Truck-operated by Cheraw state park in the hands of G. E. Parnell

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

Aleck Dorsey March 23, 1877 at J.W. Coleman's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he come to his death by the accidental burning of a house on the above noted plantation on the 22nd day of March A.D. 1877 about 8 or 9 O Clock in the morning

Alexander January 2, 1862 at Dr. Austins, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander came to his death Jany 1st by accident having been caught in the running gear of the gin.

Alexander "Boyd" Jackson September 17, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Alexander Jackson Theodore Niveis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by ______ in the hands of by Drowning

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

Alexander Martin September 8, 1867 at the residence fo B.W. Knight, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander L. Martin came to his death by the falloing of a tree some of the limbs striking dec'd on the back of the head neck and shoulders

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.

Alfred Gage May 21, 1890 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say that the said Alfred Gage came to his death "By Accidental Drowning in little river at the Mills at Milton.

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

Alias July 14, 1838 at the plantation of Samuel Mobley, Fairfield County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that they believe from the evidence given that the two aforesaid Negro Men came to their death by Lightning and by no other way

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Alick Croker boy September 29, 1878 at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC

Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

Allen Bauknight freedman June 11, 1866 at William Bauknights, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Bauknight came to his death by a discharge of a Gun in the hands of Suson Bauknight freeman his wife by the Gun going of axcidentally

Allen Johnson June 17, 1876 at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC train

do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek

Ally Pollard February 5, 1868 on the farm of J.G. Mabury, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he froze to death while intoxicated in the public road near J.G. Mabury's

Amelia A. Alexander May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin. . .by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons

Andrew negro man October 6, 1855 on the track of the South Carolina Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say. . .that Andrew came to his death by being run over by the engine and passenger train

Andrew Dawkins June 25, 1895 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

From testimony produced, I find he died from a fracture of the skull received from a fall while engaged in unloading a Lumber car, at the Factory at Laurens County. I also find that there was no one to blame for same.

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

Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Angus Jefferson Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Angus Jefferson Smith came to his death by accidental drowning in a water course known as Lawson's Fork 1 /12 miles distant from Spartangburg C.H.

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.

Ann June 28, 1837 at the house of Andrew Yongue[?], Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they do believe agreeable to evidence that the said Ann came to her death by accidentily falling into the Creek and getting drowned and not otherwise.

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