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 51 - 100 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

Minnie Cason June 9, 1883 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the death of said Minnie was caused by falling into a well from 25 to 30 feet deep?

John McLeod August 23, 1822 at house of Widow McLeod in the fork of Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

have unanimously agreed that the said John McLeod has received his Death by unavoidable accident as he was pouring liquor into a barrel or cask . . . which liquor caught on fire and busted the said cask and as we suppose one of the staves struck the said deceased by which which we think he rec'd his death together with the volume of flame which issued from s'd spirits as on examination we found his face mortally cut and his body much burnt

Stephen slave December 18, 1860 at Mr. M. Mungo, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Stephen came to his death from a fall and which caused his neck to break

William Johnson Senior December 30, 1869 at the first Swamp on the Road leading from the public Road to Hughes Landing on Little Pee Dee River, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that we Suppose he came to his death by mischance

Thomas Welheu[?] June 19, 1868 at Benjamin Better[?] wheat field on the Columbia & Augusta Rail Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a pistol shot accidentally discharged by his own hands

Dick male slave July 13, 1859 at Ted Scurrys residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say. . .that he came to his death by going in to the Saluda River and got in Deep water an drowned

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

Rock Pearson January 15, 1878 at G.B. Pearson's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by mischance. That Rock Pearson in manner and form aforesaid, caem to his death by misfortune or accident

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.

Maggie Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Sherman Bowden May 7, 1878 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said Sherman Bowden while bathing in the Lawson's Fork Creek ... accidentally fell into water over his head and was drowned

infant child infant child December 9, 1891 at a colored cemetary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death from the burns that was found upon its body

David McClellan November 27, 1857 at residence of David McClellan, Anderson County, SC

do say that by the evidence of his wife & daughter that he was hunting a cow & found her mired was found dead near the cow lying across a pole from apperion[?] he had been trying to prize the cow out and we come to the conclusion that he came to his death by the fall

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[?]

Jesse Goings at S.R. Rutland's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that aforsaid children came to their deaths by accidental burning of the house in which they were fastined up on the morning of the 16th of March 1893. We also add our condemnation to the general practice of Colored Parents locking up helpless children in houses where there is fire.

Sue Simmons February 18, 1914 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Daniel October 8, 1834 at Maj. John Blacks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths that from evidence that the said Negro came to his Death by Mischance by plunging into the River at or near the head of Maj. John Black's Millhouse in said District through fear dogs which were threatened by calling & encouraging of a Negro man, Doc, the property of Reginald Duncan by order of John Odell, supposing him to be a runaway.

S. F. White November 22, 1889 at or on General Bates Plantation, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Mr. S. F. White came to his death by falling into the fire while suffering from an epileptic fit

Fanny July 22, 1856 at "Gressetts Landing or Store Landing" on the Waccamaw River, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said slave Fanny the porperty . . . of the said R. G. W. Grissett did on Sunday the 20.th Inst came to her death by Misfortune or accidental drowning

Lewis negro man March 20, 1846 at & in the Revd Mr. Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that, he decd . . .the said Boy came to his death by & exposure to extreme hunger & Cold

James slave December 4, 1843 at J. C. Jeter's graveyard, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .he must have come to his death by exposure to cold from being lying out in the woods or some cause to the jury unknown

Charles Flowers June 13, 1906 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I find that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning

William Applewhite January 22, 1838 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm. Applewhite came to his death by falling in the fire

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

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."

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

Infant of Solomon Huguy Infant of Solomon Huguy [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

David West boy January 30, 1862 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that it was by accidently drowning in the Graniteville Factory canel

Starkes Whitlock February 16, 1853 at J P Poters, Union County, SC

upon ther oaths do say that he was the cause of his own death . . .come to his own by Drinking & Exsposure by laying out in the wet & cole

Samuel Williams at Major Wilkes' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Samuel Williams came to his death by the falling timbers from the house, caused by a severe storm on the night of the 19th of February 1884.

Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

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.

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

Joseph Ruffington January 9, 1893 at Thos O Attaways, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph Ruffington came to his death accidentally by the falling of a tree cut by Pick Deloach

Willie Parker December 21, 1892 at S. Parkers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Willie Parker came to his death by being struck on his head by a falling Tree Accidinetly

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

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

Pauline Paulding[?] at Captain John Thomas' Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Pauline Pauling died of suffocation[?]

Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
James Lee March 1, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Lee received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Exposure Caused by Extreme Drunkenness

Miles Robuck December 16, 1856 at the house of S.S. Roebuck, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by having his head crushed between the head block and one of the arms of the Cog wheel of a Cotton Gin, that the said Miles Roebuck came to his death in manner and form aforesaid, by misfortune or accident.

Gus Sexton August 11, 1894 at Tildy Austin's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Gus Sexton came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted by his own hand.

Hannah White December 25, 1870 near William Pitts' dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hannah White in manner and form aforesaid came to her death, by being accidently burnt

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

William Potter February 14, 1875 in Spartanburg County, Cherokee Township, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William came to his death by the mischance or accident of being drowned

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

Solomon negro man June 24, 1844 near the Mill of George A. McKee on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said negro came to his death by drowning

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.

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.

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