accidental death

The first drowning at Contentnea Park.

I posted here about the accidental drowning of Samuel H. Vick Jr.‘s friend Eugene Fisher. The Daily Times noted that Fisher’s death was the second at Contentnea Park in a little over a week. Eddie Simms was first:

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Wilson Daily Times, 22 July 1924.

  • Eddie Simms — in the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Manchester Street, tobacco factory worker Frances Simms, 34, and children Milton, 22, Eddie, 18, Raymond, 10, Maggie, 8, Ava, 5, Richard, 2, and Bay, 3 months. Eddie B. Simms died 17 July 1924. Per his death certificate,he was born 3 August 1904 in Wilson to Ed Mitchell and Frances Simms; was single; lived at 610 Manchester Street; worked as a shoeshiner; and “drowned while in the act of swimming accidentally.” Informant was Millie Simms.

Details of a drowning.

The day after Eugene Fisher drowned while swimming in the lake at Contentnea Park, the Daily Times printed an article suggesting that “Sam Vick,” i.e. Samuel H. Vick Jr., bore some responsibility for the accident.

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Wilson Daily Times, 29 July 1924.

Vick immediately fired back. His grief, he stated sharply, had “been still more aggravated by the misstatement of facts concerning my part in the matter, for the facts were badly twisted and really just the opposite what really happened.” Georgia Aiken also contributed a corrective, milder in tone, but just as firm.

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Wilson Daily Times, 30 July 1924.

And where was Contentnea Park? References in contemporaneous news articles reveal that (1) it was not an African-American-only park — the Kiwanis met there regularly — but rather seems to have had a section reserved for black patrons, “the negro park”; (2) it was privately owned and operated; (3) it was located above the dam on Contentnea Creek; and (4) entrance was gained via a road marked by two stone pillars. A dam spans Contentnea Creek just above U.S. Highway 301 to form what is now known as Wiggins Mill Reservoir, still a popular recreational area. With a hat tip to Janelle Booth Clevinger, here is my best guest at the park’s location:

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  • Eugene Fisher — Connecticut-born Eugene Leonard Fisher was newly arrived to Wilson at the time of his tragic death. His father Edwin W. Fisher was a manager with North Carolina Mutual and moved his wife and remaining children to Wilson between 1926, when Edwin is listed in the 1926 Durham, N.C., city directory, and 1928, when he appears in the Wilson directory. They settled into 624 East Nash Street, the house built for Dr. Frank S. Hargrave next door to Samuel Vick’s family home at 622. The Fishers appear in Wilson in the 1930 census, and Daisy Virginia Fisher (Eugene’s stepmother) died there on 25 April 1935. Per her death certificate, she and her husband were living at 539 East Nash at the time. Eugene Fisher’s younger brother Milton W. Fisher remained in Wilson into the 1940s, and his older brother Edwin D. Fisher lived there the remainder of his life.

Eugene Fisher’s death certificate reveals that he was an insurance agent for North Carolina Mutual. Fisher was living at an unspecified address on Nash Street. His father Edwin, then a Durham resident, was informant.

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Eugene L. Fisher served in the United States Naval Reserve Force during World War I as a mess attendant. The Messman Branch of the Navy, which was restricted to non-white sailors, was responsible for feeding and serving officers. Fisher was assigned to U.S.S. Black Hawk, a destroyer depot ship. After his death, his brother Edwin D. Fisher of 600 East Green Street applied for a military headstone to be shipped to the “Negro Cemetery (Fayetteville Street)” in Durham. [Edwin Fisher, himself a veteran of World War I, signed as “Liaison Officer, [illegible] A.V. of World War, Sumter S.C. chap. #2.” (What does this signify?)]

Aerial images courtesy of Google Maps.

UPDATE, 9 April 2019:

The “stone” pillars I identified above are actually brick. Until a better guess arrives though, I will stick with hypothesis that they mark the entrance to Contentnea Park. Many thanks to Janelle Booth Clevinger for this photo. — LYH

UPDATE, 11 April 2019: Per additional intel, the pillars shown above were erected in the 1960s. Thus, the location of Contentnea Park remains a mystery.

Killed in sawmill.

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Fayetteville Observer, 26 October 1921.

Bob Speight was also known as Bob Hill. A Greene County native, he was 17 years old at his death.

Perhaps due to confusion created by his use of alternate surnames, Robert Hill, alias Speight, has two death certificates. Bob Hill’s document notes that an epileptic seizure contributed to the saw mill accident that killed him. Odie Speight acted as informant and undertaker, and W.B. Wooten signed the certificate at filing.

Robert Speight’s certificate does not mention an underlying medical event. Jessie Speight was informant, and, curiously, C.H. Darden & Son signed as undertaker. There is no registrar’s signature.

Darden v. Robert G. Lassiter & Co., 198 N.C. 427, 152 S.E. 32 (1930).

Wilson Daily Times, 31 October 1929.

Darden v. Robert G. Lassiter & Company reached the North Carolina Supreme Court on appeal from Wilson County Superior Court. Camillus L. Darden, administrator of the estate of Evan Powell, filed the action against Robert G. Lassiter & Company to recover damages for Powell’s death of plaintiff’s death, which was alleged to have been caused by the wrongful act, neglect, or default of the defendant. The county court entered a judgment for plaintiff, and Lassiter & Company appealed.

The evidence showed that on December 29, 1927, Powell was working for Lassiter in a trench or ditch cut along Mercer Street in the town of Wilson in preparation for laying sewer or water mains. The trench was cut by a ditching machine to approximately the required depth, and Powell was engaged in smoothing out the bottom of the trench to a uniform grade, called “fine grading,” when the trench caved in and injured him, along with two other workmen. Powell died the following day.

Powell, “a colored man about 29 years of age,” had been employer by Lassiter as a day laborer for about five months and working with this particular crew for about two months prior to his injury. The trench was approximately 7 feet deep and about 21 inches wide. The ground was saturated with water from heavy rainfall.  Water seeped in from the walls on both sides of the trench, and there had been a couple of cave-ins prior to this one. About fifteen yards from the most recent cave-in, workers encountered quicksand about 6 feet below the surface of the ground. Lassiter installed a pump to keep the water out of the trench.

Lassiter’s foreman, O.L. Pickering, directed that certain bracing be used to keep the walls of the trench from falling in — two upright pieces of timber, placed from 8 to 16 feet apart along the sides of the ditch, with two horizontal braces placed between them, one at the top and the other at the bottom. However, contrary to custom, Pickering provided no longitudinal stringers to keep the banks of the ditch from falling or caving in.

On the day of the incident, Pickering went to lunch about 12:30 and left the others working in the ditch. There were no braces for a space of 18 or 20 feet (one witness said from 35 to 40 feet) immediately behind the ditching machine where Powell was working. Shortly after the foreman left, the bank of the ditch suddenly caved in just beyond the last brace and temporarily buried three of the workmen.

Foreman Pickering testified, in part: “It was my duty to see that these braces were put in. I instructed them to put the braces in at intervals of 8 feet. There was a space behind the machine of about 12 or 15 feet in which there were no braces. They had put in all the braces I had instructed them to put in except the last one. They did not have it in when I left. I left them to put that in — the one right behind the machine — and to lay the pipe. Evan Powell was in the ditch at the time I left. He was leveling the bottom or doing fine grading.”

Lassiter offered evidence that Powell had a duty to help put in braces and assumed the risk of his injury. However, this was countered by evidence showing that Powell had no such responsibility. Other employees were instructed to place the braces in the ditch under the immediate supervision of the foreman, who, in turn, was under the supervision of an engineer employed by Lassiter.

The usual issues of negligence, contributory negligence, assumption of risk, and damages were submitted to the jury, resulting in a verdict for the plaintiff. The defendant appealed.

Chief Justice Stacy wrote the opinion. “The case, with evidence sufficient to carry it to the jury, was tried upon the theory that in law the defendant was in duty bound, in the exercise of ordinary care, to provide a reasonably safe place for [Powell] to work, and to furnish him reasonably safe means and suitable appliances with which to execute the work assigned, subject to the limitation that the deceased took upon himself, as an employee or servant of the defendant, the ordinary risks of danger incident to the employment, which were obvious or could have been perceived by him in the exercise of his senses and by the use of ordinary care and circumspection. In this, there was no error. …

“Whether ‘fine grading’ in the bottom of a trench, such as [Powell] was doing in the instant case, is dangerous, or otherwise, would seem to depend upon a variety of circumstances. In some cases, it might be entirely safe; in others, not. The size and dimensions of the trench might affect it. The character of the soil would certainly have some influence. The presence of lime, stone, or quicksand, or of earth newly filled in, the moisture in the ground, and numerous other conditions might render such work more or less safe, or more or less hazardous. The state of the weather or the season of the year might have something to do with it. But all of these are matters of fact, about which there may be conflicting evidence, as in the instant case, calling for determination by a jury.

“Indeed, in the instant case, the fact that [Powell]’s work was done under the immediate supervision and direction of the defendant’s foreman would seem to be equivalent to an assurance that he might safely proceed with it. … When the foreman went to get his lunch, he left [Powell] at work in the trench, leveling the bottom or doing fine grading. He was therefore, at the time of leaving, in a better position than [Powell] to observe and appreciate the danger.

“The case was properly submitted to the jury.

“No error.”

Evan Powell’s death certificate. Cause: “Paralysis. Crushed by falling dirt while digging a ditch in town of Wilson; fractured vertebrae.” Powell was a native of Whiteville, Columbus County, in southeast North Carolina.

Suffer the little children: death by fire.

Well into the twentieth century, children faced harrowing odds against reaching adulthood. Disease, accidents, violence bore them away in sorrowful numbers. In the 1910s, 17% of American children died before age 5, a figure that was higher for Southern and African-American children. Few children in Wilson County were buried in marked graves. In town, original burials were in Oaklawn or the Masonic cemetery. The Oaklawn graves were exhumed and moved to Rest Haven in the 1940s, and headstones, if they ever existed, have been lost over time.

By allowing us to call their names again, this series of posts memorializes the lives of children who died during the first twenty years in which Wilson County maintained death records. May they rest in peace.

  • On 11 February 1915, Mary Mercer, 2, in Wilson, daughter of Dempsey Mercer and Maggie Hines, was burned to death.
  • On 17 February 1915, Wilbert Hall, 3, in Stantonsburg, son of James and Henrietta Hall, died after his “clothes caught fire and [he] was burned so badly he died within a few hours.”
  • On 11 December 1915, Willie Gray Harrison, 4, in Taylors township, son of Ed Wiggins and Bessie Harrison, died of accidental burns.
  • On 6 June 1916, Lizzie Green, 14, in Oldfields township, daughter of George Parker, married, was accidentally “burned to death — her dress caught fire while cooking in lumber camp, from cracks in stove.”
  • On 18 October 1916, Lucrecia Pace, 4, in Oldfields township, daughter of Dewitt Pace and Fannie Renfrow, died after “burned in clothing caught while playing in fire with no one in house but smaller baby.”
  • On 28 March 1917, Robert Rich, 18 months, in Gardners township, son of Edd Rich and Martha Dickens, died after “burned to death in burning home.”
  • On 10 May 1918, Milton Haskins, 3, in Wilson township, son of John Haskins and Eliza Joyner, died after “burned while in home asleep.”
  • On 26 September 1918, Hattie Bynum, 6, in Saratoga township, daughter of Lynn and Lena Bynum, died after being “burned by fire — clothes caught fire around wash pot.” She was buried at the “Whitehead place.”
  • On 4 March 1920, May Lillie Battle, 7, in Gardners township, daughter of Simon Battle and Mary Hines, died after being burned.
  • On 27 November 1920, Namie Pearl Clark, 5, in Saratoga township, daughter of William Clark and Ella Graves, “died in about 3 hours of burn covering entire body.” She was buried in “Vines cemetery.”
  • On 25 April 1922, Manallis Hooks, 3, in Wilson, son of Barnard Hooks and Sittie Dawson, “burned to death, caught from open fireplace during absence of parents.”
  • On 8 March 1923, Leroy Wanamaker, 6 months, in Saratoga, son of James Wanamaker and Augusta Walker, “burned to death.” He was buried “near Saratoga.”
  • On 12 November 1923, Linda Inman, 4, in Toisnot township, daughter of Lim Inman and Edna McNeal, “burned to death, dress caught from grate.”

Suffer the little children: death by accident.

Well into the twentieth century, children faced harrowing odds against reaching adulthood. Disease, accidents, and violence bore them away with stunning regularity. In the 1910s, 17% of American children died before age 5, a figure that was higher for Southern and African-American children.

Few Wilson County children who died in that era were buried in marked graves. In town, original burials were in Oaklawn or the Masonic cemetery. The Oaklawn graves were exhumed and moved to Rest Haven in the 1940s, and headstones, if they ever existed, have been lost over time. By allowing us to call their names again, this series of posts memorializes the lives of children who died in the first twenty years in which Wilson County maintained death records. May they rest in peace.

  • On 13 January 1914, Prince Albert Barnes, 14, of Wilson, son of Arren and Margaret Barnes, died of a “blow upon head & fracture of the skull, accidental.” He worked as a laborer.
  • On 2 February 1915, Herman Carroll, 6, son of A.J. and Marchaline Pierce Carroll, died when a falling tree fractured his skull “from ear to ear.”
  • On 10 March 1915, John Hines, 8, of Toisnot township, son of John Hines, was killed by a runaway mule. His feet were caught in the stirrups, and he was dragged head down for half a mile. He was buried in Elm City Colored Cemetery.
  • On 22 April 1917, Lonnie Hilliard, 3, died after his ankle was fractured in an automobile accident.
  • On 2 May 1918, Elma Taylor, 5, of Taylors township, daughter of Alice Taylor and Haywood Johnson, fell in a well and drowned. Her family buried her.
  • On 9 August 1921, Fredie Williams, 15, of Wilson township, son of Richard and Mary Williams, drowned. He was buried in “Barnes grave yd.”

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Wilson Daily Times, 12 August 1921.

  • On 24 October 1921, Robert Speight, 17, in Wilson township, son of James Adkinson and Mamie Hill, was “killed at sawmill by some sort of machinery striking him on the head accidentally.”
  • On 6 March 1922, Novella McClain, 8, of Wilson, daughter of Charley and Mary Ella McClain, died from a blow to the head, over her right eye, by an automobile.

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Wilson Daily Times, 10 March 1922.

  • On 11 December 1923, Lily Mae Reid Jones, 17, of Wilson, was “accidentally killed by train.” She was a factory laborer and a widow.
  • On 23 December 1923, Rosa Lee Jones, 5, of Saratoga township, daughter of Garfield and Bessie Parker Jones, died after she was “accidentally run over by car automobile.”
  • On 15 May 1925, Massey L. Murchinson, 10, of Elm City, son of A.A. and Annie Townsend Murchinson, drowned by accident.
  • On 6 April 1926, Eddie B. Bass, 5, of Wilson township, son of James and Geneva Clifton Bass, was “accidentally killed while playing in a tree [fell] and broke his neck; instant death.”

Austin Branch killed accidentally.

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Wilson Daily Times, 19 December 1925.

Austin Branch, 50, son of Charles and Marjie Branch, married Lucinda Wood, 30, daughter of Albert and Harriett Wood, on 11 November 1906 in Wilson. Free Will Baptist minister W.H. Neal performed the ceremony in the presence of Martha Wood, Martha Ann Hearon, and Thomas Williams.

In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Gay Street, factory laborer Austin Branch, 45, and wife Lucinda, 33, both Virginia-born. Austin was twice-married.

In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: at 818 Robinson [Roberson], oil mill laborer Austin Branch, 59, and wife Cindy, 47, tobacco factory worker.

Austin Branch died 17 December 1925 at the Colored Hospital in Wilson. Per his death certificate, he was about 55 years old; married to Lucinda Branch; resided at 1016 Robinson [Roberson] Street; was born in Enfield, N.C.; and worked as a day laborer at Farmers’ Oil Mill.

“Hemorrhage & shock from accident — Mutilated right leg from accident at oil mill.”

On 20 March 1926, the Wilson County Superior Court granted letters of administration for the estate of Austin Branch. Per the application, his estate was valued at about $750, and his heirs were widow Lucinda Branch, Charlie Branch, Hettie Branch and Bernice Branch.

Father and son killed in auto accident.

 

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Wilson Daily Times, 1 October 1934.

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In the 1880 census of Wilson township, Wilson County: farm laborer Luke Flemmons, 40; wife Emily, 45; and children James Flavius, 20, Willie, 15, Sarah, 12, Judge Thomas, 10, Henry, 6, Eddie, 4, Harriet, 3, and Mary E., 1.

In the 1900 census of Black Creek township, Wilson County: widow Emily Fleming, 60, and children Harriet, 24, Judge, 23, and Sam, 12.

In the 1910 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Ellis Road, farmer Judge Fleming, 36; wife Mollie, 27; and children Lissie, 7, Sarah J., 3, Lula, 2 months, and Aaron, 6.

In the 1920 census of Saratoga township, Wilson County: on Stantonsburg Road, farmer Judge Fleming, 49; wife Molly, 40; and children Lizzie, 18, Arron, 16, Sarah, 12, Lula, 10, Addie, 8, Jordan, 5, and John, 3.

In the 1930 census of Gardners township, Wilson County: farmer Judge Fleming, 57; wife Mollie, 47; and children Arron, 25, Sarah J., 21, Lula, 20, Judge, 15, Johnie, 14, and Mary L., 6.

Judge Fleming died 29 September 1934 in Stantonsburg, Stantonsburg township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 65 years old; married to Mollie Fleming; was a farmer; was born in Wayne County to Luther Fleming and an unknown mother. Informant was Mollie Fleming.

Johnnie Fleming died 29 September 1934 in Stantonsburg, Stantonsburg township, Wilson County. Per his death certificate, he was 18 years old, single, and born in Wilson County to Judge Fleming of Wayne County and Mollie Sutton of Greene County. Informant was Mollie Fleming.