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 201 - 250 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Hetty McRa December 26, 1869 at L.B. Stephen's plantation, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Hetty McRa came to her death ... from a wound int he left said inflicted by a [?] fired from a gun in the hands of Moses Stephens

Hewlet Swangum July 21, 1883 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that the deceased came to her death by drowning in Saluda River.

Hiram Linder March 12, 1840 on the premises of Isaac Young's, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

do say uppon [sic] there [sic] oaths that he had no marks of violence uppon [sic] him & died by intemperance or the visition of God in a natural way and not otherwise

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

Howard Gale June 13, 1879 at Jacksons Holinns[?] Mill, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oath do say that the Said Howard Gale came to his death by accidental droning

Hugh Duffey Sr. August 26, 1855 at Bethany Church, Edgefield County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say, that the said Hugh Duffey senr did come to his death by accident by his horse falling into a large ditch with him, the horse was blind

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

infant infant January 24, 1893 at Clintonwards, Edgefield County, SC child birth

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant of Millie Hamond came to its death by a cause unknown

infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that said child … came to his death by accidental Suffocation

infant March 20, 1883 at Jerry Frey's House, Spartanburg County, SC miscarriage

upon their oaths do say that at Jerry Frey's House ... said infant child came to its death by being miscarried at a stage too early for it to possibly survive

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say … that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

infant June 8, 1828 house of Jessee Husk, Kershaw County, SC poisoning

do say upon their oaths … that after carefully examining the dead body of the s'd male child of the s'd Martha Gibson … are all agreed that the s'd child died by the visitation of God but by the blood being [?]led in large spots to be seen through the skin all on his left side from his face to his foot they thought it was probable s'd child might have eat some poisonous herbs or berries of the woods as s'd Husk had settled in the woods

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
infant infant December 13, 1851 at A. J. Gregorys, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that it was accidently smoothered by its mother

infant January 28, 1863 at Cannon's Old Grave yard, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said deceased child came to its or her death by carelessness or mismanagement or misfortune at the house of Jefferson Saterfield

infant April 15, 1879 at the house of Mrs. Mary Smith, Spartanburg County, SC neglect

upon their oaths do say that the infant aforesaid came to its death ... from the ignorant neglect of said child by Sarah D. Smith, the mother of said child without intent to murder the child upon her part

Infant Boy Child Infant Boy Child June 18, 1883 at Marsh Grobe Yard, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say … the Child come to its death accidentally or by being smutherd

infant child infant child December 9, 1891 at a colored cemetary, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death from the burns that was found upon its body

infant child infant child June 14, 1891 at Kenny Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

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

infant child infant child September 15, 1861 at the residence of Mrs Margret Willis, Edgefield County, SC child birth

upon there oaths do say that the said infant child of Elizabeth Hallman was … born dead being prematurely Delivered its Delivery being caused by and injury received by the mother in a fall

infant child infant child January 10, 1892 at Trenton, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that deat was produced from suffocation … after a long spell of sickness

infant child infant child November 23, 1891 at the plantation of Willis Owdom[?], Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that it died from strangulation

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

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

infant child infant child July 24, 1892 at Promised Land School house, Edgefield County, SC strangulation

upon their oaths do Say From Strangerlation due to the accumulation of Phlegm in the throat

infant female infant female November 25, 1880 at T. H. Long, Greenville County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … the said infant came to its death by being smothered by its Mother accidentally while she was asleep in bed

infant negro child infant negro child October 18, 1845 at the plantation of John Gregory, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … they do belive that the child was Smothered to death accidently by its mother in her Sleap

infant slave infant slave September 28, 1853 at the house of James R. Jeter, Union County, SC

came to its death by misfortune or accident

infant slave infant slave December 30, 1857 at Isaac Gregorys house, Union County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say that … it came to its death by accidental overLaying or strangling by the mothers breast

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC cave in

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him … in the iron mine

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

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

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

Isaac Oliphant November 9, 1882 at Ritch Thomson, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say the said Isaac Oliphant Came to his death by a Gun Shot Wound unfortunately or accidentally in his own hands

Isah Zimmerman December 26, 1881 at the Residence of W F Ste[?]eies, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that He Come to His Death by a Pistol Shot Wound in the hands of Lias Dorn accidently

J. B. Benson June 21, 1857 at John Benson's, Greenville County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say the said John B Benson came to his death by the running away of a yoke of oxen and the wheel of the cart running[?] over the head

J. E. Black May 8, 1861 at the Residence of J. E. Black, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon there oaths do say the said J. E. Black came to his death by accessive drink of intoxicating spirits

J. F. Brewer September 16, 1841 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said J.F. Brewer died between the hours of 12 & 5 o'clk this morning, caused by intemperance

J. F. Styron April 21, 1891 at residence of J. F. Styron[?], Edgefield County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that the said J. F. Styron dropped dead in his field from being over heat while engaged in burning logs and in such heat drinking big drought of cold water and as the Physician tells us from heart failure

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

J. M. Higgins March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

J. McGee September 4, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say that … the said J. H. McGee came to his death from a fall from a scaffold by misfortune or accident

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

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

Jack negro boy May 14, 1852 at the house of H. W. Posey, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oathes do say that the said negro boy Jack then and there voluntarily and feloniously himself did Kill by drowning in the mill pong

Jackson Byars December 13, 1877 at Boiling Springs, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Jackson Byars came to his death beside the Mills Gap Road nine miles from Spartanburg C.H. in the County and State aforesaid ... from appoplexy or effusion of blood upon the brain

Jacob Cromer December 4, 1867 at the residence of Jacob Cromer, Anderson County, SC possible internal injuries

do say that the deceased came to his death by the hand of Providence, the true cause being unknown.

James slave December 4, 1843 at J. C. Jeter's graveyard, Union County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that … he must have come to his death by exposure to cold from being lying out in the woods or some cause to the jury unknown

James Adis June 13, 1818 Union County, SC drowning

do say u[?] thr oaths that the desceased [?] come to his by being drowned

James Baldwin infant June 8, 1825 at William Dilliard's plantation, Union County, SC suffocation

do say upon their oaths that the said James Baldwin came to his death by an accident, occasioned by his elder brother Henry Baldwin tying a Rope around his the said James Baldwin neck and fastening one end of said rope to a [?] fastened in the joist and the said Henry going off and leaving of it in that situation ... as a reason for tying the said child was that he was subject to eating of dirt and Salt[?] and that his brother done it to prevent him from getting the same whilst he was in the field at work

James Blocker May 6, 1897 Edgefield County, SC train

upon theirs oaths aforesaid do say that the said James Blocker by the pilot on back of [??] him and Knocking him off the track no blame attached to the Rail Road

James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC drowned escaping posse

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

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