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 151 - 200 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Flora Harrison November 4, 1890 at Liberty Hill, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Sam Moss the Said Flora Harrison by Misfortune and contrary to his Will in manner and form aforesaid did Kill and Slay

Frank a negro boy December 11, 1866 [at] Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Boy Frank came to his death by a shot from a pistol accidentally fired by his brother named Lee

Frank Young infant January 11, 1877 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its by accidentaly being overlaid by its mother.

Franklin Turner son December 26, 1850 at John Turners, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say … that the aforesaid Franklin Turner … came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

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

Gabe Wilky November 29, 1880 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Gabe Wilky came to his death ... from his own impudence & excessive use of alcohol and the visitation of God

Gabriel Gibson April 18, 1819 at Elbethel Meeting house, Union County, SC fall

Doe say upon their oaths that … Gabriel Gibson Came to his End By Mischance & Say that he was Spliting Roling Down A Decent

George Bowers May 26, 1891 at Kenards bend, Edgefield County, SC dragging

upon their oaths do say that George Bowers came to his death by misfortunes or being thrown from a Mule getting his foot hung in trace and dragged to death

George Darby April 20, 1823 at Lores-ford on broad River, Union County, SC alcohol, drowning

do say upon their oaths that … the said George Dary came to his death by drowning while in a state of intoxication & making an effort to cross broad River at Lore's ford to some of the Islands

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

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

George F. Farmer December 3, 1886 at Thicketty Station, Spartanburg County, SC train, jumping off train while drunk

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

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that the said….by accidental drowning

George Low col June 6, 1869 at Sand Bar Ferry, Edgefield County, SC poison

upon their oaths do say That they find that the said George Low came to his death through drinking a tea made of the stems of the yellow Jessamine having mistaken the same for the cross Vine of which he intended to make tea

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

George Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths … by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

George W. Moose June 7, 1882 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say that said J. W. Moore ... came to his death from heart disease or from a fall consequent upon disease of the heart

George Washington Crowder October 19, 1866 at Grannetville, Edgefield County, SC machinery

by there oaths do say that the said George Washington Crowder came to his death became entangled in the bands[?] carried the factory at Grannetville in the state aforesaid and was drawn up by a board of the of the shaff[?] … by Misfortan or accident

George Watts December 2, 1811 Kershaw County, SC drowning, alcohol

[do say] the said George Watts came to his death … by falling out of the flat of Camden Ferry … on the evening of Friday, the twenty-second day of November last past while intoxicated

George West August 26, 1855 at the plantation of William Jesse Taylor, Kershaw County, SC mauling (elephant)

do say that the aforesaid George West came to his death by wounds inflicted by the tusks of an Elephant

George Wilkins January 7, 1886 Spartanburg County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say taht George Wilkins came to his death by misfortune or accident from a gun shot in the hands of Jack Lewis

Gertrude infant child December 1, 1891 at Edgfield Court house, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say … that the infant received burns which caused death

Griffin Infant Childe December 26, 1860 at Andy [?], Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say the child come it death by accident or mischance by smuthering or some way unknown

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

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

H. McKnight April 14, 1842 at the house of Thomas Tegues, Esq in the Town of Camden ... upon the view of the dead body of Henry McKnight who was found dead in the Wateree River near the bank of said river & raised by means of a hoop, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry McKnight came to his death by the visitation of God having fallen into the river supposed to have been in a fit and alone

H. P. Church December 27, 1842 in the house of C. H. Goodman in the Vilage of Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

Upon their Oaths the Jurors aforesaid do say, that the said H.P. Church … had been intoxicated for several days or weeks and in that situation he decd … died in consequence of drinking intoxicating liquors to excess

Hampton Reynolds July 30, 1892 at J.W. Reynolds Plantation, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say Hampton Reynolds Came to his death from burns received by Explostion from Engine

Hampton Weaver colored July 17, 1869 at the house of and on the farm of James T Outz, Edgefield County, SC gun

the said Hampton Weaver came to his death do say "… by the accidental discharge of a single barreled shot gun held in his own hands inflicting a mortal wound under his right Jaw

Hanah infant Child November 2, 1861 at Cooperville, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say … the child was found dead … from bieng overlaid by its parents or some other unknown means to them in bed

Harris Hotchkiss March 12, 1821 at Thomas Hugh's, Union County, SC drowning
Harry negro boy September 9, 1858 at the residence of the Rev. J. L. Brooks, Edgefield County, SC machinery

say upon their oaths, that … the said boy name Harry … while in the business of driving the mules to work the machinery of the Cotton gin by some careless action of his own he was caught by wheel or wheels of the machinery and crushed to death

Harry slave August 13, 1807 at McRae & Cantey's Merchant (grist) mill, Kershaw County, SC unknown

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave came to his death by misfortune

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

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

Henry slave June 7, 1834 at the House of John McBeth, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths that the S. Henry … died by the visitation of God by getting drowned accidentaly in Tyger River

Henry male infant slave November 23, 1860 at Berry Shells House, Union County, SC suffocation

uppon their oaths do say that the Decest Came to his death by accidental overlaying of his Mother & smothering to death

Henry slave, boy May 1, 1857 at Arthur Glovers House, Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC beating

upon their oaths do say … from drinking an [?] quantity of water when heated … came to his death by misfortune

Henry slave December 25, 1830 on public highway from Pendleton to Pickensville [modern-day Easley], Anderson County, SC exposure

do say that the said Henry did come to his death…on the night of the 24th instant, by intoxication, or being intoxicated and lying out in the wet died of expsoure or….came to his death by misfortune by the act of God.

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

Henry negro boy Slave September 17, 1829 at John Gayes[?], Union County, SC hanging

do say upon their oaths … by accidentaly hanging himself by swing by a rope used for suspending a Waggon Body

Henry colored man May 24, 1852 at Ephraim Few's, Greenville County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by lightening

Henry Cobb December 16, 1868 at Warnock's Crossing on the Anderson Branch of the Greenville & Columbia Rail Road, Anderson County, SC fall in ditch water

do say that he came to his death by intoxication with spiritous liquours.

Henry Coil man supposed to be Henry Coil December 25, 1824 at the premises of [??], Union County, SC exposure

do say upon their Oaths that he with Strolling About Perisht with hunger & Coald … did kill and homicide himself

Henry Davis October 30, 1857 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC exposure

are of the opinion that Henry Davis came to his death by excessive drink, cold and a fall which rendered him unable to take care of himself.

Henry Ethredge June 2, 1899 at the plantation of P.B. Mayson, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do Say: … that the aforesaid Henry Ethredge came to his death from foul air in the well

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson … died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Henry Goodman May 4, 1851 at or near to William H Adams on little horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC drowning/mental illness

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Goodman in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by drowning in said little horse Creek

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC allergic reaction/illness

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

Henry Langley April 2, 1848 at Wm Vances, Edgefield County, SC fall

do say upon their Oaths, that the said Henry Langley came to his death by a fall from his wagon … we believe by accident

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

Henry Standard October 28, 1835 at the dwelling house of Robert Martin, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths that the said Henry Standard came to his death by his own intemperance by drinking ardent spirits

Henry Thompson June 17, 1876 at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC train, railroad engine and car fell from trestle

do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek

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