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 ascending Inquest Finding
Hosea Jackson free person of color July 10, 1863 upon the Rail Road of the Spartanburg & Union, Spartanburg County, SC train

herewith decide that the said boy Hosea Jackson came to his death by his own carelessness and from no carelessness whatever on the part of the engineer

J. R. Gainey Jr. September 30, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. R. Gainey, Jr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by causes unknown in the hands of unknown

William Roberts April 11, 1883 at Belton in Anderson County, Anderson County, SC train

do say, that the said William roberts came to his death by accident and carelessness on his part while attempting to get off of the Belton & Walhalla train while in motion; the train running over and crushing him; and that his death was not caused by any dereliction of duty on the part of the rail-road employees or by fault of any other person or persons.

Will Metts March 16, 1895 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

we the jurors impaneled find from the testimony produced that the said Will Metts came to his death By being caught between Box Car and platform, crushing his body. In our opinion there could be no Blame attached to any one.

Isaac negro man December 1, 1856 at a point on the South Carolina Rail Road [?] Brooks Mill creek, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say and declare. . .that the said negro Isaac, as aforesaid came to his death, by having been Run over by the engine and train

W. Bone[?] Durham at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say W. Bone[?] Durham came to his death by accidental killing of the Southern Railway Train No 33 controlled by J.A. Allison conductor and Enginer Price and that no blame attaches to any one[.]

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

Sam McGee December 22, 1884 at the Rail Road Trestle at Badgetts Mill in Laurens County, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Sam McGee came to his death on the 22nd day of December AD 1884 by mischance or accident in being run over and crushed by a rail road train.

N. W. Lafoy 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

George Martin November 30, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said George W. Martin was accidentally struck and killed by passenger train No 42 of the Atlanta and Charlotte [?] Line Rail Road

M. J. Wilson 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

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

James Brigsman October 11, 1905 at Cleeraw Street Street, Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC train

before this oath do say We find that James Brigsman cause to his death by being run over by the South Bound train on the Sea Board Air Line Rail Road between 10 30 and 11 oclock [.]

R. Davis May 1, 1881 at Grove Station, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceasd R J. Davis came to his death ... from mischance or accident by being knocked off a freight Train

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.

Fannie Ford March 5, 1893 at Trenton S.C., Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that. . .Fannie Ford came to her death from being run over by a train

Wilson Clark at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say that Wilson, Clark came to his death on the C.C & A R. Road in Winnsboro the 30th day of May 1889 By being run over by Engine 7B7

Lawrence Wright January 10, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Lawrence Wright received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by apparently by train (Seaboard) in the hands of apparently by train (Seaboard)

Jefferson Kitsinger 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

Paul Deese January 14, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

James Purdie Deese & Paul Deese came to his death upon their oaths do say that _______ received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by S.A.L. Train #1 -- Caused by collision of the driver of the Deese car

C. B. Griggs December 24, 1916 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC train

[No official declaration]

Julius Brockman negroe boy August 11, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Julius Brockman came to his death by an [?] accident causedly being Struck by engine No 22 train no 49 on the [??] Rail Road

Will Harris June 16, 1896 in Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

We the Jury of inquest Empaneled in the case of the state vs dead of unknown colored man (supposed to be William Harris) found dead on or near the track of the G.C. & N. R.R. at Clinton S.C. find that said unknown man came to his death from bruises and shock supposed to be received by jumping or falling from train no 41 on Georgia Carolina and Northern Railway about midnight June 16th 1896 while trying to steal a ride.

James Purdie Deese January 14, 1947 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC train

James Purdie Deese & Paul Deese came to his death upon their oaths do say that _______ received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by S.A.L. Train #1 -- Caused by collision of the driver of the Deese car

W. H. Parker at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their Oaths do say We the undersigned Jurors in the within stated case find that the deceased person supposed to be one W.H. Parker from papers found on his person, come to his death Accidentally by a moving train

Henry Peterson June 13, 1893 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say That the deceased Henry Peterson came to his death by being crushed [?] while passing between two sections of freight cars

Walker Tobias June 13, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oathes do say that the said Walker Tobias, came to his death on the 13th day of June AD. 1882 in Laurens County on Laurens RR. In the discharge of his duties as a train hand on Material train No 1. in the employ of and doing the work of C & G RR Co, and so we find that the said Walker Tobias, in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by mischance or accident.

David M[?] Elkin at Alston, Fairfield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, We the jury compelled to inquire into the death of David M[?] Elkin do find that the said David M[?] Elkincame to his death at [?] Lexington Co by jumping from the cab on the freight train-while moving and was run over and killed, and the death of the said David M[?] Elkin was a misfortune and an accident.

William Jones September 8, 1877 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Wm Jones came to his death by being accidentally run over by the Train on the Atlanta and Charlotte Line Rial Road

Harry Fort January 6, 1875 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Harry Fort came to his death by being accidently mashed between two cars while cappling them at Cases Depot

Nicy female slave October 8, 1859 at Philip Downs[?] Hous, Union County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that from . . .marks found on the arm and head of Decsd that decsd Came to her death by the cars [?] attemting to cross the track before the cars . . .by misfortune or accident

Wade Adair December 13, 1891 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that he said Wade Adair came to his death by being accidentally run over by the C N & L Train No. 151 P.C. Gailard Conductor and we find Railroad Company in no wise responsible for his death.

Emanuel Johnson October 7, 1893 at Wards, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Emanuel Johnson aforesaid came to his death by injuries received by being knocked off of the back of Rail Road by a locomotive on the R & D. R and we the jury aforesaid attach no blame to the authorities whatever as it was unavoidable on the part of said R.R. Employee

Fred Walker February 10, 1929 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

the Said Fred Walker came to his death by being run over by a Seaboard train

S. J. Thomas June 13, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said SJ Thomas came to his death on the 14th day of June AD 1882 in Laurens County on the Laurens Rail Road in the discharge of his duties as conductor on Material train No 1 in the employ of and doing the work of the Columbia and Greenville Rail Road and so we find that the aforementioned SJ Thomas in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

John Haskell March 11, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said John Haskell in manner and for aforesaid come to his death by the accidental falling from a train on the Charlotte and Atlanta [?] Line Rail Raod while in motion

Ezekiel Thomas February 4, 1879 near Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Ezekiel Thomas came to his death by a collission of the Sharlott Columbia and Augusta Train No 3 coming from Columbia going south from Columbia on the high way coming in contact with him and his wagon & [?] while attempting to cross the tract on a publick Road

Hugh Wetherford June 25, 1895 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Hugh Weatherford came to his death by wreck of Engine no 6 ... Caused by R R Spikes being placed on rails about two miles east of Edgefield by parties unknown

John Taylor March 22, 1918 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

we the Juror find that John Taylor came to his death by a freight train on Atlantic Cost Line Rail Road having his Head Cut entirley from his body also right Arm broken and right hand badly mashed allso left Leg & foot mashed in the Town limits of Cheraw S.C

Jeff Steel February 11, 1892 at Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do Say That Jeff Steel came to his death by accident on account of carelessness on his part he having disobeyed the rules of Caot, Cason in riding on the rear of the Tender of the Engine.

Tom Griffin at the freight depot in Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC train

it appears that the deceased Tom Griffen was killed by being run over by a railroad train on the tracks by the side of the freight depot at Winnsboro, S.C. on the twenty ninth day of November A.D. 1897.

George F. Farmer December 3, 1886 at Thicketty Station, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say taht the said George F. Farmer came to his death by jumping from the cars while they were crossing the Trestle over Big Thickety Creek near Thickety Station and by falling on timbers below ... the said fall caused by accident on the part of the deceased being the result of drunkenness

Dozier Anderson June 16, 1882 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Dozier Anderson came to his death on the 14th day of June AD 1882 in Laurens County on the Laurens Rail Road in the discharge of his duties as a train hand on material train No 1 in the employ of and doing the work of the Columbia and Greenville Rail Road. And so we find that the aforesaid Dozier Anderson in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident, which accident occured on the 13th day of June AD. 1882.

Stephen D. Wallace December 4, 1889 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon thire oaths do Say that Stephen Wallace came to his death by being ran over by the Engine on the Palmetto Rail Road. . . while he was lying drunk on the trestle of said Rail Road and we find that the Rail Road Company was without fault

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

Thomas Bryant August 16, 1887 at Rich Hill, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Thomas Bryant here lying dead did come to his death ... by the Spartanburg & Union Road cars unavoidably passing over him

M. E. Mason June 16, 1880 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at Cowpens on the A&C Air Line ... from the effects of being caught between the train on said road and the wood track, in which condition he was crushed and from which he almost instantly died

Wallace Halloway June 25, 1895 at Edgefield Court house, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say, that we the Jury agree that Wallace Halloway came to his death in consequences of injuries received in a wreck which occurred on the south Carolina Rail Road near the rock Quarry

John Henry Butler[?] at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC train

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

George Delaughter April 30, 1861 at the Hamburg Passenger Depot, Edgefield County, SC train

upon there oaths do say the said George Delaughter came to his death from falling of the Rail Road cars

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