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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Anna G. Goodrich November 10, 1881 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC train

do say that. . .near Pelzer Depot. . .Goodrich was then and there killed by the Greenville and Columbia train having accidentally run over her.

Anna Queen Fuller five year old child November 18, 1893 at Flatwoods, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was burnt. And Anna Queen Fuller in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by misfortune or accident.

Anthony slave July 2, 1853 at Samuel J. Hannond's plantation, Anderson County, SC

do say the deceased came to his death by causes unknown. We find marks or bruises on the right side of the head and behind the right ear. We find no more marks or bruises on the deceased more than what might have been made by a fall.

App Chapman July 31, 1883 at the residence of J. D.[?] Chastern[?], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said App Chapman came to his death by misfortune.

Archie Oliver May 9, 1909 at the home of J. P. Thurman, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, so say: That the said Archie Oliver came to his death by a gun shot wound in the head= said gun being at the time in the hands of Willis Thurman said sun being discharged accidentally = without any effort of the said Willis Thurman = he at the time not knowing that the gun was loaded

Arthur Ben at Jenkinsville, Fairfield County, SC

upon oaths do say that George Bone the said Artur Ben, by misfortune and contrary to his will, in maner and form aforesaid, did kill and Slay Artur Ben by the accidental discharge of a gun.

Asa Lipscomb freedman December 24, 1866 at Mrs. Jinetta Shippy's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Asa Lipscomb was shot with a paper wad by Sam'l Shippy, Norris Shippy, or Frank Shippy ... by accident

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

Augusta Sullivan August 4, 1896 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

from the best information could be gathered came to his death by misschance or by accidental drowning in the mill pond of J. A. McMillan

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

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

Auson Peeler July 25, 1868 near Kalmia[?] Mills, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse

Austin Dunlap April 10, 1894 at Waterman Robinson's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Austin Dunlap came to his death from the effects of burns received on the 9th of April 1894

Austin Putnam July 14, 1867 at Spencer Mills, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Austin Putnam came to his death by drowning, by mischance or accident, on said Spencer's Mill - pond about 4 oclock P.M.

Avery slave November 14, 1831 at a fording place of Singleton's Creek in the plantation of Jacob Champion, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that. . .the boy Avery came to his Death by Drowning by being Intoxicated

B. G. Hunter December 23, 1877 at B. G. Hunters, Chesterfield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said B. G. Hunt came to his death by a fall from a horse near Hicks s, mill about sunset on the 22nd inst.

B. R. Fry October 29, 1902 at Middendorf, SC in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC train

by their oaths do say that B R Fry deceast came to his death By a South bound train on the Fla. & West Ind. R R or SAL RY between the hours of 730 on the night of Oct 28th 1902 and 840 of the morning of Oct 29th 1902

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

Balus Harrison November 14, 1893 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC cart

upon their oaths do say that the said Balus Harris aforesaid came to his death by an accident by being kicked by a horse from a cart in which he was sitting there by breaking his neck

Bare Sikes November 24, 1943 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC bus

upon their oaths do say that Bare Sikes received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Green City Bus in the hands of H. M. Smith, driver

Bartholomew Darby October 11, 1867 near Emanuel Allen's on the road between Willis Layton's & said Allen's, Spartanburg County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that his death was caused by his horses running with his waggon & throwing him from his saddle against a stump & the wheel of the waggon running over his head or neck & breaking his neck & deeply cutting him under the right ear

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Beatrice McGuine March 23, 1896 at W. A. Buchannon's Place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Beatrice McGuine came to her death from strangulation while sucking its mother

Beau Brown August 13, 1933 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths, so say: Beauer Brown came to his Death by being struck by an SAL Train through carlessnes on the part of the Sal rail road emploers

Beauregard Alson Jr. August 4, 1936 at Middendorf, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Beauregard Alson & Helen Boykin received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile Collision at the hands of Robert Davis

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

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

Ben Baker September 15, 1934 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon their oaths, do say: by being hit by truck driver by Q Faulkner same being unavoidable

Ben Culbreath July 24, 1895 at Jno A Corleys plantation, Edgefield County, SC horse

Upon their oaths do say, That he died from the rupture of the left auricle of the heart. . .caused from a tussel with a young horse

Ben F. Williams March 13, 1895 at M. C. Williams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ben F. Williams came to his death by accident or misfortune

Benjamin Anderson December 22, 1873 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Benjamin Anderson came to his death from excessive use of Liquor & exposure to cold

Benjamin Cockroft March 18, 1847 in the woods near the house of Beryman[?] Bledsoe, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oats do say that the said Benjamin Cockroft came to his death from the effects of being dissipation and lying on the cold ground

Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Benjamin Franklin Zimmerman June 18, 1932 near Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning in the waters of big Juniper creek-1/2 miles north East of the Town of Patrick, S. C.

Benjamin Freeman June 24, 1833 at the home of Isaac Hill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the sd. Benj. Freeman went into Tyger River a swimming or by some cause became drowned

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

Berry slave October 8, 1859 near the Residence of Richard Hay on the Greenville & Columbia Railroad, Greenville County, SC cart

upon their oaths say, that the boy Berry a slave . . . came to his death from injuries received from the cart[?] of the down train . . . the cart[?] in their opinion having passed over his body

Berry Butler October 9, 1892 at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that he Bearry Butler Came to his death by a pistol in the hands of John Gamillion

Berry Campbell March 1, 1882 at A.B. Reid's Turpentine Camp, Chesterfield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say That the said John Smotherman Berry Campbell and Sandy Purvis came to their deaths by accident at the Turpentine Camp of A B Reid . . . By Lightning.

Berry McLauren August 1, 1881 at Jas P. Brock's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say That the Said Berry M Clarran came to his death by being accidently drowned in Brocks Mill.

Betsey slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC boat

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths. . .by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Betsey Smith January 19, 1807 at the Dweling hous of Miles[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the Said Betsey Smith Came to her Death [??] Close[?] catching[?] fire and and[?] and[?] thereby [?] her to Death

Betsy femail slave July 3, 1862 at William Eller's house, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say dec'd came to her death by an accidental shot from a horsemans[?] Pistole Loaded with buckshot 5 in number openly[?] hitting the Decsd just above the hip passing through inflicting one mortal wound causing her death in the hands of Wm Ellis he shooting at a dog in his yard & Decsd was sitting in the kichin of sd Wm Ellis ... the said Wm Ellis did the said Decsd by accident and Contrary to his will

Betty Jo Edgeworth February 18, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC bus

upon their oaths do say that Betty Jo Edgeworth received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a tree falling on school Bus. . . & recommend that Mr. Jessie McManus & crew be held not responsible -- Unavoidable

Betty Lou Burch May 29, 1944 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Betty Lou Burch received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car in the hands of Thomas Jack Welsh

Bill negro boy June 20, 1830 at Capt. John Thomas Hooey on Broad River, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that . . .the said boy came to his untimely death by accidentally getting drowned

Bill slave November 19, 1851 at Colonel Samuel Beaty's, Union County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that by being flung and dragged by the horse with his feet wound in the chain some hundred and fifty yards. . . came to his death by misfortune or accident

Billy November 28, 1857 at the South Carolina Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC wagon

came to his death by being thrown from a two horse waggon

Blanchy Wilson November 30, 1893 on the plantation of Robert Hastings, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at woods childs house. . .by a single barrel shot gun lying in the loft of said house and started to fall and Siche Chiles caught the gun and it struck the joist and fired

Bluford Papley November 3, 1889 on the plantation of Thos L Badgett, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Bluford Paply came to his death ("by the Explosion of Thos L Badgetts Boiler")

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