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
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

Dolly Young child March 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upont their oaths do say that the said Dolly Young . . . came to her death by accident or smuthering or by misclued[?]

Jackson Byars December 13, 1877 at Boiling Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jackson Byars came to his death beside the Mills Gap Road nine miles from Spartanburg C.H. in the County and State aforesaid ... from appoplexy or effusion of blood upon the brain

Peter Redfearn December 28, 1870 at Hornsboro, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peter Redfearn came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the left foot the gun accidently firing while in the hands of Ben Lowry

Milly Thomas October 8, 1878 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the aforesaid Milly Thomas came to her death from being crushed under the shafting in W.B. Creights gin room on the afternoon of the 7th October 1878 at Winnsboro.

Martha Hubbard January 1, 1912 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

slave slave June 24, 1843 at Thomas Holland's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that according to evidence believe the said child was strangled to death by its mother's milk

William Bradley December 29, 1841 at Elizabeth Eubank's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . drink & ardent spirits to an excess so as to intoxicate him so much as to render him incapible of helping himself to where he could have the benefit of fire, and only reached the edge of the field where in his residence was ... and there fell down and perished with Coald.

William Godfrey October 19, 1873 near Leaterwood's Mills, Spartanburg County, SC

open [sic] their oaths do say that [deceased] did fall into a gully and being unable to get out did then and there die

Eugenia Richardson on James McGill's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she was accidently over layed by her mother and smothered to death, and came to her death by misfortune or accident.

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the child was . . .smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

Charley Geeter October 27, 1881 at Violets Geeter's house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Charley Geeter came to his death by accident from fire

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

infant slave infant slave December 30, 1857 at Isaac Gregorys house, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that . . . it came to its death by accidental overLaying or strangling by the mothers breast

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.

Janie Watts October 11, 1891 at R O Hairston, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Janie Watts Died in Laurens County on the 11th day of Oct. 1891 by being burnt to death in a house that was burnt by accident when the Mother was away.

J. F. Styron April 21, 1891 at residence of J. F. Styron[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said J. F. Styron dropped dead in his field from being over heat while engaged in burning logs and in such heat drinking big drought of cold water and as the Physician tells us from heart failure

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

Lizzie May Crosby at Feasterville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions from the evidence brought before them the infant came to its death from causes unknown to the Jury

Nettie Mae Bennett November 9, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Nettie Mae Bennett received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by shot gun in the hands in the hands of Derk Gardin (accidental)

Willie Williams Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

Siller female slave November 12, 1842 at an oald wast house in the plantation of Mrs Susannah Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that . . .the said Siller axcidently caught fire in her beding whilst a sleep, and from inability to help her Self ware burned to death

Mary Love January 17, 1876 at Mrs. Clovers Spencers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Mary Love came to here Death by being accidently burned

John Hinson July 20, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

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

James Sullivan July 23, 1874 at the Residence Cesear Sulivan, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the afforesaid James Sullivan in manner and form aforesaid with Lewis Beckes Toler Sulivan and John Mitchel then and there Did Drown

Rachel McBurney October 21, 1833 in the house of Major James Barkley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced, they believe that on the morning of the 20th this instant, or some time in the night of the 19th, a small house adjoining the dwelling of the said Major James Barkley, occupied by said Rachel McBurney as a Bed Room, caught fire, how, not known, was consumed with the contents, and her, the said Rachel.

Furman Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Larrence Valentine December 28, 1893 at Mt[?] Willing, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .find that said Larrence Valentine aforesaid came to his death by a gun shot wound in his own hands, from the evidence we believe it was purely accidental

Henry July 6, 1834 at the house of John Holly, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe said Henry came to his death by going in to little river to wash or bathe himself it happened that accidently casually and by misfortune he the said Henry suffocated and drowned

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.

Curry slave March 17, 1856 at Mrs Elizabeth Middletons Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Curry came to his death by accidental drowning

Lawrence Frazier child January 14, 1895 at D.B. Holingsworths, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lawrence Frazier came to his by accident or misfortune

Ned February 15, 1831 near the house of Joseph Gladney Little River, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that on the 25th December in attempting to cross little river at a Ford [he] was thrown off a mule on which he rode and then and there was drowned, without any Person being accessory to his death but think they have some reason to believe he was in some degree intoxicated which might in some manner procured his being thrown from said mule

Titus July 19, 1857 at the Thoroughfair landing, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said negro slave Titus came to his death by accidental drowning

Belaus[Velaus?] slave, boy March 30, 1863 at Robert Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say-that he came to his death. . .by going in to the Mill Pond of B W Hatchers. . .and was by Misfortune of accidently drowned

Mary Harrison September 10, 1894 at Dornville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Mary Harris, aforesaid, came to her death. . .by accidental scalding with hot Water

Female Infant of Milly Campbell Female Infant of Milly Campbell October 17, 1867 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that it came to its death by accidental Suffocation.

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

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.

James Hillian November 21, 1911 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Henrietta Brown January 9, 1878 at Thomas Blair's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to her death by her clothes taking fie, and was burned to death.

Unknown Unknown February 16, 1923 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he came to his death from cold & exposure

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

John slave November 13, 1849 at the house of Mrs. J.S. McRae, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the falling of a tree

Matilda Tippins March 28, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their aoths do say that the said Matilda Tippins came to her death by accidental burnings

Elizabeth Tillatson January 17, 1878 at Frances Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said P. Elizabeth Tillatson came to her death at the house of Frances Turner ... from fire, occurring in the house where she lived

Edward F. Lyles June 12, 1879 at Wm J. Martin's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say the deceased came to his death by a gunshot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands.

Tom Purvis February 5, 1912 at T. A. Hendricks Res, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Tom Purvis came to his death By Accidental Gun Shot wound in the Hands of Ray Hendrick

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