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 251 - 300 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
James Edward Settle boy March 9, 1884 on Henry Hill Plantation, Edgefield County, SC exposure/mental illness

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

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

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

James Frazier Babie October 24, 1890 at D. B Hollingworth, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid James Frazier did die from Suffocation

James Graham June 8, 1858 at the place known as the public square in Logtown, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Jame Graham here lying dead came to his death from intemperance and exposure

James Gregory August 28, 1880 at Geo. W. Turner's, Spartanburg County, SC fall from horse

upon their oaths do say that James Gregory came to his death by the fall from his Horse caused by the Horse falling down near George W. Hurner's farm

James Hindman February 11, 1875 Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion the said James Hindman came to his death by misfortune caused by fits or convulsions producing derangment ina high degree being found drowned in James Creek

James Jenkins May 30, 1875 at Robert Spence's [?] Mill, Anderson County, SC drowning

It appears that deceased came to his death by mischance or misfortune or accidental drowning in the mill pond at Robert Spences

James Kirkpatrick November 24, 1846 at Union CourtHouse in James C Kitchens Hotel, Union County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that … the deceased was put to bed … in a state of intoxication and … must have come to his death by a fit of appoplexy or some other natural cause

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

James L. Hill January 10, 1867 at James L Hills, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon there oaths do say that the said James L Hill came to his death by Mischance or accident

James McCannon May 1, 1821 at Joseph Hughes, Union County, SC drowning

say on our oths that the said James McCannon did come to his death by the act of God … by attmting to Crose a Creek by the name of Hughs Creek and was forthwith drownded

James McCravy January 4, 1851 at the house of Amos Holmes, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said James McCravy being intoxicated and out in the snow frozed [sic] to death

James Owens March 13, 1885 at James Owens's house, Spartanburg County, SC burned

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that ... James Owens came to his death by misfortunte or accident

James Parker February 4, 1852 at James Parker's house, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that deceased came to his death by a fall from his horse

James Perry December 27, 1894 at Mt Enon Church, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon oaths do say that the said Jim Perry aforesaid came to his death from the firing of his own Gun … by first fireing of his gun at a Rabbit Broke his gun stock threw up the Barrel and discharged the other load which caused his death

James Petty June 19, 1825 at an out House of the plantation of John Norman, Union County, SC alcohol

upon there Oaths do Say that from the Effects of Intoxication that the Said James did Come to his death

James Rivan November 3, 1856 at the forks of the Rutherfordton[?] Road, Greenville County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death … by a loaded wagon accidentally running over him

James Robison December 17, 1820 at the hous of John Birds, Union County, SC alcohol

do say upon his oath that the said James Robison did Come to his death by Drinking of Sherriouts Liqur … Com to his death by Entockacation

James Spradley August 19, 1808 near Sander's Creek, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that ... the said James Spradley happening to be close behind the said George Nettles looking at the dogs afighting received the contents of the said gun consisting of a load of powder and buck shot in his forehead just over his left eye which shot shot away a considerable part of his skull and brains [and] in one hour after his receiving the said wound, [he] died of the same

James Turner June 27, 1889 at or near Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceased James E. Turner came to his death by injuries received by jumping from the second class car, or platform thereof, of the passenger train, No. 51, of Atlanta and Carlotte Division of Richmond & Danville Railroad, near Thickety Station ... and from the evidence before us we attach no censure or blame to the said railroad

Jane infant negro December 31, 1840 at E. M. Gregory's, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that the child was accidently overlayed by its mother

Jane slave April 16, 1849 at John J. E. Gregory's, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths doo say that … the said Jane was accidently or unknowinly smuthered by her mother or some one Else in bead

Jane Kelly May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Jean Young December 6, 1816 Union County, SC wagon

Came to his death by the act of God a Waggon Whel running [?]

Jefferson slave July 27, 1840 at the plantation of H.R. Cook, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said boy Jefferson came to his death by a gun shot wound inflicted upon him accidentally by a boy named Isaac belonging to Capt. B. Haile.

Jefferson Kitsinger 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

Jeremiah Morgan January 12, 1881 at or near the residence of, Spartanburg County, SC fall from horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Jerry Morgan came to his death ... by a fall from his horse

Jerry R. McLeod May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Jesse Limbecker June 18, 1869 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say That the said Jesse Limbecker here lying dead came to his death by accidental drowning in the Savannah River

Jesse Moragna[?] March 3, 1882 at Luke Moragines[?] House, Edgefield County, SC tree top

upon there oaths do say that the diceased Came to his death by the falling of a tree top which struck him on the Head frackturing the sckull … by Misfortune and Contrary to his will

Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

Jim Mason free man of color January 9, 1850 near the residence of William Poole, Anderson County, SC exposure

do say that he was of extremely intermperate habits, and altho there is no positive proof that he was drunk when last seen, the jury and unanimously of opinion before all the circumstances, that he was laboring under the influence of drink, and came to his death from the effect of his habits and exposure to the weather, during the rain and storm of Sunday night and monday last.

Joe infant negro August 26, 1860 at John Huiets, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say that the child was over laid by his Farther dick

John slave September 27, 1863 at the residence of Johnson A Bland, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that the said salve John came to his by wounds in flicted by the discharge of a shot Gun in the hand of John A Bland accidentally or unintentionally

John slave November 13, 1849 at the house of Mrs. J.S. McRae, Kershaw County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the falling of a tree

John Baswell February 16, 1860 at the plantation of Abner McVay, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that John Baswell came to his death by misfortune or accident

John Brown September 16, 1804 at Andrew Graham's plantation, near Beaver[?] Creek , Kershaw County, SC alcohol

do say upon their oaths … they do believe that he died on Saturday evening the 15th … by excessive drinking of ardent spirits

John Calhoun Clemson August 11, 1871 at Pendleton, Anderson County, SC train

do say that the deceased came to his death….by the unavoidable running of the lumber train of the G & C R Road into the passenger train of the Blue Ridge Railroad

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

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 D. Player February 24, 1870 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John D. Player came to his death from [?] of the Glottis

John Dean December 29, 1848 on the publick [sic] road leading from William McMurry's, Esq to J. L. Kenedy's, Anderson County, SC exposure, alcohol

do say from the evidence produced and all other circumstances he came to his death by intoxication together with the wet and coldness of the night having been seen late on the eavening [sic] before in a state of intoxication within a half a mile of the place where he was found also having a bottle with him--with whiskey in it which was found by him nearly empty.

John Edmonson July 26, 1854 near the road leading from Anderson Court House to the Double Branches., Anderson County, SC alcohol

the verdict of the above jury is that he came to his death by intoxication or some other unknown cause.

John Findley at [??] ferrey, Union County, SC alcohol, drowning

do say upon their oaths that … he came to his Death by atemping to Cross the River at horvels[?] ferry alone when in Liquer and by Mischance was Drowned

John Garrett October 22, 1822 at House of John Garrett, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths … Came to his death by being accid Draunded

John Groce June 12, 1876 at John Groce's, Greenville County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that he John P. Groce came to his death … by accidental drowning in the mill pond of W J Bates while bathing in company with P D Bates, Morgan Flynn and Benjame Cannon[?]

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

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

John Haskell March 11, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said John Haskell in manner and for aforesaid come to his death by the accidental falling from a train on the Charlotte and Atlanta [?] Line Rail Raod while in motion

John Hester May 13, 1846 at Hamburg in the shop of J.J. Kenedy, Edgefield County, SC machinery/mental illness

Upon their Oaths do say, He died in the said shop … while working at the bench in a fit … came to his death by misfortune or visitation of God

John Hinson July 20, 1882 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the the aforesaid John Hinson ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

John L. Thorton Smith June 4, 1874 at Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

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

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