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 301 - 350 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Jeff Bird January 8, 1878 at G.B. Pettigrews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by the accidental discharge of a gun

Harry slave August 13, 1807 at McRae & Cantey's Merchant (grist) mill, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said negro slave came to his death by misfortune

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

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

M. N. Chapman February 20, 1840 at or near Mt. Zion, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he was drowned by accidentally falling into the waters of Wilson's Creek while in the act of fishing

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

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

Maggie Brown September 8, 1885 at Mr. Louis Johnson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Miss Jaggie Brown came to her death by accidentally drowning herself in a spring

George Ratcliff May 1, 1874 at C. A. Mores, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said George Ratcliff Maggie Ratcliff & Luis Ratcliff came to there deaths by being accidently Burnt

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

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.

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

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

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

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

Allagood Suggs April 4, 1860 at the house of Alfred Jernigan, Horry County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allagood Suggs came to his death by misfortune or accident

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

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

W. H. Davis November 1, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that W. H. Davis received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by gun shot in the hands of self-inflicted accidentally

Willie Williams Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL CAUSE OF DEATH STATEMENT

Ben February 12, 1840 by the publick Road Leding from Mr. Gaydons[?] Store to Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths [Ben came to his death] by being intoxicated and laying out in the cold of the night

Robert Butler boy July 12, 1868 at Robert Butler's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death accidentally by being cought in the gearney of a thrashing[?] [?]

Hetty McRa December 26, 1869 at L.B. Stephen's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

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

Maston Fuller September 21, 1916 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol wound accidentially discharge by his own hands

Hanah infant Child November 2, 1861 at Cooperville, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child was found dead . . .from bieng overlaid by its parents or some other unknown means to them in bed

Miles Pryor July 6, 1878 at Hobby's Mill, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say he caused his death by accident, the accidental discharging of a gun, emptying its contents in the head

Edmond May 5, 1828 on the premises of David Higgins, Laurens County, SC

After hearing the evidence we believe the aforesaid negro Edmond did voluntarily go into the water in a State of intoxication and by accident of mischance did drown.

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

slave child slave child December 31, 1846 at the plantation of Nathan Hawkins, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .that it was either Smothered accidentaly or otherwise dyed natrualy

Samuel Harrison February 18, 1881 at [inelligible - faded], Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say they Believe that . . .Samme Harison Came to his death by the Carlesnes of his Mother Milley Worthington

Freeman Holten November 5, 1826 at, or near, Mr. John B. Pickett's rig[?] at Mr. Richard Harrison's Mill, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Freeman Holton came to his death on the 4th of November in A Mill house of Mr. Richard B Harrison's came to his death by a Fall from the upper Story in the inside of the House, the floors not being laid

George Hammond June 24, 1871 at Provosts Mill Pond, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said . . .by accidental drowning

Adam negro man Slave, boy August 3, 1850 at Vaucluse Factory, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say, he came to his death by his own voluntary act in attempting to cross the mill pond when became drowned

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

George Grant January 16, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Geo Grant came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound accidently inflicted by the hands of Edward Martin.

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

Flemming Taylor at Jack Taylors house, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that deceased came to his death near his home on P W Clarks place in Fairfield County SC the 15 day of Nov 1896 from a Pistols Shot Wound at hands of Abram Kennedy

Robert Burns February 3, 1873 at Alston, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by axidental Drowning

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

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

Peggy McLeod December 25, 1870 at George Rorie's dwelling house, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said Peggy McLeod, in manner and form aforesaid came to her death by being accidently burnt

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

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.

Harvey G. Elliott February 6, 1867 at Laurens CH, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Harvey G. Elliott came to his death on this day, by a shot from a pistol in the hands of George F. Young, upon Mr Sullivans Lawn in the Town of Laurens, accidentally discharged on Tuesday 29th January last.

Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody Male Child of M.C. & Bella Moody May 13, 1889 on the plantation of M.B. Pool, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child died by strangulation accidental.

Dick slave May 25, 1843 at Camden boat yard, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the negro slave supposed to be Dick came to his death by drowning on Wednesday the 17th Instant at Camden boat yard

Elmira Jackson May 18, 1884 at George Holingsworths House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Elmira Jackson Come to her death from accidental Burning

Oscar Latter at the Nancy Rabb place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death sometime between mid night and day the 27th of Feb 1889 on the Plantation of W.C. Rabbs from accidental Suffocation

William LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Elsie Williams June 28, 1886 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That the said Elsie Williams did on this place on the 29th day of June 1886-accidentally receive in her abdomen a pistol shot which caused her death on the 1st day of July 1886

Major Crawford July 21, 1880 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that Major Crawford came to his death by accidentally falling from the trestle at Rocky River while in a state of intoxication

Charles negro boy March 7, 1857 at Archy Clark residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say. . .he came to his death by lying down and going to sleep on the wet and cold ground and the Rain and water running over him

John Harrington February 25, 1896 at Dr. J. W. McKay's Plantation on the Pee Dee River, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That John Harrington came to his death by accidental drowning

A. J. Means March 1, 1875 at Sam'l Means, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths . . .do say that the aforesaid Means came to his death by the accidental discharge fo a gun in the hands of Pinkney Brewton [?]

Edward Norris December 26, 1882 at the residence of Aaron Wells, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That on Friday the 22nd day of December 1882 Bil Norris went to Greenwood, and returned home late in the night, very drunk, and that on Saturday morning the 23rd day of Dec about 9 o'clock am the boy Edward decd. Was kicked by Bill Norris in his right-side the decd. lingered til the 26th day of December and died...

Wilson M. Gilligan July 25, 1855 at the Jail of the Districtaforesaid in Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by Dorwning, cause unknown

William Hutchins December 9, 1840 at Equilla Burns's[?], Spartanburg County, SC

on oath that we believe that said child comes to his death by accident of falling or slipping in [the Maple Swamp] creek and being drowned near Wm. Smith's mill

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