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 Datesort ascending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
William Humphry January 4, 1894 at Etheridge Bridge, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

the said Wm Humphry now being dead came to his death from the effect of a wound inflicted by a pocket knife which pierced the heart and that the knife was in his own hands while he was holding or trying[?] to hold Mark Thrig[?] with his right hand and arm and that it was his Misfortune

Larrence Valentine December 28, 1893 at Mt[?] Willing, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .find that said Larrence Valentine aforesaid came to his death by a gun shot wound in his own hands, from the evidence we believe it was purely accidental

Nancy Weaver December 20, 1893 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that we the jurors aforesaid do say that Nancy aforesaid, came to her death, by a gun shot wound in the hands of Savanah Gray accidently

Sallie Holmes December 20, 1893 at D. P. Bodies[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the said Sallie Holmes aforesaid came to her death from accidental burning

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

Anna Queen Fuller five year old child November 18, 1893 at Flatwoods, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was burnt. And Anna Queen Fuller in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by misfortune or accident.

Lusindy Gainey November 15, 1893 at Spring Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon there oath do say that Lusindy Gainey deceast Come to his deth By Being in Sane and getting lost in the Swamp and getting wet in the cold and come to death

Balus Harrison November 14, 1893 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC cart

upon their oaths do say that the said Balus Harris aforesaid came to his death by an accident by being kicked by a horse from a cart in which he was sitting there by breaking his neck

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

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

John Benjamin October 16, 1893 at a mill in Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Benjamin did come to his death by misfortune or accident.

Louisa Wooden October 13, 1893 at Mose Woden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Louisa Wooden came to her death by an accidental gunshot wound in the hands of Moses Wooden

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

Walden C. Sullivan September 12, 1893 at the house of Mr. John A. Sullivan, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Walden C. Sullivan came to his death by accidental smothering at the Residence of John A. Sullivan

Duff Gist June 20, 1893 at Beaver Dam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Duff Gist came to his death from Congestion of the Bowels.

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

Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old Unknown Colored Man about 60 years old May 15, 1893 on the plantation of D.D. Simpson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said colored man came to his death from inflamation of the left hand and arm of phlegmonous character and for want of proper attention, that he died some time about the 13th inst.

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

William Moore April 15, 1893 in a lake near little river, Laurens County, SC

Being a lawful Jury of inquest and being charged and sworn to inquire for the State of S.C. how and by what means the said Wm. Moore came to his death on the 14th of April inst. In Laurens County By Accidental drowning, in a lake near little river.

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

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

Cap Bryan February 25, 1893 at the plantation of Mrs Doziers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say That the aforesaid Cap Bryan came to his death from a lick with a rock thrown by a blast from the Quary which we consider purely accidental

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

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

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

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

Henry Tucker January 16, 1893 at Robert Tucker's place, Chesterfield County, SC wagon

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Tucker came to his death by accident, in being thrown from a wagon.

Joseph Ruffington January 9, 1893 at Thos O Attaways, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph Ruffington came to his death accidentally by the falling of a tree cut by Pick Deloach

Minnie Johnson December 22, 1892 at John Bettis plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Minnie Johnson came to her death by strangulation caused by an accidental fall into shaws creek

Lillie Washington December 22, 1892 on the plantation of J.O.C. Flemming, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death "By the train running against her throwing her off the track, and in our opinion unavoidable.

Willie Parker December 21, 1892 at S. Parkers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Willie Parker came to his death by being struck on his head by a falling Tree Accidinetly

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

Berry Butler October 9, 1892 at J. H Lagroons[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that he Bearry Butler Came to his death by a pistol in the hands of John Gamillion

Edmond Long October 2, 1892 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the sad Edmond Long came to his death by falling from the trestle of the Palmetto Rail Road near Pee Dee River. . . That the said Edmond Long. . . came to his death by accident

Duncan Fleming August 6, 1892 at Pervis Bridge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Dunkin Fleming came to his death by accidentaly drowning while in washing in Thomson Creek

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

upon their oaths do say Robt Reynolds came to his death from burnes received by Explosion from Engine owned by J. H. Bussy

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

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

Willie Glover July 26, 1892 at Lark Glovers Plantation, Edgefield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that the said Willie Glover came to his death from concussion of the brain caused by being drug in the gear of a mule for 100 or 200 yds upon the ground and rocks

John Watson May 23, 1892 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death "by Accidental Gun Shot in his own hand on the 22 day of May 1892

Cora Boyd May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death from the Effects of fire, That She died on the 17th inst. Having been burnt in a house on the plantation of M.B. Pool that was accidentally burnt down on the night of the 16th inst.

Clarrisa Boyd May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death from the Effects fire being in a house that was burnt over her all by Accident or misfortune.

Emma Hunter May 18, 1892 at Beaverdam Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say from the Testimony given that Emma Hunter Died from the Effects of fire; That she died on Tesday the 17th inst having been burnt in a house, that was burnt down on the plantation of M.B. Pool on the night of the 16th inst. All Accidental...

Cland Elam child March 17, 1892 at A. J. Norris Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Child Came to its death from a wound inflicted by fire accidentily

Evans Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Evans Campbell came to his death by Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

Charley Campbell March 14, 1892 at Rhett Copelands, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say "that Charley Campbell came to his death. By Accident or Misfortune, By the burning of the house he was in

Margret Douglass March 10, 1892 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that Margaret Doublass came to her death by drowning while attempting to cross Thompson Creek near Craigs mill

Oliver Lee February 17, 1892 at Cokers Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Oliver Lee came to his death by accidently falling upon a circular saw while in motion cutting of both legs near the body causing instantly death on the 17th day of February 1892 about 10 Oclock am at Cokers Saw Mill

Jeff Steel February 11, 1892 at Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC train

upon their oaths do Say That Jeff Steel came to his death by accident on account of carelessness on his part he having disobeyed the rules of Caot, Cason in riding on the rear of the Tender of the Engine.

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.

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

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

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

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

Lesthia Ridlehouse[Ridlehover?] January 5, 1892 at the Residence of Mrs Edny Mary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by being accidenttly burned to death

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