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 351 - 400 of 642
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Sam Dehays October 23, 1870 at Thernus quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon the oaths do say that the said Sam Dehay came to his death on the road between Duncans creek & Clinton on the 22d Oct 1870 by a gunshot from parties unknown to the jury

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

Sarah Sweat February 4, 1871 at the dwelling house of Sarah Sweat, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oath, do say: that Sarah Sweat came to her death on the 4th of February 1871, by the visitation of Providence.

Annie West March 4, 1871 at the late residence fo Rob't West, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the house in which Mrs. Annie West lived was set on fire by some person or persons unknown & that she perished in the flames

Harry Shelton March 28, 1871 in the County aforesaid, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Harry Shelton came to his Death from a Ball shot from a pistol or Rifle by an unknown hand being done near Shelton Depot.

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

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

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

Adeline Agnew May 14, 1871 near the residence of Ephraim R. Cobb, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that. . .the said Adeline Agnew was killed and murdered by a knife in the hands of Shadrack Webster.

Tamar Clark November 9, 1871 at Henry L. Hunter's resident at Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that ... Tamar Clark came to her death from gun shot wounds, the said gun having been fired from the hands of Henry L. Hunter and having inflicted between ninety and one hundred wounds on the right breast, right shoulder and right fore arm ... with squirrel shot

Rufus Yarbrough March 17, 1872 at the residence of John Davis Esqr., Spartanburg County, SC pole axe

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions the said deceased came to his death at the place where found, viz. in front of corn crib on the premises of John Davis Esqr., caused by a blow on the neck severing the jugular vein and windpipe with a pole axe in the hands of some unknown person

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

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

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

Isaac Salter June 7, 1872 at the old Colemans Quarter, Laurens County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Isaac Salter came to his death, upon their oaths do sayeth by a pistol shot in the hands of Amos Anderson

infant June 12, 1872 Anderson County, SC
Abraham Rabon Senior September 8, 1872 at the residence of Joshua J Long, Horry County, SC shotgun

upon their Oaths do say the ssaid Abraham Rabon sen.r was Killed by being shot with a shot gun by the hands of Joshua J Long at the residence of the said Jashua J Long

Aaron McMahan October 14, 1872 at Eden, Laurens County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Aaron McMahan came to his death by means of a dirk knife in the hands of John Kellett at or near Eden

Bill Reese December 12, 1872 at Pendleton, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that Bill Reese came to his death from a wound inflicted by a knife held in the hands of Sam Minse[?]

Murian Walker December 17, 1872 at or near Highland house, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Murian Walker in manner and form aforesaid Nelson Barksdale then and there feloniously did kill agains the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid.

Robert H. Pettigrew December 27, 1872 at James H. Wiles house, Anderson County, SC knife

do say from a wound on his left side between the second and eight ribs penetrating to the. . .by a knife

S. B. C. Lowney March 5, 1873 Fairfield County, SC
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.

Nelson Right September 6, 1873 at or near...Darm Creek, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that the said Nelson Right . . . [came] to his death from a wound in left shoulder in . . .knife or some other sharp instrument. The wound was in between the sholder blade and in a downward direction towards the heart?the said wound was inflicted by the hand of Robert Robertson

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. . .

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
Robert H. Holliday January 20, 1874 at Calhoun, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that?Robert Holliday was wounded by a pistol shot, inflicted by a pistol in the hands of John Henry Vermillion; of which wound said Robert Holliday did die?John Henry Vermillion then and there maliciously did kill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

B. F. Stephens September 27, 1875 near Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say That the said B.F. Stephens, was willfully, feloniously, and voluntarily, killed & murdered, at his house on Sunday evening, the 26th day of September A.D. 1875 by Tilda Stephens "alias" Norris, with a double barrel shot gun

Newton Cox October 30, 1875 at Robert Thomson's, Greenville County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say Newton Cox . . .came to his death. . . from a blow struck on his head [?] an axe in the hands of one Charlie Sulivan at the house of one Joycy Batson

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
William Coker June 23, 1876 at Mrs. Sutter Tolbert, Chesterfield County, SC

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

Allen S. Barksdale June 23, 1876 at the house of Robert A. Gray, Anderson County, SC axe

do say that Allen S. Barksdale came ot his death by an axe in the hands of Mary A. Gray on the night of 22nd June 1876 in self-defense in her own house and yard with several wounds with a mortal wound inflicted with ^the edge of^ an axe upon the top of the head to length of 3 inches severing in the skull bone.

John Kellett July 24, 1876 at the residence of John Kellet, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John Kellet in manner and form aforesaid on the morning of the 19th inst was shot by some person or persons unknown by us

Henry Dennis August 22, 1876 at the residence of Laurens County's Jefferson Abercrombie, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Dennis in manner and form aforesaid on the night of the 20 isnt was shot by some person or persons unknown.

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

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

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

Cane Garlington March 19, 1877 at C M Kellets Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the afforesaid Cane Garling in the manner and form aforesaid was shot in the head on the Right sid [sic] & coming out on the back Part of the Head & Braken the scull [sic] by sum [sic] Person un known to us

George Grice May 6, 1877 at Doby's Mill, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that George Grice came to his death by a stab wound in the left breast by a knife in the hands of George Philips[?]

Willis Lodd July 25, 1877 at Loutens [?] cross roads, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said Willis Lodd came to his death by a pistol shot fired from the hands of one Butler Putman

Lee Ryan September 27, 1877 at the plantation of Abram F Broadwater, Edgefield County, SC iron instrument

upon their Oaths do say that the said Lee Ryan came to his death from wounds inflicted upon the head by some Iron Instrument in the hands of Some one to the Jury unknown and that Alice Ryan was an accessory to the Crime

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that the aforesaid Willis Asbell came to his death from wounds received in a fracas or fight, with Nathan Fallow Henry Fallow, Robt Fallow Mary Fallow Anna Fallow and a little boy (Prisoner) name William Ellis

infant child infant child December 14, 1877 at Dr. K N Hudsons plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that. . .Ella Talbert did murder her own child with some instrument unknown then burned it

Allan G. Chapman December 31, 1877 at the Residence of Allan G. Chapman, Chesterfield County, SC brick

upon their oaths do Say that Allan G Chapman came to his death from the effects of a Blow from a Brick Bat Received on the back of his head thrown from the hands of Lucius R Hardin

Yancy Hardy December 31, 1877 at Dr. GJ[?] Butlers Plantation, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that the said Yancy Hardy Came to his death from A Pistol Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of Pierce Winfreed

Clara Burress February 25, 1878 at the house of Caty Burress on the plantation of Dr. A. G. Cook, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that she Clara Burriss came to her death by a pistol ball fired in the hands of William Pringle Cook fired at Caty Burress . . .do say William Pringle Cook did kill.

Elijah Reynolds April 11, 1878 at Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that the said Elijah Reynolds Came to his death from a Pistol Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of Dick Lundy

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

infant child infant child August 5, 1878 at the residence of H J Wright, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the female Child . . . Came to its death by Misfortune or accident

Edna Black August 6, 1878 at Joseph Davenport's, Greenville County, SC claw hammer

upon their oaths do say that the said Edna C Black was killed and homicideed . . . with a claw hammer in the hands of some person or persons to this jury not [?] known

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