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 101 - 150 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
Jasper Deal January 18, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said Jasper Deal came to his death from the effect of a pistol shot wound in the hands of Henry Townsend. The ball entering the head just below the left eyebrow and passing directly through the brain to the back of the head.

Eugene McCarty May 11, 1861 at Edgefield Court house, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say that the said Eugene McCarty the deceased came to his death this day by a wound received from a pistol in the hands of William A Murrell

David Deason December 4, 1934 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that David Deason received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol in the hands of Bruce Roue on the 2nd day of December 1934, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Charlotte Sanitarium on December 3rd 1934.

Hayes Brown May 11, 1935 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Hayes Brown received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a pistol in the hands of Lum Ross on the 5th day of May 1935, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Wadesboro on May 6th 1935.

Jor.[?] Seabrook JUST TESTIMONY, Fairfield 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

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.

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

Thomas Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say that the said Thos Booths. . .came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

Hattie Threatt McManus February 1, 1934 at Dudley, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths, do say: Hattie Threatt McManus came to her death by Gun shot wound in the hands of J. T. McManus

R. J. Lester March 19, 1851 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death from a ball shot from a pistol in the hands of Samuel I. Love and that Samuel Wilson Love was accessory to the act

Giles Guess colored February 2, 1882 at the hosue of John Smith, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the deceased was willfully killed by the hand of one Isaac Putnam by shooting deceased with a pistol and that Silas Putnam was accessory to the killing about seven or eight oclock in the afternoon at the house of one John Smith

Thelma Wallace Gainey May 30, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Thelma Wallace Gainey received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol in the hands of Henry Tiner

Council Tucker January 16, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Council Tucker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol shot in the hands Louis Wright

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

Nelson Davis at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death. . .the 6th day of April 1893 from a pistol shot wound at the hands of William Gilchrist, and that twelve of the jurors say justifiable homicide and two against. The last tow signing being against justifiable homicide.

Eldridge Brown August 5, 1837 in Camden, Kershaw County, SC pistol

do say upon their oath that the said Eldridge Brown came to his death by a ball or balls shot from a pistol by Mr. F. S. Bronson in a encounter with that gentleman

Teague Tillman October 2, 1899 at the plantation of Thos. H. Ramsford, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do Say: That Teague Tillman came to his death . . . by pistol in the hands of Will Perminter

J. D. Ouzts December 7, 1891 at Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say. . .that the aforesaid J.D. Ouzts came to his death from a pistol shot wound in the hands of Richard Lundy and that it was willfull murder

Henry Long January 7, 1834 Union County, SC pistol

do say upon their oaths that one Saml P Bailey of Said District not having the fear of God Before his Eyes But moved by the instigation of the Devil did . . .in the House or Store of James R. Nathens . . .with a Pistol wound & Kill the said Henry Long

Henry Mobley December 11, 1899 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths, do Say: That Henry Mobley came to his death . . . by a pistol shot. . . fired by the hands of Mark Clark

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

Johnson Peterson March 9, 1892 at Deny[?] S.C., Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say - that this Jury of inquest believes that the Said Johnson Peterson Came to his death ... by a gun Shot wound Said wound being Made as we believe by a pistol in the hands of Pickens Smith

Samuel Posey October 21, 1860 at P. B. McDaniels, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oath do say that the said Sam Posey came to his death by a Pistol shots in the hand of Henry Williams. . .four balls taken affect

J. Edward Sims March 2, 1855 at the house of Doct. James Gages, Union County, SC pistol

upon their oathes do say. . . that the aforesaid N R E Mayer Feloniously did with a Pistol against the Peace & dignity of the state aforesaid near the printing office in unvile shoot & Killed the said J Edward Sims

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

Jack slave September 4, 1862 at Mrs. Ann Johnson's residence, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the said Jack did come to his death from a pistol shot inflicted by George T. Smith the overseer of Mrs. Ann Johnson. . .the act was done by him intentionally for disobeience.

William Cloud July 8, 1851 at the Spaun[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the said deceased was killed by a pistol shot in the bar room of H.R. Spaun, by the hands of Philip Goode

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

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

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

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.

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

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

Daniel Lindsey November 6, 1888 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Daniel Lindsey came to his death ... by a pistol shot in the hands of John Petty

Samuel D. Owings November 12, 1869 Laurens County, SC pistol
Huey A Stevenson Fairfield County, SC pistol

We the Jury [?] to hold an inquisition over the body of Huey A Stevenson find that the deceased came to his death form a pistol shot wound inflicted by Johnson Cameron[.]

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

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

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

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

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.

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

John Gary Baker July 20, 1936 at Augelus, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that John G. Baker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol shot in the hands of Walter Jowers

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

J. H. Christian July 21, 1856 in the village of Edgefield in Room No 11, in B. J. Ryans Hotel, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased J.[?] H. Christian came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of G.[?] D. Tilman

Arthur Morris June 20, 1898 at M. W Clarks, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that Arthur Morris Came to his death by a pistol fired by and in the hand of Henry Jeff

James Anders November 28, 1881 at M. B. Ander's, Greenville County, SC pistol

he came to his death by the Shooting of some kind of fire arms two holes in his Head and one in the lore part of his Bowels . . .he was shot by a pistol from the hand of one Bengeman

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

Hammond Frasier November 6, 1897 at Trenton S.C., Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say: That Hammond Frasier come to his death by a gun Shot wound and the Said wound was made by a pistol in the hand of James Hampton

J. M. King September 29, 1913 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths, do say: Jm King came to his death from pistol shot wounds in the Hands of Jim Davis

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia