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 101 - 150 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
David Griffin July 28, 1873 at T. H. Clark's plantation, Kershaw County, SC drowning

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

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

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

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

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

Delila Tucker July 31, 1835 at the house of Isaac M Caffertys, Union County, SC fall

do say upon their oaths that the said Delila Tucker came to her death by [?] from the wounds probably caused by a fall from a fence

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

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

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

Dick Keith January 6, 1877 at George Lound's, Greenville County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that the said Dick Keith came to his death by freezing to his death from exposure to the cold

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

Dolly Young child March 12, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC possibly smothered

upont their oaths do say that the said Dolly Young … came to her death by accident or smuthering or by misclued[?]

Dorcas Crossly December 4, 1857 at the house of John Wofford, Spartanburg County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say by falling the ifre and burning to death there being no person present at the time we suppose she had a fit as she was subject to having fits

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Duke negro man March 25, 1855 near Dennis Carpenters, Edgefield County, SC alcohol/exposure

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid negro slave name Duke … did come to his death from intemperance and exposure

Eddie Summer August 6, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC gun shot

upon their oaths ... do say that the said Eddie Summer came to his death ... from gun shot wounds received in the right side discharged accidentally 

Edgar Daniel July 26, 1886 at Jack Daniel's residence, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Edgar Daniel came to his death by accidental drowning, he, of his own accord, going too far into the deep water Broad River of J. L. Allison's place

Edinborough Ryan December 30, 1882 at Mrs D. L Bussy Plantation, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon there oaths do say … that the said Edinborough Ryan Came to his death from cause unknown

Edmund Cleveland December 4, 1871 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC building collapse

upon their oaths do say that sd. deceased came to his death by the falling of the wall of Duncan's new building in the town of Spartanburg

Edward Horton August 7, 1879 near Wesley Barrs[?], Edgefield County, SC exposure/illness/beatings

do say that the said Edward Horton came to his death by acissive bleeding of the nose or Sun Stroke or both combined

Edward Lawrence March 29, 1856 at Pendleton village, Anderson County, SC run over by wagon

do say that he came to his death by accidentally falling from a wagon heavily loaded with stone, and one of the wheels running over him inflicted severe injuries, which caused his death in a few minutes

Edward Simpson January 9, 1836 at William Simpson's, Spartanburg County, SC fall from horse

do say uppon [sic] there [sic] oaths that he was riding a horse at full speed … on the wagon road [and[ was thrown against a tree which gave him one mortal wound from his hip on the right side extruding to his shoulder on the same right side

Edward Whitt March 1, 1846 near John Baurman's, Anderson County, SC horse

do say from the evidence and circumstances that they believe he came to his death by an accidental fall from his horse which dislocated his neck joint and they suppose he was intoxicated.

Eldrige Padgett February 9, 1859 at Eidson Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC alcohol/fire

upon there oaths do say that the decased came to his death by being intoxicated and caught on fire and burnt to death in his own house

Eli David Junkins July 24, 1871 at or near the hosue of John Martin (colored) near Richard Robinson Mill, Anderson County, SC gunshot

do say that the said Eli David Jenkins came to his death by being shot with a small single barrelled shot gun in the hands of Leslie Martin a colored boy some 16 or 17 years old…the said Leslie Martin did not intend or had any idea of the gun going off or doing the boy any injury whatever and believe it was entirely accidental

Elick Youngblood child March 21, 1881 at S[?] R Warren, Edgefield County, SC exposure/neglect

upon their oathes do say that the said Elick Youngblood come to his death near S R Warren water gin on Polys[?] Branch … from Exposure Caused by the wilfull Neglect and cruel treatment of Eliza Hunt[?]

Elijah Flour[?] youth July 24, 1849 at the hous of Mrs Salley Spradley, Edgefield County, SC gun

Upon their oaths do say, that his death was caused by a gun shot wound in the right side, under the right arm, received in the cotton field of George R. Sawyer … from a shot gun tehn and there charged with powder and Shot in the hand, or arms of John Flour[?], brother of deceased then and there casually and by misfortune

Elijah Pike December 28, 1856 at the residence of Elijah Pike, Greenville County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death at his Residence … by excessive use of ardent spirits

Elijah Sullivan April 24, 1898 at Cow-buel[?] place, Edgefield County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say that he died from heart failure and the falling of tree across him by accident

Elizabeth Belk April 20, 1828 near the Door house, Kershaw County, SC fall

do say upon their oaths that in traveling to a neighboring house she fell down and being old & infirm was unable to rise & so perished

Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Elizabeth Tillatson January 17, 1878 at Frances Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC burning

upon their oaths do say that the said P. Elizabeth Tillatson came to her death at the house of Frances Turner ... from fire, occurring in the house where she lived

Elleck free boy December 13, 1866 at Johnathan Gregorys, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental discharge of a Gun … that Elleck free boy in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by accident

Ellen 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

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC burning

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

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

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

Emanuel slave March 12, 1856 at Matthew McGraw's plantation, Edgefield County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say-that Emanuel was Killed by the fall of a tree

Emanuel Griffin July 28, 1873 at T. H. Clark's plantation, Kershaw County, SC drowning

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

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

Enoch Douglass August 11, 1879 near Wesly Barrs on the rail road, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say that the said Enoch Douglass came to his death by accident

Enoch McLean August 27, 1840 at Wm C. Brown's, Union County, SC drowning, alcohol

upon their oaths do say … came to his death by misfortune or accident

Ernest Bean April 6, 1884 at the Mill of B[?] Hill, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon there oaths do say that Ernest Bean Came his death from accidental drowned

Esther Jeter April 17, 1893 at Huiets x Roads, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Esther Jeter came to her death by accident … burned to death

Eva Blocker February 11, 1893 at J. P. Wrights Plantation, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that the said Eva Blocker … came to her death by accidental burning

Everett Hook July 18, 1891 at the saw Mill of M J Hook, Edgefield County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say by accidently falling upon a cicular Saw 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

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

Fannie Patton November 18, 1898 at Francis Williams house, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that upon examination find that Fannie Patton Came to her death by accidental Drowning

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death … by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing … or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

female child female child May 19, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the unknown female child … came to her death … by mischance or accident or from causes to this jury unknown

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave December 25, 1846 at the plantation of J. C. Ison, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … the child was … smothered in bed by its mother throuch[?] or by accident without having any intention to do so

female infant Slave female infant Slave May 15, 1847 at A. S. Gregorys, Union County, SC suffocation

upon oaths do say that … they do believe the child must have been Smothered by its mother in bed

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave May 30, 1847 at the house of Mrs Sarow Brandons, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say … the child dyed by the visitation of god or [?] have been axcidently Smothered by its mother

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