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
Charity Norris May 29, 1869 at B. F. McGee's residence, Anderson County, SC

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

Reece Chapman July 26, 1948 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

VERDICT: The said Reece Chapman came to his death by a 31 Pistol at the hands of Buck Diggs.

Willis Rabon September 4, 1849 at William Rabon Sen.r, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Abram Rabon Jun'r of the State and District aforesaid did feloneously with a Kinfe stab and Kill the said Willis Rabon and further saith that Abraham Rabon Sen.r and Duke Rabon were Accessories to the same

Annie Lowery May 15, 1923 at D.W. Arant Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Jonnie Lowery came to her death by being Drowned in a Well of water at the hands off Rosa Lowry her mother

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.

Jasper Thomas March 28, 1934 at Cheraw, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersigned jurors find that Jasper Thomas, colored, came to his death aobut 6:25 P.M. Thursdday, March 22nd 1934 by pistol wound at the hands of John Mack, colored.

Meredith Griffin February 15, 1889 at F D Hunters, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Turner Jones did discharge the contents of a shot gun in the body of Meridith Griffin thereby killing him about 8 Oclock on the Evening of the 14 Feb 1889. And the jurors aforesaid upon their Oaths do say the killing was done in self defence.

Riley Parker January 15, 1884 at Clifton in Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Clifton S.U. on Jan. 14th 1884 that the said dec'd Riley Parker in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by means unknown to us

Ambrose slave September 25, 1828 at the house of [?] Duke, Kershaw County, SC

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

Woodward June 9, 1879 on the road leading from Dantzler's Bridge on South Tyger River via G. W. Duncan's and R. T. McElvath's to Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the deceased came to her death by gunshot wound in the Breast, and incised wound on the neck, which severed the carotid arteries, windpipe, and other vital organs, and that we believe the said wounds were inflicted by weapons in the hands of John J. Moore

infant June 15, 1884 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child name unknown was killed and murdered by some person, or persons, or by some means, either by crushing of th head with some instrument unknown by drowning or both

Micajah Hilliard November 28, 1829 in the house of Joseph Ward, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by an affray with Joseph Ward & John Ballard at the residence of Joseph Ward on the 27th Inst.

Rufus Springs April 20, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rufus H Springs came to his death . . . from a gun shot wound in the hands of a party[?] to this jury unknown

Albert Trapp near Blairs, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "That the said Albert Trapp came to his death from a gun shot wound inflicted by the hands of Hop Thompson"

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

James Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Jas Booth. . .came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

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

James Pinson deserter December 5, 1864 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (by a gun shot (in the breast on the morng of the 4th inst) to) the jurors unknown

Alice Adkinson October 18, 1898 at Republican Church, Edgefield County, SC

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

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

Infant enslaved by William Philson Infant enslaved by William Philson September 11, 1858 at the plantation settlement of William Philson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death at the residence of Wm Philson in Laurens District by the Hands of Naty & Maria Negro women slaves the property of Wm Philson against the peace & Dignity of the State aforesaid.

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the san Summer a slave came to his deth [sic] by blow or blows inflicted over his left temple and over the nasal bone, which caused inflamation of the brain. . .the blow or blows supposed to have been inflicted by Monroe, a slave the property of T.L. Boykin

Unknown Infant Unknown Infant April 8, 1873 at Martins Depot, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Infant came to its death by the hands of Rebecca East, against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid.

Elias Earl January 22, 1867 at Boyds Mills, Laurens County, SC

uppon theire oaths do say. That he came to his death by being shot on Sunday night last by some person or persons unknown to us, further than the statement of deceased that he was shot by Brown, against the peace & dignity of the state afforesaid

Riller three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Riller Lizzy and Rose were feloniously Killed and Murdered in the negro house of said Philip Brogden on the night of the 1st inst by breaking their sculls with an axe and cutting the throats of Riller & Lizza by the hands of their own Mother named Clarisy the property of said Brogden

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

Rose three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Riller Lizzy and Rose were feloniously Killed and Murdered in the negro house of said Philip Brogden on the night of the 1st inst by breaking their sculls with an axe and cutting the throats of Riller & Lizza by the hands of their own Mother named Clarisy the property of said Brogden

nameless newborn boy or male child nameless newborn boy or male child January 12, 1885 at T P Byrds Campbell place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said nameless boy or male child came to his death on the 10th day of January AD 1885 and in Laurens County by strangulation cause by criminal negligence on the part of Kittie F. Malone.

Walter Brown November 26, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Walter Brown received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by _______ in the hands of Mose McKay. . . He came to his death by a gun in hands of Mose McKay.

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

Leonard Clark July 3, 1946 at Jefferson, SC, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Clark received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Bill Sowell

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

Kenneth M. Douglas October 17, 1946 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Kenneth M. Douglas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 32 Pistol in the hands of M. Stuart Funderburk

white child white child January 20, 1871 at Wilson's Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that it appears that the deceased was willfully killed, by some person or persons unknown

William Clyburn September 15, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William Clyburn received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 S&W Pistol in the hands of Mr. Ike Plyler. . . The Jury recommends that I. K. Plyler be not held responsible -- justifiable Homicide

infant June 12, 1872 Anderson County, SC
Dave Gillam August 25, 1892 at the house of Cal Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

the Said Dave Gillam Came to his death from a gun Shot wound inflicted by the hands of Eliott Johnson

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

Frank Flowers January 31, 1921 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jury . . . find that the Said Frank Flowers came to his death by gun Shot in the had of Dan Bittle

Monroe Nathan June 5, 1889 at Allen Dials, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Monroe Nathan came to his death by gun shot wounds by a Pistol in the hands of Constable Jno D Watts he acting in self defence on the 5th day of June 1889.

Infant Brown September 26, 1932 near Angelus, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say, that the aforesaid Infant Brown We, the Jury of Inquest find, according to evidence produced, that the infant came to its death by Neelie Brown, its Mother.

infant March 6, 1884 in the City of Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said child . . .came to its death from injuries received at the hands of Mary McKeys, Lizzie Mills, Paul Mills, and Alexander Mills, all of whom we deem cognizant of and accessory to the death

infant November 28, 1829 in Camden on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welsh[?] resided, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the remains of an infant born at "full time" were found in a smoke house, suspiciuosly concealed in a jar with lime on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welch[?] resided; but how, or when the infant came to its death we know not.

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC
Julius Metskie June 27, 1887 at Valley Falls, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Julius Metskie came to his death by a gun shot would inflicted in the head by George S. Turner at Valley Falls

Elizabeth Bowing May 30, 1831 at the residence of Mrs. Ann Bowing, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Elizabeth Bowing came to her death by abuse inflicted on her by the hand of Priscilla Robertson

Mary Hicks May 10, 1881 at the residence of Widow Lucy Clements, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... Mrs. Mary Hicks came to her death by a gun shot and a knife or some sharp tool in the hands of one B. Whitney Hicks, her husband

Arthur Jordan at W.B. Dixon's place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say, the said Arthur Jordan came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Thomas Thompson on the night of the 24th day of Dec 1903 in the house of John [?] on D. Barns[?] Mobley place[.]

Luther Harris May 26, 1899 at the plantation of George F Towns, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, that the Said Luther Harris was killed at John Davis' house . . . by a Gun Shot wound fired by the hands of Hamp Davis.

Marcus April 12, 1836 at Gibson's Neck on the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

we find that the negro is Marcus the property of D. A. Brevard but are unable to say whether his death was caused by certain blows inflicted on the head & drowning or by drowning alone

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