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.

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" -- but also "very drunk." And Gabe Wilky "was 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 Spring 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 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Berry Butler October 9, 1892 at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

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

Bethel Ogelsby August 21, 1823 cotton fields belonging to John Doby Esq., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that they believe he came to his death by the visitation of God, no marks of violence appearing to us upon him

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

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

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

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

Betsy Scott February 25, 1842 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that Betsy Scott came to death from the effects of intemperance

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

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, fall

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 gun

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

Bob slave December 26, 1845 at the residence Mr. Parks, Kershaw County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by being drunk and exposed to the weather which was wet and very cold

Bob slave February 18, 1823 near Captain James W. Lang's Mills, Kershaw County, SC exposure

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

Bonaparte Bates March 26, 1856 at the Fuller old field, Anderson County, SC

do say that Bonaparte Bates in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident

Booker negro March 30, 1823 at the plantation called Flint Hill[?], Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

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

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the … striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

Broderick Mason April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Burke Chesnut December 14, 1849 near Boykin's T.O., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by falling from the cars and exposure while intoxicated

Caleb Chappell January 22, 1835 at or near house of John Ledbetter, Anderson County, SC alcohol

was seen to fall from his feet by two Evidences who gave in their testimony on oath before us and that he died immediately and that he had no mark of violence upon him and died by the visitation of God by excessive use of ardent spirits.

Caleb Woodruff February 5, 1831 at Bethel Meeting House, Spartanburg County, SC horse, fall

do say upon their oaths that … he came to his death by a fall from his horse and the abuse of said horse his foot hanging by the stirrup

Callen O'Neall November 11, 1855 at Luke Havirds[?], Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Callen Oneall came to his death … By drinking too much liquor and supposed to have strangled to death by Throwing up

Cap Bryan February 25, 1893 at the plantation of Mrs Doziers, Edgefield County, SC rock

upon their oaths aforesaid do say That the aforesaid Cap Bryan came to his death from a lick with a rock thrown by a blast from the Quary which we consider purely accidental

Carey slave February 1, 1831 at the house of John Williams, Kershaw County, SC fire

do say upon their oaths We the Jurors … believe he got his Death accidentally by fire to the best of our knowledges and the evidence given by Mary Carraway and Nathan Waters before us proves nothing more

Carles Ford March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hay[?], Union County, SC
Caroline Rhodes April 17, 1865 at Burnt Factory, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by accidental drowning in Tyger River just below A. Floyd's mill dam

Cephas Palmer March 31, 1879 at W. G. Austell's Mill Pond, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said Cephas Palmer came to his death by drowning being his own act

Chaney female slave June 15, 1841 at Mrs. Catherin Bateses, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … a certain negro boy the property of the Sd Mrs Bates was handling a shot gun being loaded without his knowledge which went off by accident and blew the contents into the forehead of the said Chaney

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

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

Charles negro boy November 14, 1842 On Mr Thos Oliver's Plantation, at or near Said Oliver's residence, Edgefield County, SC fire

Upon their oaths do say, that the boy Charles … came to his death by being burnt to death in an old house, accidently caught fire in some unknown or misterious way to us

Charles negro man February 27, 1850 at Scotts Shoals on Savannah River, Edgefield County, SC drowning

Upon their Oaths do say, that he was drowned by accident, and that the body was too much decayed to admit of examination.

Charles slave July 31, 1851 at the house of John M. Norris Esqr in Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say that by his head being mashed and and his scull broken at the gin house of John M. Norris … by the gin running gear, his head passing between the cogs and trunal[?] head, rounds or Wollower

Charles negro boy March 7, 1857 at Archy Clark residence, Edgefield County, SC exposure

upon their Oaths do say … he came to his death by lying down and going to sleep on the wet and cold ground and the Rain and water running over him

Charles slave July 1, 1854 at Kings W Iron Co[?] Rolling Mill, Union County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say that the say Boy Charles … came to his death by misfortune or accident

Charles Moore November 29, 1889 at Charles Moor, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon there oaths do say that Charles Moore came to his death by being struck by an engine on the Spartanburg Union and Columbia Railroad ... and that the occurrance was purely accidental

Charles S. Harrison November 25, 1878 at E.C. House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Charles S Harrison came to his death by an accidental Pistol Shot from the hands of F A Bilanger

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

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

Charly Washington boy November 22, 1891 at the house of George Washington near Bauknights ferry, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Charley Washington Came to his death by the accidental discharge of a pistol ball from the hands of James Bobo[?]

Cinthy April 3, 1834 at the house of Broderick Mason, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Broderick Mason and girl Cinthy [were killed by] the visitation of God by a shock of lightning

Cland Elam child March 17, 1892 at A. J. Norris Place, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do Say that the Child Came to its death from a wound inflicted by fire accidentily

Clem slave, boy October 3, 1858 at Tabitha Abney's, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Lem[?] came to his death by the accident firing of a gun in his own hands

colored colored May 9, 1872 at Ja's Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant … came to its death by misfortune or accident

colored colored April 24, 1874 at Dr. J. A. Todd's, Anderson County, SC string of beads

do say that infant child came to its death by pressure on preroted[?] artery by stran of beads…by misfortune or accident

Crispan Smith December 5, 1836 at the house of George Smith, Union County, SC exposure

do say upon their oaths that he died by the visitation of god in a natural way by accidentaly getting frozen to death

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

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

Cyrus slave September 15, 1860 at the shanty [?] upon the grounds of the Blue Ridge Rail Road Company at Anderson, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the said Cyrus came to his death by reason of coming into contact with a bridge over the track of the Blue Ridge Rail Road known as Hanson's [?] Bridge about seven miles from Anderson C. H….while on the top of of [sic] a freight car attending to the brake conguardely raised himself erect just as the train of came over & under said Bridge, causing his head to come in contact with the bridge from the affect of which blow his death ensued and...came to his death by misfortune or accident.

D. Stepp June 9, 1883 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that … the said D. W. Stepp came to his death by being drowned accidentally in the Mill Pond at Hutchinson's Tan Yard

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

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

Danison[?] Gault July 25, 1837 at the plantation of Henry Gault, Union County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the said Danchsson[?] gault … died by the vissation of god by accident [?] kiled[?] by his horse and plans[?]

Dave negro man Slave March 16, 1849 at Kilcrease's Ferry, Edgefield County, SC drowning

Upon their Oaths do say, that the said Dave came to his death by being drowned … by accidently falling out of a boat used for carrying and other produce to Market

Dave slave February 6, 1830 at James Brockman's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think that he [died] with [?] in James Brockman's cotton gin

David Dantzler June 29, 1829 at Nazareth Meeting House, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths after examination [that] he came to his death by accidental drowning

David Garison February 23, 1823 [?] the house of David Garison, Greenville County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that they suppose the said David Garison get chilled to death from the inclemency of the weather and exposure.

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