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 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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

Harry Fort January 6, 1875 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC train

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Harry Fort came to his death by being accidently mashed between two cars while cappling them at Cases Depot

Hart Byrd September 11, 1933 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths, do say: that Hart Byrd came to his death due to careless & reckless driving at the hands of Luther Reynolds

Harvey Black July 8, 1941 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Harvey Black received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile in the hands of Daniel S. McNeil

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.

Hary January 10, 1857 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say Hary was helping lead a waggon with Cotton and the boy fell from the waggon[.] he was taken to[?] a[?] house[?] not[?] fifty yards before he died but was dead in a few minutes

Hattie Brown March 30, 1880 on plantation of Mrs. Frances Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the same Hattie & Mattie Brown in manner and form aforesaid came to their deaths by misfortune, the assistance of fire on March 29th, 1880.

Hattie Smalls at C.B. Blair's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Hattie Smalls, in manner and form aforsaid came to her death by having burned[?] to death accidently

Hazel Keith December 18, 1939 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Hazel Keith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by car driven by London Jenkins

Heck Curry January 22, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Heck Curry, Tom Oliver, Lennie Pope received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by automobile collision in the hands of Heck Curry

Helen Boykin August 4, 1936 at Middendorf, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Beauregard Alson & Helen Boykin received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile Collision at the hands of Robert Davis

Henrietta Brown January 9, 1878 at Thomas Blair's plantation, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to her death by her clothes taking fie, and was burned to death.

Henry slave, boy May 1, 1857 at Arthur Glovers House, Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .from drinking an [?] quantity of water when heated. . .came to his death by misfortune

Henry slave December 25, 1830 on public highway from Pendleton to Pickensville [modern-day Easley], Anderson County, SC

do say that the said Henry did come to his death?on the night of the 24th instant, by intoxication, or being intoxicated and lying out in the wet died of expsoure or?.came to his death by misfortune by the act of God.

Henry colored man May 24, 1852 at Ephraim Few's, Greenville County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by lightening

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

Henry negro man June 3, 1849 at the house of Mrs Mary Harrison, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry came to his death by injuries received in falling in & against the bank of a branch or deep gully while running from a patroll

Henry July 6, 1834 at the house of John Holly, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe said Henry came to his death by going in to little river to wash or bathe himself it happened that accidently casually and by misfortune he the said Henry suffocated and drowned

Henry November 24, 1851 at J.H. Dillards, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the Slave Henry came to his Death by Accidental Drowning.

Henry negro boy Slave September 17, 1829 at John Gayes[?], Union County, SC rope

do say upon their oaths . . .by accidentaly hanging himself by swing by a rope used for suspending a Waggon Body

Henry slave June 7, 1834 at the House of John McBeth, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the S. Henry . . .died by the visitation of God by getting drowned accidentaly in Tyger River

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

Henry Castleberry January 7, 1815 at the house of James Hannah, Laurens County, SC

Do say upon their Oaths, that the Deceased came to his Death by misfortune upon the fall of a horse on the Public road near the house of James Hannah.

Henry Davis October 30, 1857 at Anderson Courthouse, Anderson County, SC

are of the opinion that Henry Davis came to his death by excessive drink, cold and a fall which rendered him unable to take care of himself.

Henry Ethredge June 2, 1899 at the plantation of P.B. Mayson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Henry Ethredge came to his death from foul air in the well

Henry Gibson November 4, 1834 at Abner Benson dweling, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths thay thot the said Henry Gibson . . .died by the visitation of god by getting drownd in the Spring of Abner Bensons

Henry Goodman May 4, 1851 at or near to William H Adams on little horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Goodman in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by drowning in said little horse Creek

Henry Henderson March 19, 1850 at Henry Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oathes Do Say that the Said Henry Henderson came to his Death by accidentally fawling in to a Branch near his house while under mental Derangement on the 17th day of March about ten oclock at Knight [sic] and that Henry Henderson in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by Misfortune or accidental Drowning.

Henry Jinnings August 31, 1839 at Mr. William Martins, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their oaths do say that on hearing all the testimony and after Examinin the dead Body of the aforesaid Henry jennings they are of the opinion that he came this death by being dragged by a Mule his leg being fastned by a trace Chain

Henry Jones September 21, 1855 Edgefield County, SC

the said Henry Jones came to his death by an Apoplectick fit

Henry Langley April 2, 1848 at Wm Vances, Edgefield County, SC wagon

do say upon their Oaths, that the said Henry Langley came to his death by a fall from his wagon. . .we believe by accident

Henry Oglesby near Shelton, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that in their opinion from the Evidence brought before them that he came to his Death by an accident of Fire Near Shelton Depot in said County on the first day of March A.D. 1882.

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

Henry Thompson June 17, 1876 at Broadway trestle on the line of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad, Anderson County, SC train

do say that their deaths were caused by accident by an engine and car falling through a defective trestle over Broadway Creek

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.

Herman Peters November 2, 1836 on the Camden Road near the house of Hugh Y.[?] Rosborough, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe according to all evidence adduced to them, the said Herman Peters came to his death from intoxication and inclemency of the weather, some time of the morning of the 2nd instant, on the Camden Road four miles from Winnsborough

Hester Johnson Shaw July 19, 1947 McBee, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that Mrs. Hester Johnson Shaw received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pontiac Automobile in the hands of Sgt. James Holly

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

Hewlet Swangum July 21, 1883 at Pelzer, SC, Anderson County, SC

do say that the deceased came to her death by drowning in Saluda River.

Hilliard Brown at Washington Ashford's house on the Boyd place, Fairfield County, SC mule

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from being thrown dragged & kicked by his mule while returning from his field on the Boyd place[.]

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

Hosea Jackson free person of color July 10, 1863 upon the Rail Road of the Spartanburg & Union, Spartanburg County, SC train

herewith decide that the said boy Hosea Jackson came to his death by his own carelessness and from no carelessness whatever on the part of the engineer

Howard G. Laney June 17, 1935 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC shovel

upon their oaths do say that Howard G. Laney received un Chesterfield County a mortal wound by part of a gas shovel in the hands of R. E. Craft, employee of S.C. Highway Dept. . . . said shovel being in bad and unsafe state of repair ad caused death by accident.

Howard Gale June 13, 1879 at Jacksons Holinns[?] Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oath do say that the Said Howard Gale came to his death by accidental droning

Hugh Duffey Sr. August 26, 1855 at Bethany Church, Edgefield County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say, that the said Hugh Duffey senr did come to his death by accident by his horse falling into a large ditch with him, the horse was blind

Hugh Wetherford June 25, 1895 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that Hugh Weatherford came to his death by wreck of Engine no 6 ... Caused by R R Spikes being placed on rails about two miles east of Edgefield by parties unknown

Humphrey Fletcher April 24, 1876 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say that Humphrey Fletcher in manner and form of the foresaid came to his death by misfotune or accident of being thrown from a waggon and draged [sic] some district causing the dislocation of his neck.

Ida Edwards October 1, 1938 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC automobile

[No official declaration]

Ida Suber at Lyles Ford, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Ida Suber and Sallie Belle Suber came to their deaths by accidently burning to death from[?] carelessness of their mother.

infant April 15, 1879 at the house of Mrs. Mary Smith, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the infant aforesaid came to its death ... from the ignorant neglect of said child by Sarah D. Smith, the mother of said child without intent to murder the child upon her part

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