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 51 - 100 of 642
Namesort ascending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Will slave November 18, 1854 at William Nevitt's, Anderson County, SC rail

do say that the said deceased came to his death?from wounds inflicted on the 6th day of said month with the end of a rail in the hands of Robert C. Nevitt that Robert C. Nevitt the said slave [unkown word] misfortune and in self defense & contrary to his will in manner & form aforesaid did kill & slay

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

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

Whit Terry October 19, 1894 J.K. Corleys Place, Edgefield County, SC

the said Whit Terry came to his death upon the plantation of J.K. Corley. . .from a gun shot wound inflicted by some one of the searching party, to the jury unknown inflicted in self defense

Wesley Smith at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Worley Smith came to his death on the sixteenth day of February A.D. 1900 from blows inflicted by one

Wesley Murrell colored January 6, 1869 at Col. W. J. Reynolds plantation, Kershaw County, SC spade

upon their oaths do say that said Wesley Murrell came to his death by [?] spade inflicted by the hands of Morris[?] Corbert[?]

Wesley Arant March 12, 1915 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC rifle

upon their oaths, do say: Wesley Arant came to his death by a Rifle shot in the hands of Shep West.

Wesley male slave, child October 5, 1857 at the residence of Sophia A Tilman, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the said male slave Wesley came to his death by blows given by Joe a slave the Property of F Oconner

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

Warren slave July 13, 1859 at Camden at the residence of John Workman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Warren. . .came to his death from Lock jaw produced by a gun shot wound in the inner side of the right thigh discharged by John Workman and from his own impudence & exposure afterward

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.

Wallace E. Bland July 4, 1880 at Edgefield C. House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said W E. Bland came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of A. A. Elisby [Clisby?]

Wade Burnside December 7, 1893 at Wade Burnside's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. We do find that deceased Wade Burnside came to his death from a pistol wound, at his house in Waterloo the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Wade Burnside in manner and form aforesaid Semore Anderson then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

W. S. Rodgers March 8, 1866 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC pitcher

fom the testimony befouse us, that W.S. Rogers came to his death by wounds inflicted upon his head on the 7th inst. By several blows with a metal Pitcher & the blow with a Decanter in the hands of W.A. Rose

W. H. H. Richards February 1, 1884 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said W.H.H. Richards came to his death by a pistol shot, received on 23rd July 184, at the hands fo W B Cash

W. F. Hunter June 1, 1853 at the residence of William Clyburn, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said William Ferdinand Hunter came to his death by wounds inflicted by a knife in the hands of John Love, Junior, in the woods near the residence of William Clyburn, about twelve miles north of Camden, on the road leading to Lancaster, on the thirty-first day of May A.D. 1853

W. C. Benson October 25, 1889 at the police station in Spartanburg City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the decased came to his death by a supposed fall from a trestle ... said fall causing concussion of the brain

W. Brooker Toney August 12, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that W.B. Toney came to his death by Pistol Shots from the Hands of James Booth Benjamin Booth & Marion Booth

Vollney Powell October 21, 1870 on public highway from Laurens C.H. to Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, We, the jury empannelled this day, to view the body of Volney Powell of Laurensville now lying dead before us, do find, upon making view and inquest, that the said Volney Powel - came to his death on public highway between Laurens and Clinton by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands some person or persons unknown to this Jury.

Viny Davis June 1, 1872 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death by foul means at the hands of parties unknown to the jurors

Vincent Hanes Fairfield County, SC stick
Van Hendrix February 14, 1877 at John Garmany's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Van B Hendrix came to his death from a gun shot wound made in his right breast[?] from a gun then and there fired from the hands of Herbert Garmany

unnamed infant unnamed infant January 21, 1868 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say,--That they find the Said Infant to have dead some two or three weeks--that from the evidence before them they belie vethe Said Infant to be the offstriping of Emma Gallard a colored woman now in the Jail . . . and that they believe that the said Infant came to its death by Violence at the hands of the Said Emma Gaillard

unnamed infant unnamed infant May 18, 1870 at and near Cools Spring, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said infant came to its death by the Hands of providence

unknown Negro unknown Negro October 24, 1865 at the plantation of Saml. Todd, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that these two negroes came to there death by being shot by some person or persons unknown to us, from the evidence we think one of them is the boy Squire. . .

Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson December 1, 1846 at James Brewsters, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do Say, That the said infant, came to its death by violence, unknown to us, (and from reports, supposed to be the Child of Amanda Simpson, against the peace and dignity of the same State afforesaid.

Unknown Infant at William L. Powers Unknown Infant at William L. Powers March 10, 1867 at the late residence of Wm L. Powers Decsd., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that the said Infant child came to its death by hand of Nancy A. Morgan formerly Nancy A. Powers by choking it with her drawers tied round its neck - the time unknown to the Jury. . .

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.

Unknown Infant Unknown Infant October 17, 1873 at Abraham Cooks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the afforesaid infant child in manner & form afforesaid Edna Young Feloniously did kill, against the peace & dignity of the same state afforesaid. . .

Unknown Colored Man Unknown Colored Man July 5, 1892 at Will Davis, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the unknown man came to his death from Gun Shot wound in the hands of A B Blakely in self defence.

Unknown May 2, 1862 at the house of Washington Hathcock, Fairfield County, SC

upon examination of the Infant found its Skull Broken and other Marks of violence, Sufficient to cause death

Unknown September 6, 1827 near the house of James Walling, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the sd infant came to its death by being struck against a log which lay about four or five steps from the place of its birth on Tuesday morning the 4th instant by Letitia Vaugh, who they believe delivered the child

Unknown [?], Fairfield County, SC

JUST A DISCHARGE PAPER

Unknown at Pollete [?] Harrison, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths that the said Child came to its death by premeditated[?] and criminal negligence and exposure on the part of the parents or others unknown to the Jury

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

Tom slave July 10, 1824 at the plantation of Mr. Wm. W. Lang, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that William R. Young . . . did by shooting with buckshot kill the said negro man named Tom and we the jury aforesaid find that the said William R. Young was justifiable in shooting and killing the said negro man Tom

Tom negro slave December 18, 1858 at Chlo Watsons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Jim in manner and form aforesaid, Tom then and there feloniously did kill

Tobe Woods May 19, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths, do say: that Tobe Woods came to his Death By Gun Shot Wound in the hand of James Johnson

Timothy Spann April 24, 1812 two miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe that said Timothy Spann came to his death in consequence of a wound received by a shot in a duel with a certain ---- Lowell

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.

Thompson slave April 1, 1863 at Thomas Spencers, Union County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said Thompson was felloniously and maliciously homicideed by some person with an axe by a blow on the head, and the evidence before us justifies us in finding that the boy Henry was at least accessory to the decd

Thomas Waters April 7, 1866 on the plantation of Daniel McCaskill on Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... they do believe that the said Thomas Waters was killed ... by a gun shot in the head & that the said gun was in the hands of Elias McLandon

Thomas W. Harrison November 23, 1860 At Pendleton, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the deceased was killed by a pistol shot, fired by Francisco Tapapso[?], at Pendelton.

Thomas Styson June 22, 1856 at R. M. Fullers, Edgefield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted on the Right Side of the head with a hoe in hands of the boy Clem; slave of R M Fuller

Thomas Smith January 16, 1838 at George Born's[?], Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that after examining the Body of the sd. Smith they believe that he came to his death by a wound in the throat which appears to have been done by the hand of some person with a knife

Thomas Phearby September 1, 1882 on the Mill's Gap Road, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that said Thomas Phearby ... came to his death from Pistol show wound in the back of his head received from a pistol in the hand of John H. Foster

Thomas O'Donald September 13, 1869 at Dr. John E. Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say That the said Thomas O'Donald came to his death . . .from Pistol shot wounds. . .having been inflicted by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

Thomas Linder November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pocket knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the said T.Linder came to his death by a stab from a common pocket knife inflicted on his left breast about two inches from his left nipple by the hand of John Davis

Thomas Hoiston August 13, 1907 at Bethel, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol Shot wound at the hand of Wes McDonald

Thomas Glover August 2, 1893 at Bill Werk[?] Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .Thomas Glover came to his death from Gun shot wounds in his left breast in the region of the hear. . .by Ed Williams alias Werk

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