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 251 - 300 of 642
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Gabriel Rabon October 9, 1862 at Turf Camp Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say he came to death by wounds inflicted by shot penetrating the heart by some means to the Jurors unknown . . . But according to evidence we believe that Johnathan J Carroll did kill the said Gabrell Rabon

Bookey January 26, 1863 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the slave Bookey came to his death by a State of General Congestion through the internal organs caused bya whipping at the hands of Henry Mardy, Murphy Hughes N. A. McLeod and R G W Grissett Instruments a Strap & Paddle Justifiable in the punishment they inflicted

Jane slave March 10, 1863 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that she came to her death on sabath the eighth day of March?at the residence of her master A. A. Morse, of deceased hastened or made premature by the maltreatment of her Master A. A. Morse and his mistress Mrs. C. T. [?] Morse, and more particularly on the part of the latter, and....that the said slave Jain the said A. A. Morse & C. T. Morse, by misfortune, and contrary to their will

William Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Edmond Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

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

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

Harry slave May 20, 1863 at Jesse Gomellions, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that. . .the said Harry came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side by a knife or some sharp Pointed instrument in the hands of Wilce[?] a slave belonging to James Neal

Nancy Suggs September 15, 1863 at Seth Belleme's . . .and continued by adjournment and taken at M.r J. J. Worthams, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by Arsenic and that the same was administered by Arthur Suggs at his own residence

Absalom Causey September 27, 1863 at Reaves Mill Branch, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that he came to his death by wounds inflicted with a hickory club on the head and side and hip in the hand of Doctor Miles Gilmore

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

Lewis Bartie July 26, 1864 at Mount Zion Church, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon there oaths do say that the said Lewis Bartie the deceased came to his death. . .by a wound received from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Green

Arch September 4, 1864 at SR Todds plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot wound, by M.P. Traynham in self defence at SR Todds plantation about one oclock the 3rd Sept Inst AD 1864.

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

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

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

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

Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson January 14, 1865 at W.B. Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they beloeve the Infant slave above mentioned came to its death by violence inflicted by the hands of some unknown person by thrusting a common sewing needle through the scalp into the brain. . .Either by the hand of the Mother, or The Slave Girl Lucy, The property of W.B. Henderson.

Prince slave January 15, 1865 at John Seiglers, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that the boy Prince came to his death by a stab with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of Jef a slave of John Seiglers

James Keenan February 21, 1865 at Union Court House, Union County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by a bullet discharged from a pistol in the house of Dr. John P. Thomas . . .in the Jail of Union District

Joe negro man, boy March 5, 1865 Greenville County, SC

who came to his death from a gun shot wound in the breast at the hands of Midleton Patterson

infant March 10, 1865 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that it came to its death ^at the house of Wm Shanachans[?] in the town of Anderson^ by violence inflicted by its mother Adelia C. Parker

Sax slave, boy March 11, 1865 at UnionVille, Union County, SC

do say that the boy Sax was taken out of goal by an armed force unknown to the [?] and hanged

Lewis slave March 27, 1865 at or near the residence of [?] Gossett, Spartanburg County, SC

that he came to his from a gun shot wound through the neck passing out at his jaw and the said show was from a gun in the hands of some person unknown

infant April 6, 1865 near Hobbysville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after a most careful investigation of the whole matter ... that the said child, we are satisfied, came to its death by having the posterior part of its head crushed, wilfully and violently, by the hands of Martha Robinson, the mother of said child, or Elizabeth Robinson, the grandmother of said child, later in the evening of Tuesday the 4th day of April

Kitty April 27, 1865 at David Owens's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That they have thoroughly Examined the body of the decd Kitty and find no marks of violence on the body sufficient to cause death, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do Say that the deceased came to her death by some cause unknown to them...

Sarah Hardy free girl of color October 4, 1865 at William Page's, Union County, SC

We the Jurors can [?] deceasd came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by some person unknown

Ben October 10, 1865 at Abram Putnams, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the freedman came to his death from a Gun shot wound in the head and the cutting of his throat with some sharp instrument, by persons unknown to the jurors

Aaron Hughes October 15, 1865 at the residence of Aaron Hughes, Spartanburg County, SC

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

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. . .

Squire 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

George freedmen October 25, 1865 at John H. Campbell's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . . that the said George was willfully homicideed . . .received a bullet wound near the reg of the heart and lodged 2 1/2 inchs below the right nipple also a bullet wound in the left shoulder lodging in the body

John Henry King October 29, 1865 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say he was Killed by a Pistol shot from the hands of a colord Soldier belonging to the U S Troops now station in Augusta Ga the name of said Soldier not known

Henry freemen formerly the slave October 30, 1865 at or near Dr. Bery F. Few's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry was killed and homicideed by some person or persons by the discharge of a gun to the jurors unknown

Hezekiah Robbins November 5, 1865 at the house of Hezekiah Robbins, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that they are satisfied he came to her death. . . by a stab from a knife in the left thigh in the hand of Hubbard Cash

Samuel A. Geer January 15, 1866 at David Geer's House, Anderson County, SC metallic instrument

do say that the said S. A. Geer was killed by blows over the head producing five separate fractures of the skull, near the residence of David Geer. . .by some metalic instrument in the hands of some person or persons unknown.

Jacob Horn February 25, 1866 at the hous of Jacob Horns, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that Jacob Horn came to his death by a Malicious discharge of a Gun or Pistol entering the left Groin from which wound he [?] langushed and languishing died in about half an hour

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

Andrew freedman March 13, 1866 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC pistol

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

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

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

John G. Gorley July 26, 1866 Anderson County, SC rope

the said John G. Gorly came to his death?by having been hanged by the nexck until his body was dead, by means of a certain of a certain grass rope fastened to the limb of a certain oak sapling near to the spot where the bones then lay....and that Henry J. Knauff of Pendleton village...and John Baskins and Thompson Oliver...did there and there feloneously hang and murder the said John G. Gorly

Sam Howard Freedman August 6, 1866 at L. L. Halls, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that Sam Howard Freedman Came to his death. . .by a stab with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of John Daniel Freedman

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.

Nelson Smith freedman, boy October 4, 1866 at Andrew Warts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Nelson Smith freedman came to his death from being shot with some kind of fire arms in the hands of two persons from the way he was shot by persons unknown

George Watkins October 10, 1866 at George Watkins, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that George Watkins came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of Newton Corley

Keal Johnson colourd man October 20, 1866 at J.M. Proctors Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death. . .by a Pistol shot from the hands of G.J. Smith entering the left side of the mouth and came out at the back side of his head

Peter Goddard November 3, 1866 Laurens County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors return the following verdict. That Peter Goadard Freedman came to his death by the means of two Balls shot from a gun in the hands of one Jacob Spoon Freedman on the night of the 20th of Oct 1866 on or near the Bank of Saluda River on Christopher Smith's plantation on Larens side.

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

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

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