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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

infant March 20, 1883 at Jerry Frey's House, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Jerry Frey's House ... said infant child came to its death by being miscarried at a stage too early for it to possibly survive

infant infant December 13, 1851 at A. J. Gregorys, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it was accidently smoothered by its 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

infant infant December 15, 1892 at Mr. Pleasant Grave Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said child. . .came to his death by accidental Suffocation

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

infant September 20, 1857 at Jared[?] Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon our oaths do say . . .that the child's death came by bleeding at the navel or umbilicus but we think if the child had received proper attention it would have survived

infant November 29, 1860 Spartanburg County, SC
Infant Boy Child Infant Boy Child June 18, 1883 at Marsh Grobe Yard, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say . . .the Child come to its death accidentally or by being smutherd

infant child infant child November 23, 1891 at the plantation of Willis Owdom[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it died from strangulation

infant child infant child December 9, 1891 at a colored cemetary, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death from the burns that was found upon its body

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

infant child infant child September 15, 1861 at the residence of Mrs Margret Willis, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said infant child of Elizabeth Hallman was. . .born dead being prematurely Delivered its Delivery being caused by and injury received by the mother in a fall

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

infant child infant child January 18, 1892 at the Plantation of L. G. Swearinger, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

Infant child of Amanda Williams at the residence of Alex Cockerell, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say having viewed the dead body of Amanda Williams infant and heard the evidence of witnesses and this our verdict that it came to its death form congestion of the lungs.

Infant Child of Caroline Hunter Infant Child of Caroline Hunter January 13, 1872 at Samuel J. Bryson plantion, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths d say We Jurors afforesaid did examine the dead body of the said infant do say that the dead infant came to its death by accidental Smothering. . .

Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson Infant child of Laurens & Nelly Simpson June 18, 1890 at Laurens Simpsons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant child came to its death by "Accidental Smothering."

infant female infant female November 25, 1880 at T. H. Long, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . . the said infant came to its death by being smothered by its Mother accidentally while she was asleep in bed

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.

infant negro child infant negro child October 18, 1845 at the plantation of John Gregory, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they do belive that the child was Smothered to death accidently by its mother in her Sleap

Infant of Adeline Teague Infant of Adeline Teague August 18, 1894 at Laurens County Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that it Died in Laurens Co. on the 17th day of Aug. AD. 1894 from accidental suffocation.

Infant of Albert Davis at Crosbyville, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the cause of death was suffocation

Infant of George and Ann Crawford Infant of George and Ann Crawford May 8, 1906 At G A S[??]cers, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths, do say: By strangulation the cause of which is unknown to Jury

Infant of Lucy Fowler Infant of Lucy Fowler April 23, 1870 at the Barrieing [sic] ground near the Residence of John Ball, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say the said child came to its death by accidental suffication [sic].

Infant of Rick Rogers Infant of Rick Rogers June 11, 1895 at J.B. Buchannon's place, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said infant child came to its death from being accidently smothered in bed

infant of Sam Coleman at the residence of Sam Coleman, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oath do say that they believe the infant of Sam Coleman came to its death by asphyxia

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

Infant of Sarah McQueen Infant of Sarah McQueen 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

Infant of Solomon Huguy Infant of Solomon Huguy [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

infant slave infant slave September 28, 1853 at the house of James R. Jeter, Union County, SC

came to its death by misfortune or accident

infant slave infant slave December 30, 1857 at Isaac Gregorys house, Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that . . . it came to its death by accidental overLaying or strangling by the mothers breast

Infant son of Lee & Eliza Moore at the plantation of Mrs. N. Yongue, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say this child came to his death from some natural cause unknown to the Jury

Isaac December 31, 1832 the house of Mrs. Jane Brown of Horse branch of Wateree Creek, Fairfield County, SC horse

do say upon their Oaths, they believe the said Negroe Isaac, in the act of riding a race was thrown off the Mare on which he rode, and the injury he then received caused his death

Isaac slave May 16, 1836 near Cowpen Furnace, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Isaac came to his death by accident or misfortune by the bank falling on him ... in the iron mine

Isaac negro man December 1, 1856 at a point on the South Carolina Rail Road [?] Brooks Mill creek, Edgefield County, SC train

upon their oaths do say and declare. . .that the said negro Isaac, as aforesaid came to his death, by having been Run over by the engine and train

Isaac Davis February 27, 1880 at Jas. R. McGills, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, the deceased came to his death by a well caving in, covering and smothering him to death at Jas. R. McGills, near Monticello. And so the jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths, do say that Isaac Davis in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by misfortune or accident.

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

Isaac McMulkin at the Old Smith place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at his Father's house the 20 June 1895 from accidental burning.

Isaac Miller at Thomas W. Rables[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the deceased came to his death by a tree falling on him accidently.

Isaac Oliphant November 9, 1882 at Ritch Thomson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say the said Isaac Oliphant Came to his death by a Gun Shot Wound unfortunately or accidentally in his own hands

Isabella McClain September 15, 1873 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that She Came to her death by a Gun Shot Inflicted by one Cesar Beaty, though we Consider the whole transaction accidental

Isah Zimmerman December 26, 1881 at the Residence of W F Ste[?]eies, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that He Come to His Death by a Pistol Shot Wound in the hands of Lias Dorn accidently

J. B. Benson June 21, 1857 at John Benson's, Greenville County, SC cart

upon their oaths do say the said John B Benson came to his death by the running away of a yoke of oxen and the wheel of the cart running[?] over the head

J. B. Deas February 6, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J. B. Deas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Single Barrell Shot gun in the hands of Durant Easterling & Sinclair Sellers

J. F. Styron April 21, 1891 at residence of J. F. Styron[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said J. F. Styron dropped dead in his field from being over heat while engaged in burning logs and in such heat drinking big drought of cold water and as the Physician tells us from heart failure

J. G. Finney February 13, 1877 at the Residence of John Finney, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said deceased J G Finney came to his death by concussion of the brain caused by a fall from his horse on the 11th day of Feb 1877.

J. J. Gulladge December 24, 1869 at the house of J. J. Gulladge, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J J Gulledge did come to his death by accident

J. J. Watts April 17, 1848 at the house of J.J. Watts, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death from the accidental discharge of a gun in the hands of Zack Gupple

J. M. Higgins March 16, 1889 at Clifton, Spartanburg County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that J. M. Miggins and William Rodgers came to their death ... by injuries received in a wreck on the D.R.R. A&C Division at Clifton ... and that said wreck was caused by the second section of Freight train No. 20 running into first section

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia