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 401 - 450 of 609
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Medora Williams April 4, 1878 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg, S.C., Spartanburg County, SC epilepsy and fire

upon their oaths do say that the said Medora Williams while alone in her house ... fell into the fire and was burned to death while suffering from a fit or fainting 

Mike negro man September 13, 1844 at Dr John D. Nicholsons Mill, Edgefield County, SC machinery/drowning

upon there oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death at the said Mill the tenth instant when the said Mill broke and washed away, and at the falling in of the mill the deceased received a wound over his right eye which stuned him and caused him to drown

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

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

Milledge Fuller freedman February 18, 1867 at John Ransford plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … came to his death by a gun shot wound accidently done in the hands of Ellie a freedwoman

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

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

Mingo Mosley January 13, 1883 at Samuel[?] Corley's, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Mindo Mosley came to his death by accidental burning

Minnie Cason June 9, 1883 at Williamston, Anderson County, SC fatal fall

do say that the death of said Minnie was caused by falling into a well from 25 to 30 feet deep…

Minnie Johnson December 22, 1892 at John Bettis plantation, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said Minnie Johnson came to her death by strangulation caused by an accidental fall into shaws creek

Mitilda Gilbert September 26, 1876 at Isaac Gilbert's, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death … being found lying at length in said spring being there drowned by misfortune or accident

Mordicae Bloice May 14, 1818 at the flat [?] of Edylis[?], Union County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say … that the deceased Mordica Bloice came to his death by accidental drowning

Munroe Rabb January 10, 1880 at Spartanburg C.H., Spartanburg County, SC train
Muse slave September 18, 1831 at the resident of Roger Parish, Kershaw County, SC exposure

do upon their oaths sayeth that the sd. Slave above mentioned died by the visitation of God a natural death on the 18 Instant … by lying in the open air the weather being very cool and he being very old and very thin clothed

N. T. Hooper November 7, 1881 n.a., Anderson County, SC train

he must have been struck by the over head bridge at Felton 4 miles west of And[erson].

N. W. Lafoy 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

Nancy Crawford August 9, 1876 at Cooly's Grave Yard, Spartanburg County, SC childbirth

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death … near the door of her house (being in labor) by misfortune or accident

Nancy Smith February 10, 1847 at the resident of Elijah Smith, Spartanburg County, SC lightning

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the sd. Nancy Smith… died by a visitation of God by a stroke of lightning

Nancy Weaver December 20, 1893 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that we the jurors aforesaid do say that Nancy aforesaid, came to her death, by a gun shot wound in the hands of Savanah Gray accidently

nego child nego child July 11, 1835 at the house of Jaby[?] Polk, Union County, SC suffocation

do say upon their Oaths that the Said child … died by accidentally getting Smothered

negro negro February 3, 1838 at Maj. John Whitaker's plantation, Kershaw County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say we find that the boddy upon examination is a negro man and it is our opinion that he came to his death by drowning & probably was drowned in crossing the Camden Ferry on the night of the 23d of Dec'r last

negro boy child negro boy child December 25, 1845 at Wm H. askews, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that … it was brot to its death by mischance or neglect of its mother by Smothering it in her Sleap

negro child negro child February 17, 1850 at the plantation of James Ellises, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that the Female child came to its death by mischance being accidentally smothered

negro Child negro Child August 27, 1849 at James C. Mingo, Union County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say … that the said child was axcidently or negligently Smothered and killed by its mother in her Sleep

negro man negro man August 7, 1853 at or near Wm [?] old Mill , Union County, SC drowning

Can Clude that the Said negro man Came to his Death by drowing

negro man negro man April 10, 1850 near Kilcreases Ferry, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their Oaths do say, that the negro here lying dead, was Killed or drowned by some means to the Jurors unknown

Nelson Pettifoot free black February 11, 1848 at the edge of the town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC wagon

upon their oaths do say the deceased came t his death by the wagon running over him

Nicholas Lowery December 28, 1820 on the Ridge Road near John Lowrey's, Kershaw County, SC horse

do say upon their oaths that the aforesaid Nicholas Lowrey came to his death by being run against a tree by the Horse he rode

Nicy female slave October 8, 1859 at Philip Downs[?] Hous, Union County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that from … marks found on the arm and head of Decsd that decsd Came to her death by the cars [?] attemting to cross the track before the cars … by misfortune or accident

Noah Wesley Dawkins June 18, 1888 at home of John Dawkins, Spartanburg County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by accidental drowning while in swimming

Norman Cameron March 28, 1850 at Mr. John McGoogan's, Kershaw County, SC horse

upon their oaths do say that the said Norman Cameron came to his death by misfortune or accidentally falling off his horse

Obediah Martin July 21, 1853 in the road near Hugh Caldwell's, Spartanburg County, SC overturned wagon

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the accidental turning over of a waggon and a saw log rolling on him

Oliver Neely March 5, 1821 at Thomas Hughs Senors[?], Union County, SC drowning

came to his death by act of God

Ora Weaver February 21, 1891 at the plantation of D B. H Holfarth[illegible - ink blot], Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their oaths do say that the said Ara Weaver came to her death from accidental Burning

Patrick Williams August 23, 1842 at the house of patrick Williams decsd, Union County, SC oak tree

do say that … Patrick Willaims came to his death by the fall of a certain oak tree which we found lying upon his Mangled body

Pauline Abraham child November 19, 1882 at Archey Ramsey's, Greenville County, SC suffocation

upon their oaths do say that Pauline Abrham came to her death by some cause to them unknown

Peter Negro man December 30, 1859 at the Plantation of Mr Wm Bunch, Edgefield County, SC fall

upon there oaths do say that Peter … came to his death by the accidental falling of the top of a tree he appears himself to have cut down

Peter 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

Peter slave November 23, 1862 at Mrs Colemans, Union County, SC drowning, mental illness

upon there oaths do say that Decsd Came to his by the hand of the Almighty he was Suppond[?] as he was subject to having fits & Falling at any place where he might be. We Conclude that the Decsd fell in the Branch in a Fit on his face & Drownd

Peter Knox July 23, 1878 near Calrandellers[?] Ferry on Tugalo River, Anderson County, SC drowning

do say that Peter Knox…in Tugaloo River came to his death accidentally by drowning in attempting to cross said river

Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC drowning
Polly Henderson December 28, 1876 at James Mitchell's, Spartanburg County, SC exposure

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

Pressly Foster boy August 1, 1882 at Mr. Wm G[?], Greenville County, SC fell in branch during fit

upon their oaths do say that … came to his death by falling in a branch in an epileptic fit & causing strangulation

R. Davis May 1, 1881 at Grove Station, Greenville County, SC train

upon their oaths do say that the deceasd R J. Davis came to his death … from mischance or accident by being knocked off a freight Train

R. Mackgrath January 5, 1852 at the house of John Dobey, Edgefield County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that the said R Mackgrath came to his death … by an act of Providence, or some other cause unknown to the Jurors probably bt the effects of [?] Spirits

R. T. Bailey June 13, 1858 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said R. T. Bailey came to his death by falling into Reedy River newar Greenville CH this day and was accidentally drowned.

Rachail Langley December 30, 1878 in Spartanburg Co., Spartanburg County, SC bad diet

upon their oaths do say ... the said Rachail Langley came to her death from indigestion caused by eating too much heartily of unwholesome diet

Rachel Evans August 25, 1822 at house of Elias Parish, Kershaw County, SC lightning

are unanimously agreed that the said Rachel who is now lying dead at the house of Elias Parish came to her death by the visitation of God on the 24 Instant by lightning [and] was struck dead

Rachiel Mitchel June 21, 1881 at J. R Corleys, Edgefield County, SC fire

upon their Oaths do say George Mitchel and his Daughter Rachiel Mitchel Came to their Deaths … by a Burn Caused from the Explosion of Kerosene oil

Ransom Hollaway May 14, 1862 at Ransom Holaways, Edgefield County, SC lightning

do say upon there oaths that he was killed by Lighting during a Thunder storm

Ras slave December 6, 1850 at D Dennys Mill, Edgefield County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said Ras came to his death … coluntarily feloniously, himself did Kill

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

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