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 201 - 250 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Will Smith December 9, 1882 at Reidville, Reidville, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say by pistol shot accidentally & falling from the mantel piece ... that the said Will Smith ... came to his death by accident

Aggey September 14, 1830 near the house of Edward P. Mobley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence addressed to them they believe that said Negroe Aggey came to her death on the night of the 11th this instant by the breaking of a joist or two in a house, which fell on her

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

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

Unknown Unknown March 29, 1922 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

(We find that the deceased come to his death by being burned in the guard house at McBee, S.C. supposed to have been trying to burn his way to free on the morning March 29th 1922)

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

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

Maty slave December 10, 1833 at the dwelling house of Jesse Hammet, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they are of the opinion that the said slave came to her death by the visitation of God in afflicting her with fits or spasms and being neglected by those who had her in their care

Lilla Olophant female infant August 18, 1879 at Simpton[?] Pinns[?], Edgefield County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by accidental drownding on Sunday evening ... crossing Logg creek

Aleck Dorsey March 23, 1877 at J.W. Coleman's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that he come to his death by the accidental burning of a house on the above noted plantation on the 22nd day of March A.D. 1877 about 8 or 9 O Clock in the morning

Spartin L. Gaddis August 30, 1876 near John O. [?], Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .Gaddis came to his death. . .by misfortunte cutting a [?] tree and the said tree falling on the said Spartin

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

[No official declaration]

Zechariah Tottey December 4, 1806 at the Mill River, Union County, SC

do say on their oaths that the said Totty Came to his Death we Belive By toxication[?] in [?] and [?] By haggs[?] in a [?]

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

Samuel Whillow December 17, 1818 Laurens County, SC

We the Jurors after having been lawfully summoned, & sworn by James Watts having examined the body of decsd. Give it as our opinion that sd. Whillow came to his death by reason of his being very much intoxicated with ardent spirits & in attempting to go home some time about dark forced his young horse in saluda river at Childs' Ferry & drowned...

Infant son of Lee & Eliza Moore at the plantation of Mrs. N. Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say this child came to his death from some natural cause unknown to the Jury

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

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

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

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

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

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.

Hollan April 29, 1856 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, tha the said Girl Hollan came to her Death by accidental Drowning

Eliza February 15, 1837 at the house of Mr. John Cockrell, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that according to the evidence adduced to them they believe, that upon the morning of the 15th instant, the said Eliza came to her death, by a tree falling on her; Breaking her scull, also her thigh and perhaps other injuries we know- nothing of.

Joe Malloy October 25, 1893 at George Lany's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joe Malloy came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in his own hands

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

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

Mary Robertson at the Gailiard grave yard, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased came to her death from internal hemorrhage, caused by having a premature birth produced by some cause unknown to the jury

Aaron Rogers May 14, 1872 at Isham Johnson's Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Aaron Rogers (the deceased) came to his death by accidental drowning in Thompson's Creek, below Purvis' Bridge, on Sunday the 12th May AD 1872

Mary McDaniel January 13, 1891 at Burnside, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mary McDaniel came to her death by accidental drowning

James Edward Settle boy March 9, 1884 on Henry Hill Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon there [?] that said James Edward Settle Came to his death from Epellepcy and Starvation

Robert E. Tuck December 14, 1879 at the residence of L M. Gentry, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rob't E. Tuck came to his death at the residence of L M. Gentry ... from exposure tot he rain and cold ... while in a state of intoxication

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

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

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

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

Alexander January 2, 1862 at Dr. Austins, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Alexander came to his death Jany 1st by accident having been caught in the running gear of the gin.

Seware[?] Stuart November 4, 1893 at J.[?] E. Griffiths, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Seware Stuart Came to his death by the accidental discharge of a 38 caliber Pistol, in the hands of William Griffith, holding by the brick[?] and seware Stuart carelessly playing with it, and said Pistol fired. . .it was intirely accidental

Robert Gresham Chester Co., at Shelton Depot, Fairfield County, SC

upon there oath do say that the said Robert Gresham was drowned at Fish Dam Ferry in Chester County on the [1]4 day of February A.D 1895

James Hillian November 21, 1911 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Curry slave March 17, 1856 at Mrs Elizabeth Middletons Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

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

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

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

John Thomas October 6, 1852 at Line Creek, Greenville County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they think he much intoxicated, and in attempting to crop[?] the River fell off on a rock under the Bridge broke his skull and so stunned him that he was immediately drowned

A. R. Steel girl child August 28, 1869 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

the said A.R. Steel came to her death do say That the deceased came to her death by an act of Providence [?] accidentally falling into a tub of water about six inches deep

Marcus Pickens December 5, 1860 near the residence of William Widener's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Marcus Pickens, on the 5th instant, to wit on or near a blind path leading from Solomon Colemans, to Stephen Crosleys was found dead, that he had not marks of appearin on his body, and died by misfortune, or exposure.

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.

Kitty Young near Rock City, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Kity Young came to her death from a pistol shot wound, the pistol being fired by her little brother Johnnie Young, and that the shooting was purely accidental.

Sandy McNair December 14, 1878 at Peter Ingrahams, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say- That the said Sandy McNair came to his death by exposure to cold, producing congestion of the lungs and the internal organs; and that deceased died on the night of the 12th inst.

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.

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

Basil Vick March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Basil Vick received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation by smoke from fire in adjoining cell, occupied by Joe Church.

Brice slave February 19, 1859 at the residence of Joseph Murphy, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro slave came to his death by the. . .striking of the head upon the stump of a tree while running through the woods

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

upon their oaths do say by accidently falling upon a cicular Saw While in Motion

Absalom McAbee January 6, 1883 at Almarine Willis, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by mischange by being partially paralised and falling into water and strangled or drowned being a man of 80 years or more and very feeble

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