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
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Rose negro woman Slave March 14, 1846 at Michael Longs, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Rose being chained in the Meat house of said M. Long, around the neck with a common chain trace with one ened and the Other end of said chain aforesaid to the Joist broke her neck either by design or by accident

J. M. Clark July 19, 1897 at J.M. Clark's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J.M. Clark came to his death by Gun shot wounds inflicted by the hands of Willie Franks on the 10th day of June 1897 and that his father F.B. Franks was accessory to the act.

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

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
Cole white infant November 18, 1827 near the house of William Cole, Union County, SC
Jim slave June 19, 1858 at the plantation of A.H. Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Jim came to his death. . .from three wounds inflicted on and across the face by some weapon or instrument to the jury unknown in the hands of Dick a slave of William Sanders

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

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

Larken Bramblett June 8, 1838 at the House of Newton Bramblett, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that Hiram Holcombe of the state and District aforesaid, on yesterday evening the 7th Inst. Betweeen sundown & dark, did feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethough with a certain shot gun shoot and wound the said Larken Bramblett in the breast neck and head, of which said mortal wounds the aforesaid Larken Bramlett then and there instantly died, and so the said Hiram Holcombe, then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said Larken Bramblett, against the peace of this State.

Edgar Kelly December 27, 1913 at Colan Herdon's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Edgar Kelley came to his death by Knife wounds in the hand of Neal Hendrix

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

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

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

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

Mrs. Mary E. Parker January 9, 1933 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Mary E. Parker came to her death from gunshot wounds in the hands of Clyde Parker

infant infant March 24, 1892 at Pinksville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say said Infant came to its death by the hands of Jane Gilchrist

Lula Smith child June 22, 1894 at James A Satcher's Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Lula Smith aforesaid came to her death, by a cause 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

Cris Little November 9, 1884 at Laurens CH S.C., Laurens County, SC

being a lawful Jury of inquest who being charged and sworn to enquire for the State of South Carolina where and by what means said Cris Little came to his death. Said Cris Little came to his death by a pistol shot wound entering in the left side of body from his back, said pistol was in hands of a Police man of the Town of Laurens by the name of Andrew Nelson and so the Jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Andrew Nelson in manner and for aforesaid Cris Little, then and there did Kill, against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

Julia Mundy June 17, 1881 at Jas H Banknight, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Julia Mundy Came to her death from a pistol shot and fired by Josh Mundy her husband and made one mortal wound in the Right breast of her

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

Farquer Ratliff August 11, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Farquer Ratliff & Bertha Evans received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Gun shot wounds in the hands of James Evans

Albert Jones April 29, 1885 at Pickens Reynolds house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Albert Jones came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Jack Jones in self defence

Enoch Stevens August 2, 1859 at Stephens Mill, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Enoch Stevens came to his dith by the wound received from James Huggins and Samuel Taylor one wound on the head the skull bone broke, one wound on the leg and the bone ruptured then and there feloniously did kill the said Stevens

James M. D'young February 16, 1879 at John J. Moore's, Spartanburg County, SC
Elizabeth South June 23, 1839 at the dwelling House of William South, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that some person unknown with certainty not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the twenty second day of June in the year Eighteen hundred and thirty nine with a murderous weapon in the District afforesaid in and upon the person of the said Elizabeth South then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State feloniously voluntarily and of his own malice aforethought made an asalt [sic] - and that the afforesaid persown [sic] unknown with certainty. Then and there inflict a number of wounds on the person of said Elizabeth South then and there on her throat crosswise one of them passing through to the neck bone of which mortal wounds the afforesaid Elizabeth South did then and there in a short time die...

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

Henry Blassingham July 10, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said Henry Blassingham came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound. The gun being in the hands of Frank Nelson. The ball entering the body to the left and a little above the left nipple and ranging[?] upwards

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.

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

William Gathings August 16, 1932 at Pageland Township, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: William Gathings came to his death by Pistol Shot wounds in the hands of Guy Watts

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

William Bailey July 19, 1846 at the House of Samuel C Scott, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Bailey was feloniously Killed and Murdered by Thomas Prince at the house of Saml C. Scott . . .with a pocket Knife

Sindy Brighthop August 21, 1898 on S.W. Gardners place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Sindy Brighthop came to her death, from a dislocated neck done by th parties in the house

Rob Watkins December 11, 1927 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robt. Watkins came to his death by reason of a gun-shot wound inflicted by Mark Sellers

negro woman slave negro woman slave July 12, 1851 at Jackson Pattison's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . . are inclined to the belief that there might have been violence inflicted which might have caused death upon the head or throat. Those parts being in so [?] a state of decomposition that it was impossible to determine whether there had been injuries inflicted on those parts or not.

Will Collens October 20, 1894 at Gaines SC, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Will Collens came to his death by gun shot wound by the hands of Jack Harrison

Allen Holmes March 4, 1882 at Oscar Seigler Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Holmes Came to His death by a Gun Shot wound in the hands of Gus Settler

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

Charlotte February 22, 1862 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Charlotte a slavey here lying dead before us came to her death by a wound inflicted by a six Barreled repeater in the hands of James J. Wortham on the 20th of February 1862

Bertha Evans August 11, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Farquer Ratliff & Bertha Evans received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Gun shot wounds in the hands of James Evans

William Samuel April 26, 1891 at Scima[?] Hill Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the decease William Samuel Came to his death ... by a Gun Shot Wound in the hands of Henry Glover in Self defince

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

George W. Barker December 27, 1854 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the deceased came to his death by pistol shots, received in an affray between the deceased and Richard N. McMaster, from a pistol fired in the hands of Richard N. McMaster on the night of the 26th.

Elizer slave June 13, 1845 at the plantation of Mrs S. C. Sims, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the death was occasioned by the violent abuse given her by the hands of David R. Henderson the overseer of [??] Sims by beating her with such weapons as was calculated to destroy life

Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

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...

John Webb March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the aforesaid John Webb came to his death by Gun Shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hands of Robert Coile[?], Dan Coward Hill Howard, and R L Burnett as principals, Milledge Reece and A.J. Corley as accessories

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

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

Benjamin Farmer April 9, 1804 at the dwelling house of Benjamin Farmer, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] a certain Denis Crain with volence and force of arms ... did attack, wound & kill ... Benj'n Farmer

Apling negro man April 5, 1849 in the woods in said district near the Lexington line on a branch of McGier Creek, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon their oaths do say that they believe the decd to be the remains of Ap or Apling . . .and that he came to death by a leaden ball shot from a gun[?] or pistol by the hands of some person or persons unknown

Annie Streeter July 12, 1919 at a House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

find that the said Annie Streeter came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by Alexander Streeter

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