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 351 - 400 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Infant of Samuel Love Infant of Samuel Love November 16, 1887 at Chesterfield C. H., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infants came to their deaths by being accidentally burned on the 15th day of November A.D. 1887

Rebecca Hendrix June 11, 1834 at the house of Capt. Peter Hamilton, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths are of opinion that she came to her death by accidentally falling into the cogs of the mill

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

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

Bob May 31, 1831 at Rocky Mount, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by being accidentally drowned in the Catawba River at Rocky Mount Ferry

Delila Tucker July 31, 1835 at the house of Isaac M Caffertys, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Delila Tucker came to her death by [?] from the wounds probably caused by a fall from a fence

A. G. Howard February 28, 1860 at Grannet Ville Depot, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by accident that is by being struck a falling pine tree which stood by the side of the road where he was passing which tree was burned down having caught fire from the burning of the woods around it

infant June 8, 1828 house of Jessee Husk, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . . that after carefully examining the dead body of the s'd male child of the s'd Martha Gibson ... are all agreed that the s'd child died by the visitation of God but by the blood being [?]led in large spots to be seen through the skin all on his left side from his face to his foot they thought it was probable s'd child might have eat some poisonous herbs or berries of the woods as s'd Husk had settled in the woods

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

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

George Williams August 23, 1802 at Jeremiah Conants, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said George Williams came to his death by being Dashed against a Tree from his house.

John C. Arnold September 7, 1875 at Mary A. Taylors, Laurens County, SC
Oscar Matthews November 23, 1877 at C.H.[?] Matthews', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths say that the aforesaid Oscar Mathews came to his death on the 22nd day of November 1877 at the Mill dam by the accidental falling from the pear[?] trial[?] of the grist mill or from drowning after the fall unknown to the jury[.]

Wade Harper September 3, 1924 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Wade Harper, about 17 years old, son of J. F. Harper, of Cheraw S.C. came to his death at Anderson's Mill, Cheraw, by mischance, without blame on the part of another person

Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
Esther Jeter April 17, 1893 at Huiets x Roads, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Esther Jeter came to her death by accident. . .burned to death

Ally Pollard February 5, 1868 on the farm of J.G. Mabury, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he froze to death while intoxicated in the public road near J.G. Mabury's

Thomas Henry October 20, 1817 at the Dweling Hous of Samuel, Union County, SC

do Say on their oaths tha Said Thomas Came to his Death By a [?] fall that Nathan[?] Howard [?] him By throwing him [?] his hous[?] in a [????]

Milton Barter[?] youth August 24, 1849 at Capt. Andrew J Hammonds Mills, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say . . .by accidental drowning in Mr Andrew Hammonds Mill Pond

Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings Infant Male Child of Mariah Owings July 8, 1883 at J.C. Rason's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That the said child came to its death on Friday 6th day of July in its mothers house from Suffocation, And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid child came to his death by misfortune or accident.

Riah Simpson infant daughter of Jim and Manda Simpson June 28, 1884 at the Langly House on White Plains Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death in the hoise of Jim Simpson on the 28th of June between the hours of 8 & 9 oclock from the effects of a pistol shot in the hands of William Simpson accidentally through carelessness

Rowland Cash March 11, 1853 at the residence of Ephraim Jackson, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [deceased] came to his death by misfortune or accident

Dock F. Miller March 16, 1883 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Dec'd ... came to his death by misfortune or accident

William Vaugh August 28, 1842 at the dweling house of Patrick Williams, Union County, SC

adduced that William Vaughn came to his death by the fawling of a certain oak tree a part of which was found [?] his mangled limbs which had [?] shattered his Skull

James C. Wise May 13, 1847 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by accidental drowning

Chas McQueen February 5, 1895 at Chas. McQueen's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Chas McQueen came to his death from some bodily ailment unknown to us and by exposure in the cold

infant child infant child June 14, 1891 at Kenny Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the Said Child Came to his death from Suffication

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

John Madison Winburn April 21, 1887 at J. C. Winburn's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Madison Winburn came to his death by Accidental drowning at J. C. Winburns Still

Jack February 12, 1830 at John McClintock's, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths they believe he came to his death by burning and not otherwise.

John Ronnie February 15, 1898 Kershaw County, SC
Polly Henderson December 28, 1876 at James Mitchell's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deceased came to her death . . . by freezing through misfortune or accident

George Craig January 19, 1825 at the house of Mathew Richmond, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that, according evidence and their own belief a tree which he assisted to cutdown, by misfortune fell on him and broke his scull on the evening of the 18th.

Callen O'Neall November 11, 1855 at Luke Havirds[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Callen Oneall came to his death. . .By drinking too much liquor and supposed to have strangled to death by Throwing up

Angus McQueen January 17, 1816 at home of Kelly McDermit, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the deceased came to his Death by the combined effects of Cold, Intoxication, and the falls he had therefrom.

Elmer Brookfield March 17, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Elmer Brookfield received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun in the hands of Woodroe McQunn

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

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

Isaac Grimer December 10, 1868 at Jacobs Branch on the Spaun Church road, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Isaac Grimer came to his death on the Spann Church road near Jacobs Church ... by misfortune or accident

John Owens January 31, 1891 at the Lem Williams place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death on the 20th day of Jan by misfortune in a corn crib that was consumed by fire, from some cause unknown to this Jury.

Elliott Wilson at A.W. Ladds', Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say he was killed by a tree being accidentally fell upon him

Furman Smith December 16, 1874 at Snow Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Smith & Furman Smith came to their death by misfortune or accidently being burned

Die December 23, 1836 at the corner of Mrs. Sarah Young's field, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe her to have died by mischance, by freezing to death.

Wyatt Harris April 22, 1887 at Limestone Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Whay Harris was killed by accident at Limestone Springs ... by a rock thrown by a blast at Simon's works striking him on top of the head while he was at work at Richardson's kiln and killing his instantly

Sally Shedd February 19, 1867 at the plantation of James Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

the Jury after hearing the evidence in the cause of the death of Sally Shed and examined the dead Body. Come to the conclusion that the Said Sally came to her death by the discharge of a gun in the hands of the Girl Rachel, by accident.

Lester Caute Woodward March 15, 1904 at the residence of A. L. Steen, Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

Amelia A. Alexander May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin. . .by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons

infant child infant child January 10, 1892 at Trenton, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that deat was produced from suffocation . . . after a long spell of sickness

Mattie Woods at Jim[?] Sawyer's, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say That from the evidence of Dr J E Douglass we conclude the deceased came to its death by a blow on full[?] on its head, caused by the carelessness of children left to attend to it who are not legally reponsible.

Charlie Woodard November 15, 1915 at H. L. Woodards, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By accidental gunshot from his own hands

Fany female slave June 11, 1855 at Mrs Jane Clowneys, Union County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that they Believe she Dsed Came to her death . . .by some cause to the Jury unknown think she might have died sadingly from some Lingering diseasas she was very often Complaing . . .or might have Falen in the Beauch & was unable to get out & Drowned as she was found in the Beach

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

Frank Young infant January 11, 1877 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its by accidentaly being overlaid by its mother.

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