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 151 - 200 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

Jack slave [runaway] November 21, 1835 at Andersonville, Anderson County, SC

do say that Elias E. Harrison ... a certain gun of the value of seven dollars then and there charged with gun powder and leaden buck shot, which he the said Elias E. Harrison then and there had and held in both is hands, then and there accidently and by misfortune and against the will of him the said Elias E. Harrison discharged and....and shot out of the said gun him the said negro man in and upon the right arm, shoulder and back of the head....ten wounds with said shot, which were mortal wounds

James Edwards little boy January 14, 1876 at Enoree Church, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid James Edwards came to his death by being accidentally burnt by his clothers taken on fire

Unknown December 10, 1877 at Alexander Harris', Fairfield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to its death by being Smothered in bed. & that infant in manner and form afore-Said, came to its death by misfortune or accident

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to death.

John H Webb January 22, 1882 at James Webb Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do Say . . .that said John H Webb Came to his Death from Drowning in Sleepy Creek

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

Fleetwood Moody May 20, 1936 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Fleetwood Moody received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Burned in the hands of origin unknown . . . came to his death from burns and suffocation origin unknown

Toby negro man July 10, 1844 near Bauskett Bridge on Stevens Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said negro man Toby came to his death by accidental drowning

Jack Thomas at Mickles Ferry, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said, Jack Thomas, came to his death by accidental drownding

Samuel Negro Man Anderson County, SC

the Decd had been missing ever since Sunday. . .he would search the Mill pond as he had been seen in the neighborhood?and found him floating on the water in the pond about 12 feet from the Dam. . .That he knew of no enemy the Decd had had never heard of any threats--thought it was accidental.

John Cotton March 15, 1826 at the river bank in Mr. Jno. Nelson's field, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that on the second day January last that the said John Cotton came to his death by attempting to go to the shore from a boat that was lodged in the shoal near Jones Mills within said district and was drowned accidentally and not otherwise

John Downey February 26, 1873 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors, find the following verdict, That the Deceased, John Downey, cam to his death the twenty fifth day of February 1873. From rupture of the spleen caus by misfortune or accident

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

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

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

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

Hannah Lee March 7, 1893 at Moor Church, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceased came to her death from natural causes

Louisa McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Sam Slave June 14, 1858 at Henry Spiers[?], Edgefield County, SC

who came to his death by drowning in Butlers Mill Pond

Ida Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

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

William Hutchins December 9, 1840 at Equilla Burns's[?], Spartanburg County, SC

on oath that we believe that said child comes to his death by accident of falling or slipping in [the Maple Swamp] creek and being drowned near Wm. Smith's mill

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

Thomas J. Geer November 23, 1860 Thomas J. Geer's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say the said Thomas Green did . . . in the fore noon of the same day came to his death by fits and accidental drowning

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
infant child infant child June 14, 1891 at Kenny Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said Child Came to his death from Suffication

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

Blanchy Wilson November 30, 1893 on the plantation of Robert Hastings, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at woods childs house. . .by a single barrel shot gun lying in the loft of said house and started to fall and Siche Chiles caught the gun and it struck the joist and fired

Charles negro boy November 14, 1842 On Mr Thos Oliver's Plantation, at or near Said Oliver's residence, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that the boy Charles . . .came to his death by being burnt to death in an old house, accidently caught fire in some unknown or misterious way to us

Infant child of Amanda Williams at the residence of Alex Cockerell, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say having viewed the dead body of Amanda Williams infant and heard the evidence of witnesses and this our verdict that it came to its death form congestion of the lungs.

slave slave June 24, 1843 at Thomas Holland's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that according to evidence believe the said child was strangled to death by its mother's milk

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

John Wilkins December 7, 1900 at the Residence of C.F. Morrison, Chesterfield County, SC

upon theair oaths do say that John Wilkins deceast came to his death By a pistol shot fired from his own hand acdential

Joseph B. Hughes August 6, 1869 at the late residence of Joseph B. Hughes in Flat Rock Township, Flat Rock, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph B. Hughes came to his death ... from a wound in the back of the right shoulder ... by a falling tree

Riah Simpson infant daughter of Jim and Manda Simpson June 28, 1884 at the Langly House on White Plains Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death in the hoise of Jim Simpson on the 28th of June between the hours of 8 & 9 oclock from the effects of a pistol shot in the hands of William Simpson accidentally through carelessness

Older son of Joe Cunningham Older son of Joe Cunningham March 26, 1908 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Isaac Grimer December 10, 1868 at Jacobs Branch on the Spaun Church road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Isaac Grimer came to his death on the Spann Church road near Jacobs Church ... by misfortune or accident

Lewis Jackson July 23, 1889 at Squire Jackson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Lewis Jackson came ot his death by being crushed in the machinery of the Brick mill of the Spartanburg Factory by carelessness of the Deceased and disobeying the orders of the foreman

Caroline Rhodes April 17, 1865 at Burnt Factory, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by accidental drowning in Tyger River just below A. Floyd's mill dam

Willis Watson June 14, 1876 at the river bank on Saulda one mile above Gambell old Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that said decd came to his death by accidental drowning in the River of Saluda.

Judith Berry December 17, 1811 near Swift Creek ... [at] home of James Berry, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Berry to came to her death by a violent burn which she received from her clothes taking fire at the fireplace in the house of James Berry . . . of which she instantly died.

infant child infant child January 18, 1892 at the Plantation of L. G. Swearinger, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

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

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

Jethro July 27, 1857 at the residence of Cornelius B. Sarvis, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jethro came to his death by accidental drowning

Thomas child of Thomas M Chandler September 11, 1850 at Thos M. Chandler's house, and at the old Pottery, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death on the 8th ist by accidental drowning

Willie Gooding at [?] Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Willie Gooding came to his death from accidental burning by fire

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

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

Calhoun Templeton February 3, 1892 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Calhoun Templeton came to his death on the 3rd day of Feb. A.D. 1892 at Laurens CH. By Accident, being burnt in a burning house on the plantation of JD Watts.

Truman Miles October 22, 1839 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

do say that said Truman Miles. . . .at Anderson Court House was found dead that he had no marks of violence afore him and died by the [?] of God from the many severe falls he received when in a state of intoxication and not otherwise

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