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 301 - 350 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
John Love June 24, 1832 Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

after examination reported … that they beleave [sic] that the cause of his death was occasion by spiritous liquor

John Love August 3, 1871 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that ... the aforesaid John Lowe came to his death from a stroke on lightning

John Lyons July 1, 1882 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that … came to his death from congestion of the Lungs

John Maddox June 15, 1881 at Williamston , Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that the aforesaid John Madox came to his death by his own act of going into the Saluda in said county^ River and getting drowned.

John Matthews October 13, 1829 at the house of William Adams, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

do say upon their Oaths, that he John Matthews died a natural death in William Adams lane then and there in a State of intoxication

John McLeod August 23, 1822 at house of Widow McLeod in the fork of Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC burning

have unanimously agreed that the said John McLeod has received his Death by unavoidable accident as he was pouring liquor into a barrel or cask … which liquor caught on fire and busted the said cask and as we suppose one of the staves struck the said deceased by which which we think he rec'd his death together with the volume of flame which issued from s'd spirits as on examination we found his face mortally cut and his body much burnt

John McManas December 4, 1883 at the Jail, Edgefield County, SC fall

upon there oaths do say that the deceased John McMenas … Came to his death by Concussion of the Brain Caused by a fall from the back door of the jail

John Nesbitt March 27, 1821 at Benj. Wofford, Esquire's, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said J.T. Nesbitt aforesaid was about to brace the plates of a bark house which was raised & standing on posts at each corner, that the posts gave way & he sliped [sic], fell on his face on the ground, one of the plates fell on the back part of his head, prying him to the ground, that he instantly expired

John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
John Pike November 15, 1856 at William Pike's, Greenville County, SC unknown

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death … by some means to the jurors unknown

John Pinson September 2, 1858 at [?] Pinson residence, Greenville County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning … near McBees Mills in Reedy River

John Prince July 15, 1856 at Miles[?] Southerns[?], Greenville County, SC alcohol, exposure

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death … by the excessive use of [?] liquors and lying in the hot sun.

John R. Edwards March 24, 1858 Spartanburg County, SC drowning

find J.R. Edwards came to his death by fall or drowning

John Radford April 12, 1860 at the residence of John Radford, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say and upon our oaths do find and declare that the said dead boy being that of John Radford … did come to his death by accident or mischance in that it was by the accidental runing the waggon of J L Miller over the body of chest of said Radford

John Ronnie February 15, 1898 Kershaw County, SC forest fire
John Rufus Russell October 10, 1884 at John L Russell House, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say that the said John Rufus Russell come to his death by suffocation Caused by accidentally falling with head downward into a hole in a pile of seed Cotton

John Scott May 10, 1851 at Vaucluse[?] Factory, Edgefield County, SC fall

came to his death by being accidentally thrown from his horse

John Seigler February 13, 1856 at J.H. Christians, Edgefield County, SC fall

upon their oaths do say, that John Seigler came to his death by fall or jump, from his buggy, while his horse was running away

John Shockley July 27, 1865 at John Shockley's, Greenville County, SC unknown

upon their oaths do say that the said disseast came to his death by misfortune or accident

John Shumport[?] November 7, 1851 at John Shumports[?], Edgefield County, SC wagon

Upon their oaths do say, that John Shumport … did come to his death by misfortune or accident

John Soseby December 22, 1857 by the side of the road near Lawson's fork, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the death of the said John Soseby was caused by intoxication

John Stafford December 16, 1831 Spartanburg County, SC alcohol, drowning

do say upon their oaths he came to his death by accidentally drowning in a state of intoxication

John T. Wood August 14, 1865 at the house of Dr. B.F. Kilgore, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John T. Wood … was drowned in a hole of water near Dr. Kilgore's

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

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

John Vandiver March 28, 1845 at residence of Daniel Gentry, Anderson County, SC horse

do say that the Deceased came to his death by accidentaly falling from his horse which produced an extensive fracture of skull about an inch and a half above the year [ear] on the left side and copious affusion on the same side within the cranium thereby producing fatal compressions of the brain.

John Whitlock boy September 8, 1869 at Grainteville, Edgefield County, SC mental illness

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by an act of Providence being subject to fits

John Williams freed person infant June 23, 1867 at John Meadows, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … it came to its death by being smuthered by him in her sleep

John Young June 27, 1891 at the residence of John Young, Edgefield County, SC exposure

upon their oaths do say that John Young came to his death from sum Strok

Jonathan McCulloch January 7, 1840 at the house of Thomas Jefferson[?], Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths that they believe the Said Jonathan McCulloch came to his death by being accidentally drund in a fit of Derangement

Jonathan Newman October 9, 1869 at the late residence of Jonathan C. Newman, Kershaw County, SC cave in

upon their oaths do say said deceased came to his death by the accidental or providential caving of a well at his own residence

Joseph Negroe man April 29, 1828 at the old Quaker meeting hous, Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths … that the said negro making an effort to Cross Fairforest at Mrs Rices ford was drown

Joseph A. McJunkin March 15, 1858 at Wm Hawkins House, Union County, SC drowning, mental illness

upon there oaths do say that they believe the Decd came to his death from what testimony they can get from a [?] Fits[?] & in that condition had fallen in to the river where he Decsd was Fishing & drowned

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 falling tree

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

Joseph D. Reasonover January 21, 1871 at a place four miles south of Camden, Kershaw County, SC kicked by horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Joseph D. Reasonover came to his death from a kick received from a horse on his breast or stomach 

Joseph Jay October 4, 1860 at Joseph Jays, Edgefield County, SC horse, fall

upon there oaths do say the deceased was seized with a fainting fitt and in that condition fell from the horse

Joseph Mulligan February 27, 1835 below Doct[?] Dogans[?] near the branch near this Village, Union County, SC exposure

do say upon their oaths that the said Joseph Mulligan … died by the visitation of God by freezing

Joseph Poor December 17, 1857 at William Holand's residence, Anderson County, SC alcohol

do say the said Joseph Poor…came to his death most likely by intoxication.

Joseph Powel August 18, 1879 at [??], Edgefield County, SC drowning

do say that the said Jos Powel came to his death by accidental drouding on Sunday evening crossing Logg creek

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

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

Joseph Shaw July 26, 1858 at the residence of John H Shaw near Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that Joseph Shaw bathing in the Mill pond of Col H. H. Pickens … came to his death by accidental drowing

Josephine A. Brookes Thrift infant child March 28, 1860 at Delila Jenkinses, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say … that the child came to its death by being smothered by its mother by accident

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

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.

Julia Hightower child November 9, 1890 at Mr Sam Marshes Place, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that She came to her death from being burn by accident

Julia Van June 20, 1892 at the plantation of Mr Joe Thurmond, Edgefield County, SC gun

Upon their oaths do say that Rial Williams Killed the said Julia Van by misfortune and contrary to his will

Julius Brockman negroe boy August 11, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Julius Brockman came to his death by an [?] accident causedly being Struck by engine No 22 train no 49 on the [??] Rail Road

July infant slave September 8, 1856 at the House of Mrs Elender[?] Martin, Union County, SC suffocation

upon there oaths do say … the Decsd came to its Death by misfortune or accident occasioned by the overLaying of its mother

Justin Turner April 9, 1868 Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Jusin Turner … came to his death by mischance being exposed during a cold night without doors and from evidence quite intoxicated

Kate slave December 5, 1847 at the house of Mrs. Jane Love, Kershaw County, SC tree

upon their oaths do say that they believe from the testimony of Jas. Love son that she came to her death by the falling of a tree accidentally upon her body

Kenneth Martor[?] January 15, 1852 at Thomas Samar's[?] Mills on horse creek, Edgefield County, SC machinery

Upon their oaths do say the decd came to his death … by becoming accidentaly entangled in, and with the running gear of Mr Thos G. Lamar's circular saw mill

Kinley Green February 2, 1878 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the said Kinley Green came to his death ... from having been run over on the evening previous by a Freight train on the A&C Air ine Railrway near the 2/3 mile post

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