In 1827, a slave named Ambrose escaped from his owner Berryman Burger. Like most runaways, Ambrose did not make the dangerous trek north but remained in the area, a practice called 'lying out.' In most cases, such slaves kept a low profile, living off the land or from scraps gleaned from friends and compatriots in the quarter. Ambrose, however, took a different path, waging guerrilla war against slavery and local slaveholders. Over the course of more than a year he broke into barns, slaughtered hogs and poultry, pillaged smokehouses, burned outbuildings, destroyed cotton, and generally behaved like a local Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and returning to his fellow slaves. Within months, Ambrose had induced other runaways to join him, and he was regarded by local planters as a "desperate character ... capable of any act of villainy" who should be killed on sight.
Early in the morning of September 24, 1828, a local white man, Kirkland Harmon, surprised Ambrose in his camp and gunned him down as he rose. Ambrose winced as the buckshot "enter[ed] his back loins & hips," and he bled out on the ground. His one-man rebellion was effectively over. Without the coroner's inquest convened over his body, however, we would know nothing of his rebellion; the record of his death is the only record we have of his life. How many Ambroses were there? It is hard to know. To its credit, Ambrose's band picked up his mantle and continued to operate in the area as plague to local planters.
I was not surprised to learn that such local resistance was quashed and that slaves like Ambrose were routinely murdered. I was surprised to learn how often the coroner responded. In her WPA interview, the former slave Mittie Freeman remembered the coroner as "that fellow that comes running fast when somebody gets killed," and the coroner is mentioned in quite a few of the most famous slave narratives, including those by Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. The coroner was often the only magistrate mentioned because he was the only 'outside' law the slaves ever saw. To be sure, there were countless masters who murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But if the murderer was someone other than the master, or if the master failed to cover it up, there was usually an investigation, at the very least because property had been destroyed, and someone expected compensation.
Reflecting on the South he was forced to flee because of his Unionism, John Aughey noted: "Of course the laws which exist in every state against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder." But in the coroners' inquest there was actually a subtle game of community standards going on. Standing over the body of a slave and surveying the grim damage, a coroner's jury was often perfectly comfortable recommending that a white be indicted. And at coroner's inquests slaves were allowed to testify. The actual jury nullification came later, in the courtroom, when the mangled body was not actually present and the murderer was let off. But by then he had been held up to public scrutiny; his judgment and decency had been questioned publicly and legally. It is less than justice, but it is not nothing, a fact which slaves themselves recognized. When the coroner came a-runnin', many slaves thought he might bring justice with him from some far off, saner place. And in his own Narrative, Frederick Douglass tells the story of an unnamed slave girl whose mistress "pounded in her skull" with a piece of firewood because she allowed a baby to cry uncontrollably and wake the household. "I will not say that this murder most foul produced no sensation. It did produce a sensation. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Mrs. Hicks, but incredible to tell, for some reason or other, that warrant was never served, and she not only escaped condign punishment, but the pain and mortification as well of being arraigned before a court of justice." It is hard to believe that for all he'd seen of the institution of slavery, Douglass still thought it capable of any justice at all.
What does not make it into many of the slave narratives, including Douglass's, is the violence that existed within the slave community. Enslavement does not magically transform all who endure it into savvy, self-sustaining freedom-fighters. If we are going to grant the enslaved their full humanity we must grant that, like any other group of people, they occasionally fought, fornicated, and got into petty disputes that sometimes took a murderous turn. To be sure, as historian Steven Hahn has noted, the slave quarter produced one of the most radical and transformative politics ever seen in America, a politics that produced Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass and finally brought down a $3.5 billion dollar interest. But in coroners reports we get a glimpse of the violence that existed within the slave community that we knew had to be there. Thus did the slaves of the Haile plantation turn their children over to Tamer, the enslaved nurse, on their way out to the fields, little knowing that she liked to punish the children by tying them too close to a fire, a practice that was only discovered when she finally cooked one of them to death. Or take the case of a slave named Dick who became so jealous when a fellow slave wouldn't sleep with him that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the other man who was staying in her cabin.
The typical homicide in the United States involves one man shooting another, and this is equally true in the CSI:Dixie database. Comparatively speaking, the CSI:D sample has a higher percentage of male victims and a lower percentage of gun use. Today firearms are used in 68% of American homicides; in the CSI:D sample guns are used 52% of the time. Today 77% of homicide victims are male; in the CSI:D sample 88% are male (and virtually all of the perpetrators are men). Put bluntly, in the nineteenth century south, violent death was a more exclusively male province, and Death had more faces.
Interestingly, though, in the CSI:D database virtually none of the gun-related homicides are related to robbery. Most are the product of the highly combustible combination of anger and alcohol. The last words of J. Edward Sims were typical: "Shoot you damed cowardly son of a Bitch." Or take this poignant exchange:
Tom Rutland (firing): "I will kill you, you son of a bitch."
William Padgett (bleeding): "You have already."
In the strange alchemy of the male brain, friends became mortal enemies in an instant, often over trivialities. "How in the hell did you Gap up My ax?" Gus Settler demanded to know of Allen Holmes in March 1882. I hardly know what a gapped-up axe looks like, but I do know that returning a borrowed tool in less than satisfactory condition is no grounds for murder. Settler disagreed and shot Holmes dead.
Murder Cases Tried in South Carolina, 1887-1900
|Year||Number of Homicides Tried||Not Guilty Verdicts||Guilty Verdicts||Cases Dismissed or Continued||Percentage Found Guilty|
Credit: John Hammond Moore, Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 130-131, taken from Reports and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina
|Name||Deceased Description||Date||Inquest Location||Death Method||Inquest Finding|
|Aaron||slave||December 5, 1852||at A. Bushnells Shop, Edgefield County, SC||chisel||
upon their oaths do say that said Negro slave Aaron was Feloniously Killed … by a stab on the left side of the throat with a chissel about one inch and a half wide, by the hand of some person unknown
|Aaron||slave||December 3, 1851||at the house of Larkin Swearinghim, Edgefield County, SC||cow hide||
upon their oaths do say, that we believe the said Aaron came to his death by a whipping recd by the hands of Chesley B. Wise with a cow hide, aided by Edmund Kennedy
|Aaron Hughes||October 15, 1865||at the residence of Aaron Hughes, Spartanburg County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that said Aaron Hughes ... was feloniously killed and murdered by being shot in the mouth with a small ball and being struck a severe blow across the nose and ... then dragged across the road into the woods … by some person or persons to the jurors unknown
|Adam||slave||December 29, 1828||at the house of Jesse Crook, Spartanburg County, SC||stick||
do say upon their oaths that on Saturday night 27 of this instant at the [?] house of Maj. J. Crook … that Lewis slave of Capt. W. H. Dickee did strike said Adam with a large stick on the left side of the forehead
|Adeline Agnew||May 14, 1871||near the residence of Ephraim R. Cobb, Anderson County, SC||knife||
do say that…the said Adeline Agnew was killed and murdered by a knife in the hands of Shadrack Webster.
|Alfred||runaway slave||June 16, 1862||At Williamston, Anderson County, SC||hanging||
do say that within the incorporation of Williamston on the night of the 15th of June…that he came to his death by some person or persons unknown to the jurors by hanging by the neck until his body was dead.
|Alfred Hollingsworth||October 10, 1898||at David Strothers place, Edgefield County, SC||razor||
upon their oaths do say, that Alfred Hollingsworth came to his death by a razor cut in the hands of George Hutcherson
|Alice Adkinson||October 18, 1898||at Republican Church, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
do say that Mrs Alice Atkinson come to her death, from a gun Shot wound, in the hands of Jim McKie & Luther Sullivan & Wash McKie was accesory to the murder
|Allen||slave||September 19, 1843||at Samson Bobo's, Spartanburg County, SC||hickory clubs||
upon their oaths do say that the said Allen … was killed and murdered by some person or persons to the jurors unknown with two hickory clubs
|Allen Holmes||March 4, 1882||at Oscar Seigler Residence, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Holmes Came to His death by a Gun Shot wound in the hands of Gus Settler
|Allen S. Barksdale||June 23, 1876||at the house of Robert A. Gray, Anderson County, SC||axe||
do say that Allen S. Barksdale came ot his death by an axe in the hands of Mary A. Gray on the night of 22nd June 1876 in self-defense in her own house and yard with several wounds with a mortal wound inflicted with ^the edge of^ an axe upon the top of the head to length of 3 inches severing in the skull bone.
|Allen Smith||Freedman||January 19, 1867||at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon there Oath do say … he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through the head inflicted by some person or persons unknown
|Amaziah Payton||colored man of New York||July 20, 1866||at the house of Richmond Payton, Anderson County, SC||pistol||
do say that the aforesaid Amaziah Payton came to his death…from the effects of a wound a little above the left groin, suppose to have been made by a pistol ball….which ball was shot from a pistol which one Reuben L. Golding then and there had and held
|Ambrose||slave||September 25, 1828||at the house of [?] Duke, Kershaw County, SC||gun||
do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave Ambrose came to his death early in the morning of the twenty-forth of September instant by buck shot discharged from a gun presented at him by Kirkland Harmon … [the shot] entering his back loins & hips
|Andrew||slave||September 3, 1850||at A.P. Butlers plantation , Edgefield County, SC||rail||
upon their oaths do say that … Andrew came to his death by a lick on the head on the right side inflicted by Ben a slave of A.P. Butler with a half of rail done in the heat of passion while in an affray
|Andrew||freedman||March 13, 1866||at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that by a pistol shot on th Pendleton Road … fired from a pistol in the hands of a United States Soldier
|Andrew Lynch||August 22, 1868||at or near Gosmills Mill's, Greenville County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot taken affect in his abodomen discharged near his spine fired by some person inward[?]
|Andrew Trapp||December 4, 1869||near Trapps Mills, Edgefield County, SC||knife||
That the deceased came to his death from a Knife in the hands of a colored boy named Sam formerly the property of John Trapp and now living on his premises … upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Sam Trapp in manner & form aforesaid Andrew Trapp then and there feloniously did kill
|Andy Padgett||July 5, 1891||near Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC||knife||
upon their oaths do say that … was deceased stabbed to death With a Knife in the hands of one[?] Rufus Dent
|Ann||slave||January 2, 1844||at Capt. B. Haile's plantation, Kershaw County, SC||burning||
do say that the little girl Ann, a slave the property of B. Haile, came to her death by being burnt intentionally by the nurse, Tamer, a slave of B. Haile.
|Ann Kimball||September 4, 1895||at China grove church, Edgefield County, SC||blunt instrument||
upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by William Kimball
|Annie West||March 4, 1871||at the late residence fo Rob't West, Spartanburg County, SC||arson||
upon their oaths do say that the house in which Mrs. Annie West lived was set on fire by some person or persons unknown & that she perished in the flames
|Apling||negro man||April 5, 1849||in the woods in said district near the Lexington line on a branch of McGier Creek, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
do say upon their oaths do say that they believe the decd to be the remains of Ap or Apling … and that he came to death by a leaden ball shot from a gun[?] or pistol by the hands of some person or persons unknown
|Arthur Morris||June 20, 1898||at M. W Clarks, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon their Oaths do say that Arthur Morris Came to his death by a pistol fired by and in the hand of Henry Jeff
|Augustus W. Burt||March 25, 1847||at the Plantation of A.W. Burt, Edgefield County, SC||axe||
upon their oaths do say that the said A.W. Burt was Killed by his own slave Toll with an axe
|Baylis Edwards||May 30, 1864||at the residence of Franis Edwards, Greenville County, SC||blunt instrument||
upon their oaths do say … that he came to his death by a blow from a [?] on the throat from an unknown hand
|Baze||negro slave||March 31, 1863||at the D. J. Howls, Edgefield County, SC||chop axe||
do say upon there oaths that said Baze came to his death … by reason of two blows from a chop axe in the hands of Anderson another slave belong to said T.D.J. Howl
|Ben Lowman||September 14, 1894||at W.[?] L. Rawls Mills, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say, that the said Ben Lowman came to his death from a pistol shot wound at the hands of Sam Shealy
|Benjamin F. Jones||March 24, 1845||at W B Griffins, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that the said B F Jones was wilfully Killed by one Charles Price in the Store house of the above name W B Griffin … by shooting him the said B F Jones with a gun commonly Known as a shot gun in the left side of chest below the left Nipple
|Benjamin Farmer||April 9, 1804||at the dwelling house of Benjamin Farmer, Spartanburg County, SC||gun||
do say upon their oaths [that] a certain Denis Crain with volence and force of arms … did attack, wound & kill … Benj'n Farmer
|Bill King||August 9, 1881||at H C Kings Residence, Edgefield County, SC||hoe||
upon there oaths do say that the said Bill King Came to death from the affects of a wound on the head the wound being inflicted with a Hoe on the hand of Tom Doorn[?]
|Bill Reese||December 12, 1872||at Pendleton , Anderson County, SC||knife||
do say that Bill Reese came to his death from a wound inflicted by a knife held in the hands of Sam Minse[?]
|Bridgett Etheridge||June 26, 1893||at John Etheridges Residence, Edgefield County, SC||hoe||
upon their oaths do say … that the said Bridgett Etheridge aforesaid came to her death from a blow on her head with a [?] Hoe thereby fracturing the scull bone at the hands of Bill Gasten
|Britton McClendon||November 11, 1850||near the residence of Henry C. Turner, Edgefield County, SC||knife||
upon their oaths do say, that Britton McClendon Came to his death by a wound inflicted by the hands of Felix Hubbard at the house of deceased … Said wound was caused by a large Hunting knife
|Captain||slave||January 24, 1824||at plantation of Captain John Boykin, Kershaw County, SC||knife||
do say upon their oaths that they are of opinion that the deceased was killed on the morning fo the 21st January 1824 between daylight and sun rise with a knife being cut upon the chin and stabbed in the upper part of the right breast near the collar bone and so jurors conclude that the deceased was feloniously killed by some person unknown
|Carey Ashley||October 11, 1879||at J W Wises[?] plantation, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon their oaths do say that the said Cary Ashley came to his death … from a pistol shot wound from the hands of Benjamin L. Jones
|Cesar||Negro, negro boy||July 7, 1843||at the house of Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC||blunt instrument||
upon their Oaths do say … believe said negro came to his death by a sever blow given him by Jerry one of said Watsons negroes not with the intention to Kill
|Charity Norris||May 29, 1869||at B. F. McGee's residence, Anderson County, SC||gun and knife||
do say that she was killed, and brutally murdered, in a most shocking & barberous manner by some person or persons unknown, by shooting her in diferent [sic] places, two of her fingers shot off of one hand, and one finger from the other hand, and a large wound on her right arm, with her throat cut from ear to ear
|Charles||slave, boy||September 25, 1861||at Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon there oaths do say that the said Charles came to his death … from the affects of a gun shot in the hands of Z.[?] P. Claxton the shot taken affect in the samll of the back
|Charles Cobb||March 13, 1893||at or near Johnston, Edgefield County, SC||umbrella||
upon their oaths do say … that Charles Cobb, did come to his death … from injuries inflicted by the hands of one Thomas Cherry, with an umbrella
|Charles Kelly||August 14, 1866||at the town of Anderson, Anderson County, SC||razor||
do say that the said Charles Kelly came to his death….from the effects of one mortal wound across the throat of him the said Kelly which wound was inflicted by means of a certain razor which one Thomas Berry, private of Company (I) 8th U.S. Infantry--then & there in his hand had and held and of which wound the said kelly did instantly die.
|Charles M. Creswell||August 5, 1869||at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
the said Charles M Creswell came to his death do say that … the deceased Charles M Creswell came to his death by a gunshot wound from a gun in the hands of some person or persons unknown
|Charley Ryan||May 9, 1892||at T. H. Ramsford Plantion, Edgefield County, SC||blunt instrument||
upon their oaths do Say that the said Charlie Ryan Came to his death by the hands of Sam Nobles and it was wilful Murder
|Christopher Campbell||April 16, 1835||Kershaw County, SC||blunt instrument||
after hearing the evidence together with the opinion of Doctors DeLeon and Young are of opinion that the deceased came to his death from a disease of the brain hastened by blows on his head inflicted by some person or persons unknown
|Clara Bell||colored child||June 23, 1868||at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC||fire||
upon their oaths do say: … the elder Child was conscious before it died and did say that a black man, and others say that she (the child) said that it was a yellow man that set fire to the house which burnt her & the other child to death hence we find that the Children were burnt to death but unknown by whom, and if it shall appear that the deceased were wilfully killed by another
|Clara Burress||February 25, 1878||at the house of Caty Burress on the plantation of Dr. A. G. Cook, Anderson County, SC||pistol||
do say that she Clara Burriss came to her death by a pistol ball fired in the hands of William Pringle Cook fired at Caty Burress….do say William Pringle Cook did kill.
|Coleman||slave||September 30, 1849||at the house of A.M. Smith, Spartanburg County, SC||large stick||
upon there [sic] oaths do say that the deceased child Coleman was filfully murdered on the 29th September 1847 in the woods with a large stick about 4 feet long by divers[?] blows being inflicted on its head & body by some person or persons unknown
|Daniel||slave, boy||May 27, 1862||at John H. Fair, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
upon there oaths do say that Daniel came to his death by a wound in the hipp receive at Edgefield Court House in B. C. Bryant store from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Bryant
|Daniel Lindsey||November 6, 1888||at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC||pistol||
upon their oaths do say that Daniel Lindsey came to his death ... by a pistol shot in the hands of John Petty
|Dave Gillam||August 25, 1892||at the house of Cal Smiths, Edgefield County, SC||gun||
the Said Dave Gillam Came to his death from a gun Shot wound inflicted by the hands of Eliott Johnson