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 301 - 350 of 642
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Edmond Sharpton December 20, 1866 at the House of Mrs J.P. Brewer, Edgefield County, SC pistol

he came to his death by a mortal wond with a Pistol in the hands of one John M Stidman

Prophet Burt freedman December 29, 1866 at E.N. Troys, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oath do say that the said Prophet Burt freedman came to his death by two stabs or cuts one on the side of his head the other on the back of his neck with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of some person unknown

Frank Holson freedman January 9, 1867 at Lee Holson, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that. . .said Frank Holson freedman came to his death. . .by a Pistol shot in the hands of William W Hammond

negro woman negro woman January 11, 1867 at David Mill, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said unknwon person came to her death by some means unknown to the jury

Allen Smith Freedman January 19, 1867 at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there Oath do say. . .he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through the head inflicted by some person or persons unknown

Stanmore B. Chappell January 19, 1867 at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say. . .he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through head done in and affray with B.F. Payne

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

Wilson Griffin freedman February 13, 1867 at Luke Rodgers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Griffin freedman came to his death from a gun or pistole shot wound in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

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. . .

William Mauldin September 15, 1867 at Emoree Factory, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said William Mauldin came to his death. . .from a blow or blows inflicted with a rock or rocks from the hands of John Burgess

Freedwoman Freedwoman October 23, 1867 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said infant came to its death by strangulation by the hands of its mother Clary Williams, a freed woman in the town of Anderson . . .immediately after its birth

Clement D. Wallace November 28, 1867 at Gopher Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clement D Wallace was disabled or killed with some instrument unknown or by the burning of his dwelling house

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

negro negro February 27, 1868 at or near Pacolet Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that Catherine, a black woman living at Col. R.C. Poole's at Pacolet Spring, called by some Berry, did have and was delivered of said child and that she throwed [sic] it in the river ... feloniously drownding said child against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

S. G. W. Dill June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

Nestor Ellison freedman June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

Clara Bell colored child June 23, 1868 at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: . . . the elder Child was conscious before it died and did say that a black man, and others say that she (the child) said that it was a yellow man that set fire to the house which burnt her & the other child to death hence we find that the Children were burnt to death but unknown by whom, and if it shall appear that the deceased were wilfully killed by another

Milledge Denny colored child June 23, 1868 at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say:. . .the elder Child was conscious before it died and did say that a black man, and others say that she (the child) said that it was a yellow man that set fire to the house which burnt her & the other child to death hence we find that the Children were burnt to death but unknown by whom, and if it shall appear that the deceased were wilfully killed by another

infant July 16, 1868 in the town of Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

the jury ... were lead to believe that Lula Collins (alias Deas) was the mother of the dead child, and that Louisa Deas in trying to conceal the body of said child in the well leads the jury to suspect that she had knowledge of the manner by which it came there. How the child come to its death, the jury are unable to determine.

Andrew Lynch August 22, 1868 at or near Gosmills Mill's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot taken affect in his abodomen discharged near his spine fired by some person inward[?]

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

Mack Kirkland colored man October 31, 1868 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Mac Kirkland came to his death on Main Street in the town of Camden ... from wounds in the breast from a pistol fired ... by one William Killz

Dr. E. C. Shell November 5, 1868 at Henry Shell's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they do believe from the evidence given that from the evidence given that Jess Woody, Rich Dial, Nathan Crews, Bill Bryson, Samuel Allison Sr., Daniel Allison Jr., Harry Shell Jr. and Mar Williams either as principals or accessories did willfully and feloniously kill and Murder Dr. E.C. Shell by a shot gun or musket shot on the second day of Nov 1868 near the residence of his father H R Shell against the peace and dignity of the State afore said.

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[?]

Eisex Brown February 12, 1869 at John Canty's plantation, Kershaw County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the said Eisex Brown came to his death from two blows upon the head inflicted with a stick in the hands of Friendly Gowdin [?]

infant April 14, 1869 at Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child was killed by its mother Peggy Bedenbaugh [and] after she was delivered of it ... that she buried it about thirty yards back of the house in which she resides on Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation

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

James Thomas colored July 20, 1869 at Liberty Hill County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Thomas came to his death by a gun shot wound in the stomach . . .from a gun in the hands of some person or person unknown

Archibald Nicholson July 26, 1869 at the residence of Archibald Nicholson, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the said deceased came to his death by a blow or lick inflicted on the side of the head, at Mount Croghan in the County aforesaid on the 24h day of July, A.D. 1869 with a Gun in the hands of Jacob Brewer

Charles M. Creswell August 5, 1869 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

the said Charles M Creswell came to his death do say that . . .the deceased Charles M Creswell came to his death by a gunshot wound from a gun in the hands of some person or persons unknown

Paul Williams August 23, 1869 Kershaw County, SC brick

upon their oaths do say that the said Paul Williams came to his death from a blow inflicted with a brick upon the right side of the stomach ... the said brick having been thrown at the deceased by Robert Nixon

Lydia McKay September 2, 1869 at Burches Spring branch near the residence of Mr. B. T. Ellerbe in Steerpeu township, Chesterfield County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid [????] Emanuell Cash did confess before the Jury and say That he did strike diseased after striking her several blows with sticks and a Lightwood knot and the jury aforesaid on this oath do say that the aforesaid Emanual Cash in manner and form aforesaid Lydia McKey then and there feloniously did kill

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

Frank Burnett colored September 15, 1869 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Frank Burnett colored was killed at Spartanburg Courhouse in the rear of Thomson's blacksmith shop. . .by a pistol or gun shot wound in the heart given by the hand or hands of Henry Jones colored and Moses Young colored

Charles King October 10, 1869 at Charles Kings, Laurens County, SC rock or club
John Laudrum October 11, 1869 at Dons Steam Mills near Rocky Creek, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say: That he said John Landow[?] came to his death by stabs in the body from a knife in the hands of some person or persons unknown

Louisa Laudon October 11, 1869 at Dorns Steam Mills near Rocky Creek, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say That Louisa Laudon came to her death by a knife in the hands of some person or persons unknown

Samuel D. Owings November 12, 1869 Laurens County, SC pistol
John E. Elsmore November 28, 1869 at the house of John E. Elsmore, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say That he came to his death from the effect of a blow or blows on his head inflicted by the hands of Wm Pickens Elsmore with a Pistol

Andrew Trapp December 4, 1869 near Trapps Mills, Edgefield County, SC knife

That the deceased came to his death from a Knife in the hands of a colored boy named Sam formerly the property of John Trapp and now living on his premises . . . upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Sam Trapp in manner & form aforesaid Andrew Trapp then and there feloniously did kill

James Ramsey December 12, 1869 at the residence of Andrew Ramsay Sr, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of Wm Murrell Jr loaded with leaden bullets which bullets entered the left side

infant March 16, 1870 at Isaac Young's on Pacolet River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said child came to its death by some means to the jurors unknown against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Seabrook Leak March 24, 1870 at Tumbling Shoals, Laurens County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say that the said Seabrook Leak came to his Death on the twenty third day of March 1870 Near Tumbling Shoals Laurens County by a Pistol Shot wound from hands of Pinkney Wilson

James Mayes infant March 24, 1870 taken [???], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James Mays came to his death at A. M. Gilreaths . . .cause unknown . . .misfortune or accident

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

Robert Harris September 13, 1870 at Laurensville, Washington Ferguson's house, Laurens County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Robert Harris came to his death on this 5th Sept. 1870 at the house of Washington Ferguson, in County and State aforesaid, by a pistol shot from a pistol held in the hands of Jeff Fuller.

William Flemming October 20, 1870 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon making view and inquests that the said William Fleming came to his death by gun shot would from guns that were in the hands of some person or persons unknown.

Young Fuller October 21, 1870 at W.J. Copelands plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that Young Fuller, the deceased aforesaid, came to his death at his house near W.J. Copelands, in County aforesaid, on the 20th October AD 1870, from gunshot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to this jury.

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.

Abe Simmons October 21, 1870 near Samuel Blakeleys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Abe Simmons aforesaid, came to his death at Samuel J Blakeleys in County aforesaid by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to the jury

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