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 401 - 450 of 1096
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Larie February 3, 1829 at the premises of Capt Nathan Sims, Union County, SC

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

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].

William C. Goff May 7, 1865 at Bethany Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that W.C. Goff came to his death by Mischance or accidentally falling in big saluda when fishing

James Brooks March 28, 1884 near where Ferguson Creek enters South Tyger River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that in said Ferguson Creek ... said James Brooks came to his death by accidental drowning

Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC
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.

Proph[?] Fryday at Willson Fryday's, Fairfield County, SC

I am satisfied that the deceased came to his death from a gunshot wound on the evening of the 29 of March at or near his fathers house and that the gun was fired accidentally.

Walden C. Sullivan September 12, 1893 at the house of Mr. John A. Sullivan, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Walden C. Sullivan came to his death by accidental smothering at the Residence of John A. Sullivan

John Williams freed person infant June 23, 1867 at John Meadows, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .it came to its death by being smuthered by him in her sleep

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

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

Elizabeth Knight June 27, 1885 at Joseph Knight's residence, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That Elizabeth Knight in Manner and form aforesaid Came to her death by misfortune or accident By a gunshot wound on the right side of the Forehead which was caused by the careless handling of a gun in the hands of her little Brother

Nancy James March 13, 1875 at Thomas[?] Fegins[?], Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: She came to her death bye falling in a ditch

Jim Coleman freidman November 15, 1866 at the Mackey Place on horse Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that the said Jim Coleman came to his death by accidently falling in to horse Creek and drowning

John Watson May 23, 1892 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death "by Accidental Gun Shot in his own hand on the 22 day of May 1892

Lafayette Valentine January 1, 1873 at Jack Valentines, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Lafayette Valentine came to his death by the accidental firing of a Pistol in the hands of J.B. Watts.

Chaney female slave June 15, 1841 at Mrs. Catherin Bateses, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .a certain negro boy the property of the Sd Mrs Bates was handling a shot gun being loaded without his knowledge which went off by accident and blew the contents into the forehead of the said Chaney

Robert Johnston May 23, 1891 at Clarks Ferry below bridge on C. & G.[?] R R, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say by Mischance and accidentally falling into Saluda river

Loucille Pate Cassidy June 19, 1939 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Loucille Pate Cassidy received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol

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

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

Betsey Smith January 19, 1807 at the Dweling hous of Miles[?] [?], Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the Said Betsey Smith Came to her Death [??] Close[?] catching[?] fire and and[?] and[?] thereby [?] her to Death

Aaron Hardin June 24, 1845 at plantation of Mr. Moses Chambles, Anderson County, SC

do say that they believe the said Aaron Hardin came to his death by mischance and accident by the hand of God, the body being in such a state of putrifaction and mutilation as to prevent a discovery of any marks of violence or other causes of death.

Macomb Campbell March 10, 1873 at R. E. Evans', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the Said Macomb Capbell came to his death by being accidently Burned

James L. Cathcart February 18, 1889 at Wm. Cathcart's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that James L. Cathcart came to his death by accident of a gun shot in his own hands

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.

George Roseman January 30, 1883 at T. J. Sullivan's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by the accidental falling of a log across his breast.

Willie Hendrix Stricklin March 23, 1901 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

I have this day helt a perliminary examination over the dad body of Willie Hendrix Stricklin and from the evidence of witnesses I do not deam it nesary to hold an inqest but from Such witness find that the sed Willie Hendrix Stricklin came to his dath from none others than natural causes

John Pike November 15, 1856 at William Pike's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death . . . by some means to the jurors unknown

Lee Campbell December 24, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Lee Cambell came to his death from a gun shot woud who was shot by Tracy Blackwell. The shooting was acdently done.

Alick Croker boy September 29, 1878 at Mrs. Marshes premises, Edgefield County, SC

Upon there oaths do say that the said Alick Croker came to his death by drownding

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.

Kate slave December 5, 1847 at the house of Mrs. Jane Love, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe from the testimony of Jas. Love son that she came to her death by the falling of a tree accidentally upon her body

William Giles Capt May 13, 1811 at his own Dweling, Union County, SC

do Say on their Oaths that . . .William Giles Came to his Death by fall of a Limb from a tree which appears to have Broake his skull and one of his arms

Elijah February 8, 1860 at the house of D.r J. H. Norman, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Infant Slave "Elijah" the property of Eliza Jane Hughes (A Mintor) came to its death by accident by being overlain either by its mother or another child of hers

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

upon their oaths do say from suffocation

James Graham June 8, 1858 at the place known as the public square in Logtown, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Jame Graham here lying dead came to his death from intemperance and exposure

Joe Church March 12, 1941 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Joe Church received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Suffocation and burn from fire in jail cell occupied by himself

female Infant Slave female Infant Slave May 30, 1847 at the house of Mrs Sarow Brandons, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the child dyed by the visitation of god or [?] have been axcidently Smothered by its mother

William McCode January 20, 1870 at Luke McCoy's [?], Anderson County, SC

do say that he came to his death . . . from exposure in the rain & cold on the roadside . . . and came to his death by accident.

Georgia Brower December 27, 1879 at A. E. Evans, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Georgia Brown came to her death by being accidentally burned by fire on this October 27th 1879

Center December 14, 1853 at Jos. Willinghams, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, all cirumstance of the case show conclusively that Center was accidentaally drowned in Little River last Sunday evening

Alexander Hough August 9, 1879 at Alfred Hough's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Alxander Hough in manner and form aforesaid, came to his death by accidental drowning

George Keerison November 22, 1856 at Alston Depot, G & C.[?] R. Road, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say,- that according to the testimony given, the said George Keerison was crossing Broad River on the G & 6 R.R. Bridge at Alston in a state of intoxication on the 4th instant, and accidentally fell off said Bridge, which was the cause of his death

John Weston December 31, 1890 on the plantaion of Robt Bailey, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said John Weston came to his death "From the Effects of a gun shot wound accidentally discharged in his own hands, on the 29th day of Decr inst."

Rody Kennedy November 30, 1830 at the house of Rody Kennedy, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rody Kennedy came to his death on the morning of this day on his own plantation by means of the contents of a loaded shot gun being discharged in his body. The Jurors aforesaid say they have no positive evidence the gun was discharged, but from the circumstances coming before them and have no doubt it was discharged by the said Rody Kennedy himself.

Alexander McKee January 4, 1817 in the woods near William Gardner's, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths from the testimony given ... that from his insanity and exposition to the inclemency of the weather together with the infirmity of body was the cause of his death.

William Godfrey October 19, 1873 near Leaterwood's Mills, Spartanburg County, SC

open [sic] their oaths do say that [deceased] did fall into a gully and being unable to get out did then and there die

Lindy Jones March 15, 1882 at George Holingsworth House, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oath do say that Lindy Jones Came to her death from accidental Burning

Maggie Henderson at the Dr. Sam Mobley place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Maggie Henderson came to her death from pistol shot wound, discharged by her sister, Millie Henderson accidentily between midnight and day on the 13th of Feb 1886 at the residence of Hall Henderson on the place of Caleb Craig[.]

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

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

Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley Female Child of Press & Lindy Beasley August 30, 1890 on the plantation of Capt Alex Henry's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said female child came to its death from "suffocation"

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