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 551 - 600 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Jim Mason free man of color January 9, 1850 near the residence of William Poole, Anderson County, SC

do say that he was of extremely intermperate habits, and altho there is no positive proof that he was drunk when last seen, the jury and unanimously of opinion before all the circumstances, that he was laboring under the influence of drink, and came to his death from the effect of his habits and exposure to the weather, during the rain and storm of Sunday night and monday last.

Jane slave April 16, 1849 at John J. E. Gregory's, Union County, SC

upon their oaths doo say that . . .the said Jane was accidently or unknowinly smuthered by her mother or some one Else in bead

Georgianna Watts October 11, 1891 at R.O. Hairstons, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say, that she came to her death, By being burnt in the house, it being burnt on her By Accident.

William Johnson July 31, 1866 at David Gunter's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . in John L. Southern's mill pond by being drowned accidentally while bathing

Sallie Young December 8, 1890 at Mr A. F Broadwaters Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Sallie Young came to her death by being burned to death by fire from accident

A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it

Unknown June 26, 1856 at a spot near the Wateree River and on or near the Road leading to Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after such examination as was in their power to make they are clearly of opinion that the decased came to his death by falling into the ditch leading from Bolton's[?] Branch while in a state of intoxication and being unable to help himself was drowned

H. C. Rudisail December 31, 1881 at Campobello, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say taht the said H. C. Rudisail deceased came to his death by apoplexy caused from over work by violent exertion of the body

Wade Harper September 3, 1924 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Wade Harper, about 17 years old, son of J. F. Harper, of Cheraw S.C. came to his death at Anderson's Mill, Cheraw, by mischance, without blame on the part of another person

John April 23, 1859 at the Residence of Dr. D A Richardson, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say. That the said slave John at the Residence of Daniel A Richardson on the 12th day of April in the afternoon came to his death, By accident the result of a fall producing a dislocation of the neck

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

Mary Brown's infant at William Brice's place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that said infant came to its death by Accidental Suffocation.

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

Robert Willingham October 6, 1876 at the residence of Mrs. L.E. Kirkland, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Robert Willingham in manner [?] from aforesaid, came to his death by Smothering in a bank of dried[or seed?] cotton

Joseph Powel August 18, 1879 at [??], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the said Jos Powel came to his death by accidental drouding on Sunday evening crossing Logg creek

Milton Barter[?] youth August 24, 1849 at Capt. Andrew J Hammonds Mills, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say . . .by accidental drowning in Mr Andrew Hammonds Mill Pond

John L. Thorton Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John. L. Thornton Smith came to his death by accidental drownign in a water-course known as Lawson's Fork 1 1/2 miles distant from Spartanburg

Andy Yongue Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
William Powers January 14, 1828 at John Powers, Union County, SC

do Say upon their oathes . . .that the aforesaid Wm Powers came to his Deth by misfortune by Cuting a tree and falling on him

Chas McQueen February 5, 1895 at Chas. McQueen's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Chas McQueen came to his death from some bodily ailment unknown to us and by exposure in the cold

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

James Crooks March 29, 1807 at little River Near Laurens Court house, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath here insert that in Crossing a log he fell in & was Drowned.

Eloise Bird April 23, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Eloise Bird . . .came to her death . . .by misfortune or accident

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

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
James Owens March 13, 1885 at James Owens's house, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that ... James Owens came to his death by misfortunte or accident

James McCants December 8, 1836 at the residence of the deceased, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that he came to his death by the fall of a dead tree on fire, in his New Ground, about 12 oclock Meridian.

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

William Foster December 20, 1845 at Bishop's old field, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by freezing to death from being intoxicated

Male Infant Male Infant March 20, 1884 at the Jeff Sumerel place, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say; that the deceased male infant came to his death by suffocation or mischance. . .

Friday slave October 6, 1830 at the house of Robt Martin, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that the sd Friday a slave came to his death by accident . . .on tyson River by the water wheel of Gd[?] Mill catching him the sd Friday a slave between the arm of Gd[?] wheel and a sile near it

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

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

Thomas Bramblet May 28, 1889 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Thomas Bramblet came to his death by being accidentally struck by the Hose Reel, near the Greenville Laurens RR trestle on the evening of the 27 of May 1889.

John McManas December 4, 1883 at the Jail, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the deceased John McMenas . . .Came to his death by Concussion of the Brain Caused by a fall from the back door of the jail

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

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

George Gardner January 22, 1935 in Chesterfield County, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that George Gardner received . . . mortal wound by Rifle Shot in the hand of Rance Cue some being unavoidable accident

John Maddox June 15, 1881 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that the aforesaid John Madox came to his death by his own act of going into the Saluda in said county^ River and getting drowned.

unknown negro unknown negro May 15, 1837 at the plantation of A. Murphy or Joseph Prins[?], Union County, SC

Doo say upon their oaths that the sade unknown . . .dide by the visitation of God by getting Drowned in Tigor River

Lester Caute Woodward March 15, 1904 at the residence of A. L. Steen, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Wesley Holiday September 14, 1883 at Joseph P. Nabor's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to its death by its mother turning over on it in bed, which was as we believe an accident

William Hopkins at J. Feaster Lyles' plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a shot gun in the hands of Robert Hopkins[.]

Euphemia Jones child February 6, 1894 on the plantation of Mr. Stroud, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Euphemia Jones here deceased came to her death from being burned, by accident, whereunto we the jurors and coroner here set our names and seals.

Henry negro man Slave August 21, 1850 at New Savannah in beach Island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths Say that the negro man Henry came to his death from being accidentally drowned in the Savannah river

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

Thomas Moore August 8, 1837 at Tumbling Shoals, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that he came to his death by accidental drowning in Reedy River, being in a State of Intoxication.

Thomas D. Cook April 10, 1854 at Stover's Ferry on Savannah River, Anderson County, SC

do say that Thomas D. Cook came to his death by accidental drowning

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths . . .that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

Richard Mims August 1, 1899 at the plantation of Mrs. H. Carter, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: that Richard Mims came to his death by a pistol Shot in the hands of John McManus . . . accidental Shot of John McManus

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia