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 351 - 400 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Koon female child April 23, 1836 at the house of Davin M[?] [?], Union County, SC drowning

do say upon their oaths that the said child … died by the visitation of God by accidentally Getting Droud in the Spring

Landrum Hopper August 17, 1882 at Truman S. Webber's, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that the said Landrum Hopper came to his death from the effects of a stroke lightning in the field of Truman S. Weber where he had been ploughing

Larie February 3, 1829 at the premises of Capt Nathan Sims, Union County, SC exposure, alcohol

do say upon their oaths that the said Mr. Lary came to his death, in our opinion for want of attention in consequence of his own conduct exposing himself in bad weather from intoxication

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

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

Lawrence Frazier child January 14, 1895 at D.B. Holingsworths, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that Lawrence Frazier came to his by accident or misfortune

Leander Pack August 14, 1883 at the residence of Elias Atkins, Spartanburg County, SC falling tree

upon their oaths do say that the said Leander Pack came to his death ... by a blow of a fallen tree of which the decased were cutting

Lena Hutchinson October 20, 1873 Anderson County, SC burning

do say according to their knowledge and belief according to the evidence that she came to her death by accident by being burned to death

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

upon their oaths do say by being accidenttly burned to death

Lewis Berry February 20, 1815 Union County, SC exposure

do say on their oaths that the said Lewis Berry come to his death by being in [?] in the Cold

Lewis Glanton September 8, 1846 near the church of Antioch, Edgefield County, SC horse, fall

upon their oaths do say that the said Lewis Glanton came to his death by being thrown from his horse against a pine tree in a small[?] near Scotts road

Lewis Jackson July 23, 1889 at Squire Jackson's, Spartanburg County, SC brick factory accident

upon there oaths do say that Lewis Jackson came ot his death by being crushed in the machinery of the Brick mill of the Spartanburg Factory by carelessness of the Deceased and disobeying the orders of the foreman

Lewis Littlejohn May 12, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that said Lewis Littlejohn came to his death on the A&C Air Line

Lidia Watson January 26, 1894 at J E Macks, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say, that the aforesaid Lidia Watson came to her death from accidental burning

Lila Washington February 20, 1879 at Wesley Barns Mill, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that the said Lila Washington came to her death by accident in catching on fire and Burning to death

Lilla Olophant female infant August 18, 1879 at Simpton[?] Pinns[?], Edgefield County, SC drowning

do say that the deceased came to her death by accidental drownding on Sunday evening … crossing Logg creek

Liz slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths … by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Lizzie Darian child November 21, 1894 at Waldo Richardsons, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say, that the said Lizzie Darion came to her death by mischance, the burning of the house it was left in by what means it caught on fire is unknown

Lizzy Rardon September 28, 1879 at Clansey Holloways plantation, Edgefield County, SC exposure

do say the said Lizzy Rardon came to her death by falling into the creek and strugling and from exaustion and being chilled

Lodrick Dobson February 18, 1836 at the dwelling house of John Sarratt, Spartanburg County, SC fire

do say upon their oaths that [he] came to his death by misfortune being intoxicated his clothes caught fire & was burned

London Byard October 8, 1870 at [?] Byers[?], Spartanburg County, SC cave in

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hand of Providence by the falling of the earth on him in a ore[?] bank

Lora slave January 6, 1852 at Gerrymiah Gregory's, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … the child Lora she was accidently smothered by its mother

Louisa slaves March 4, 1860 at the mill Pond of W. Glover on mill Creek, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon there oaths do say that the said Peter Betty Liz Ellen Louisa and Simon came to there deaths … by the accidental sinking of a battoe which they were in by which they there were drowned

Louisa Jane Low minor child November 3, 1842 Union County, SC horse

the Decd came to her death … by accidently falling from a horse

Louisa McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Louisa Nettles May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Louisa Wooden October 13, 1893 at Mose Woden, Edgefield County, SC gun

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

Lousay November 25, 1860 at Doct John E. Padgett, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon there oaths do say that the said Loosey came to here death by accidnetal Burning

Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Lucius Walker October 5, 1869 at James Doziers plantation, Edgefield County, SC machinery

upon their oaths do say: "That Lucius Walker came to his death by having accidentally fallen into the machinery of the Cotton gin of Mr James Dozier. His body passing through a pair of cog wheels in motion and breaking his spine

Lucy Roper June 29, 1899 on the pantation of S.W. Miller, Edgefield County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do Say: … that the aforesaid Lucy Roper came to her death by a Stroke of lightning

M. A. Lipscomb March 11, 1880 at late residence of David Lipscomb, Spartanburg County, SC abortion or miscarriage

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to her death from hemorhage caused by premature labor, said labor produced by diarhea

M. E. Mason June 16, 1880 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at Cowpens on the A&C Air Line ... from the effects of being caught between the train on said road and the wood track, in which condition he was crushed and from which he almost instantly died

M. Harrison son December 16, 1876 at John Harrison's residence, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death … by accident gun shot wound at his own hands

M. J. Wilson 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manerva Sanders March 22, 1890 at Webb S.C, Edgefield County, SC storm

do say that Manerva Sanders came to her death … by a Storm or Cyclone … blowing down a house in which she Was in and the falling timbers Kill her

Margaret McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Margaret Scanlon April 12, 1872 at Margaret Scanlon's residence, Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Margaret Scanlon came to her death at her residence ... by the excessive use on her part of spiritous liquors

Martha Adamson April 10, 1877 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said Martha Adamson came to her death from excessive intoxication or apoplexy

Martin B. Elam January 28, 1851 at Mrs Mary Elams, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that they suppose the deceased came to his death by the hand of providence or some other cause unknown

Mary female Slave January 13, 1853 at Isaac Bowles[?], Edgefield County, SC drowning

The jury find that the decased Mary came to her death by falling into the Said Mountain Creek and drowned

Mary Blocker December 6, 1894 at R H Parks, Edgefield County, SC drugs

upon their oaths do say, that Mary Blocker came to her death by taking a dose of Strychnine

Mary Harrison September 10, 1894 at Dornville, Edgefield County, SC burn

upon their oaths do say, that the said Mary Harris, aforesaid, came to her death … by accidental scalding with hot Water

Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Mary Jenkins May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Mary Tottey January 3, 1814 Union County, SC drowning

do upon their oaths say that the said Mary Came to her Death By the act of God By Droning

Matilda Tippins March 28, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC burn

upon their aoths do say that the said Matilda Tippins came to her death by accidental burnings

Maty slave December 10, 1833 at the dwelling house of Jesse Hammet, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they are of the opinion that the said slave came to her death by the visitation of God in afflicting her with fits or spasms and being neglected by those who had her in their care

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