Homicide

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.

“Laws ... against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder.”

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.


Infanticide

Life in the Faulknerian world of CSI:D was especially cheap for children. Catherine Berry, a domestic in the R. C. Poole household, was told that she would be terminated if she was indeed pregnant. In an awful feat of endurance, she continued with her chores until, doubled over with pain, she snuck away to give birth in the potato shed. Reeling from the loss of blood, she still managed to strangle the baby and fling it into the Pacolet River, where it washed up at the feet of some fishermen. When Peggy Bedenbaugh felt her first contractions, she went out to a corner of the yard, gave birth in a hole, and covered the baby over with dirt. Luly Collins threw her baby down a well. Nancy Owens swept hers under a brush pile. All had denied for months that they were in the “family way”; all had killed the evidence; all were indicted for murder.

Or take the case of Jane Arnold. On September 7, 1857, Brazeal Cox and his wife found sixteen-year-old Jane Arnold stretched out on the ground with a baby beside her, bleeding from its umbilical cord. When Arnold became aware of the couple she called out to Mrs. Cox, who wrapped the dying infant in Arnold’s apron and took it into the Arnold home. Mrs. Cox then returned and asked the girl why she hadn’t given birth indoors. Because her daddy was “doging” her, she said, and had cast her from the house. “She seemed to be grieving,” Cox told the coroner in a model of understatement, “but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

“She seemed to be grieving, but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

Three years later, at four in the morning, a shivering Jane Arnold knocked at the door of a neighboring farm. She was cold and unkempt, but she couldn’t make up her mind to stay. Instead she returned to the abandoned schoolhouse where she had taken her latest baby, born in the middle of the road, to die of exposure.

The coroners’ office reveals a world where men force women into sex and women pay the price for it, in embarrassing pregnancies, social stigma, and the occasionally desperate attempt to cover up the evidence. In 1829 a fire in Thomas Welsh’s smoke-house revealed a small cubby in which a full term child had been secreted in a jar of lime. It is impossible to know whether this was an infanticide or a child who had been stillborn. Regardless the mother was covering up something. Occasionally that something is an interracial liaison. More often it is simply a pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Many of the cases reveal that the women had been trying for some time to induce an abortion. ‘Home remedies’ for pregnancy mentioned in the CSI:D sample include savin powder mixed with turpentine, red bark bay tea, and the ashes of dried corn cobs. In this sense some of the infanticides are extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother gave birth to a stillborn child who bore unmistakable marks of abuse en utero. M. Lipscomb was found doubled over a fence having apparently bled out in a botched, self-induced abortion.

Almost sadder is the number of women who were held to account for the ‘murder’ of infants who had most likely died of crib death or SIDS. Often sent back to the cotton field within days of giving birth, enslaved mothers were understandably exhausted, and they often slept with their infants so they could breast feed in a haze and go back to sleep. When they occasionally awoke to dead babies, they were unfortunately as susceptible as their doctors and masters to the notion that they had smothered their children in their sleep, a phenomenon which only enhanced their reputation as uncaring and unnatural mothers.

NEXT: Suicide

 


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
1887 79 54 11 14 13.9%
1888 117 61 36 20 30.1%
1889 120 69 30 21 25.0%
1890 incomplete returns - - - -
1891 151 76 46 29 30.0%
1892 incomplete returns - - - -
1893 incomplete returns - - - -
1894 incomplete returns - - - -
1895 210 112 67 31 31.9%
1896 201 110 67 24 33.3%
1897 215 120 64 31 29.7%
1898 248 105 96 47 44.0%
1899 205 83 97 35 47.3%
1900 224 127 71 26 31.7%

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

Homicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Richard Lundy December 7, 1891 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that the aforesaid came to his death from gun & pistol shot wound and also 1 cut in neck in the hands of unnown parties

Willie Adair May 25, 1875 at D.A. Glenns, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Willie Adair, was killed and murdered at the house of Charley Adairs on the plantation of D.A. Glenns by blows with a large hammer, in left temple, mashing in the skull badly, after the blows, by hanging with a split to a ladder, also by blows with stick, all by the hands of Rachel Fowlers, the nurse of Wille...

Mary Belton at the Sylvia Brice Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That she came to her death from causes unknown to the Jurors.

George Franklin of color December 4, 1866 at Hush[?] Creek, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . he came to his death by means of a gun shot which entered about five inches below the right nipple & passed out just above the left [?] bone at Thor[?] Callaway's still house

Abe Dubose Jr. at the old[?] mill place of S.D. Dunn, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Abe Dubose Jr. came to his death by a gunshot wound at the hands of William Dubose and that Frances Dubose is accessory to the killing[.]

A. infant child January 13, 1832 at the house of John Nelson, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that a certain person unknown did kill and but[?] believe that A was a black woman Slave named [?] the property of John Nelson of said district did kill and homicide the said infant A and the said Jurors upon oaths afforesaid further say that the said person unknown or Palmer at above Said after she had commited the said felony and homicide did flee away

James Duckett November 9, 1859 at James Sutton's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted by a sharp instrument held in the hands of Boy named Abe the property of H. J. Gilreath

G. B. Kelly December 16, 1896 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said G.B. Kelly came to his death from a gun shot wound on the 12th day of Dec. 1896 in the hands of W.P. Swinnie and died on the 14th of Dec from the effects

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

white infant child, boy white infant child, boy March 24, 1858 at John Thomas Boat Landing, Union County, SC

the infant Came to it Death by it being Killed and throwed in the River

Harriet M. Melton April 18, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Mrs Harriet M. Melton came to her death by a gunshot wound inflicted form the hands of some person or persons unknown to this Jury

William male slave, boy March 12, 1857 at Doct Milton [?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that from what testimony they can get they are together with the wounds & bruises found on the body of the boy both on the head & [?] made by one Lewis Jones . . .came to his death that the said Lewis Jones the said boy William by misfortune & contrary to his will in manner & form afforesaid did Kill & Slay

Johnson Johnsons infant June 18, 1875 at Roberts Tuckers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That it was the child of Henretta Johnson that rivers found dead in the woods near the Robert Tucker House and that from appearance that it was the propper time for it to be deliverd and if the child was not murderd She intendedto murder it and it was don on or about the 11 of June 1875[.]

George Pye December 13, 1857 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think he came to his death by wounds inflicted on his person; from the evidence we believe that Gilbert Fleming did feloniously kill the said George Pye against the peace and dignity of the state

Frank slave July 16, 1840 at the house of Charles M. Breaker, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we suppose he came to his death by the evidence before us by being stabbed in the thigh with a deadly weapon and that done by the hands of a negro man slave by the name of Titus the property of Samuel A.B. Shannon in or near the main road leading from Camden to Salisbury

John Roe September 11, 1868 at William Elliott's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Roe was killed ... by a gun shot on the right side of the back & that the said gun was fired by William Elliott & that he was excusable in firing the said gun at & killing the said Roe

Male Child Male Child January 30, 1809 at David Cowens, Laurens County, SC

do believe upon their oathes that. . . by some means unknown to the Jurors and so these Jurors upon their oathes aforesaid Doth say the Jurors also believe that Jane Cowan was accessory to the sd. Murder. . .

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon thare [sic] oaths . . .that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

J. M. Long October 10, 1891 at J. M. Longs, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say That he came to his death by a gun Shot wound from the hands of Anthany Carter

John W. Meeks May 4, 1872 at Brown & Rice's Mill, Anderson County, SC

do say that. . .the said John W. Meeks was killed by gun-shot wound, and violent battery with gun on the back of his neck

infant September 19, 1833 at the home of William Griffin, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . .that the infant was put to death by violence of Harriet Bagood

Thornton Nance August 7, 1891 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he the said Thornton Nance came to his death by Pistol shot wound in the hands of Jim Young - & his accessories - Jno Adams - Perry Adams Jno Atkinson, Lige Atkinson - Tom Atkinson Jack Williams - Henry Suber, Monroe Young - Henderson Young & Allen Young.

John David Twiggs September 15, 1864 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Doct J D Twiggs came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of R. J. Butler sen on the Publick Rode

Mahlon Jones December 25, 1891 at Landrams Farm, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Mahlon Jones was . . .killed by a pistol. . .shot in the hands of Henry Scott and that Coleman Maroney was accessoror

Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by a Gun shot wound . . . in the hands of Job McGee

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

Hon. Joseph Crews September 14, 1875 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joseph Crews came to his Death by means certain gun shot wounds inflicted by person or persons to the jurors unknown

Azariah Butler August 25, 1876 at the Residence of Azeriah Butler, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Azeriah Butler in the manner and form aforesaid on the Night of the 24 Inst was shot by some Person or Persons unknown by us and Seven Shot Entered the Head arms and body

John Webb March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the aforesaid John Webb came to his death by Gun Shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hands of Robert Coile[?], Dan Coward Hill Howard, and R L Burnett as principals, Milledge Reece and A.J. Corley as accessories

Infant child of Susanah Finny Infant child of Susanah Finny June 8, 1821 at the House of Mary Holland, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that. . .the said Mary came to her death by being choked, by Joe, a negro man belong to Omey Patterson, who confined to us that he was the murder, and purpetrated said deed on Sunday 16th inst. Showing us where he had Killed her near the above named Plantation

Haigood Mirfan[?] Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Baylis Edwards May 30, 1864 at the residence of Franis Edwards, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that he came to his death by a blow from a [?] on the throat from an unknown hand

Mary Grace Aldrich infant child August 11, 1856 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that said child came to her death at the time and place aforesaid by having large portions of laudaunum administered by a servant girl the nurse of the name of Clarissa. . .with felonious intent

Enoch Stevens August 2, 1859 at Stephens Mill, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Enoch Stevens came to his dith by the wound received from James Huggins and Samuel Taylor one wound on the head the skull bone broke, one wound on the leg and the bone ruptured then and there feloniously did kill the said Stevens

two negro children two negro children June 4, 1824 at Ellis Palmers, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that a negro woman named Sunaka Another of said children property of said Ellis Palmer did . . .choake the said children with a glove

infant male child infant male child March 27, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid unknown male child came to his death from causes to this jury unknown

Robert Melton April 19, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Melton, the deceased came to his death from two gun shot wounds, one taking affect in the left hip; the other in the region of the stomach, inflicted by some person or persons unknown to this Jury, this taking place at the Residence of the deceased

John Jefferson March 17, 1936 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Jefferson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Draarn in the hands of Aiken Jefferson

Henry Woolbright October 26, 1843 at Wm. C. Brown's near Howell's Ferry, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry Woolbright died in consequence of [?] abuse recd from his Father Tom Woolbright & from neglect at Various times by especially from the abuse recd . . .by certain strokes & blows inflicted by Thomas Woolbright at their own house

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
William Coker June 23, 1876 at Mrs. Sutter Tolbert, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Coker came to his death by som cuse or causes unknown to the jurors

infant March 29, 1842 at Tabitha Laird's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say according to evidence taken before us at this inquest do believe that the Tabitha Laird. . .did destroy her infant child against the peace and dignity of said state have no proof how the infant came to its death

Col. John Taylor July 8, 1904 at Miden dolph, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceast John Taylor came to his death By measures unknown to the Jury.

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

Sam Sinclair slave March 24, 1820 at John Chesnut plantation near Chesnut's Ferry on Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave the property of John Chesnut son of James Chesnut Esquire was violantly [sic] Murdered

James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .J. William M. Brown ... then and there [did] inflict three severe blows upon the head of deceased fracturing his skull in two places

John James April 13, 1892 at the Traynham place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at his residence in Laurens County on or about 12 oclock on the 18th day of April AD 1892 the said John James came to his death by two gunshot wounds said wounds being made by a Pistol fired by one Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu Sheriff and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu sheriff in manner and form aforesaid John James then and there did Kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

Robert J. Butler September 15, 1864 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Robert J Butler sen[?] came to his death by gun shot wound inflicted by Doct J D Twiggs

female daughter of female daughter of November 28, 1841 at graveyard at Hammonds Old Field, Anderson County, SC

do say on oaths from the evidence before us and examination of the body that it came to its death by the improper interference of the mother Rebecca Mullinax cutting the string of the naval omiting to cord the same

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