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 1 - 50 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
John Goodlett December 28, 1880 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased John H. Goodlett came to his death from a wound on the head how caused the Jury are unable to say

male baby male baby May 24, 1891 at the Saluda River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he was feloniously murdered and thrown in the Salud River at the hands of his own Mother or at the hands of Some one known to her

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

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. . .

Flora Harrison November 4, 1890 at Liberty Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sam Moss the Said Flora Harrison by Misfortune and contrary to his Will in manner and form aforesaid did Kill and Slay

Martha Armstrong March 30, 1840 at the house of Archibald Armstrong, Fairfield County, SC

The following jurors on the inquest are of the opinion that Mrs Martha Armstrong came to his death by violence inflicted as they believe by Mr Armstrong the husband of the deceased

Frank Flowers January 31, 1921 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jury . . . find that the Said Frank Flowers came to his death by gun Shot in the had of Dan Bittle

Caleb Campbell near Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Caleb Campbell was killed and murdered by hanging by some person or persons to the jury unknown[.]

William C. Driggers August 1, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That W. T. Driggers came to his death by an acute heart attack caused by knife wounds in the hands of Raymond Driggers

Rachel February 18, 1834 at the grave of a female Negroe Slave named Rachel near the house of Benjamin Boulware, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe that the said negro Rachel came to her death by a blow or stroke on the head from a violent hand which broke her Scull and also from circumstances rest their suspicion on Thomas D Peay owner of said Rachel.

Irving Stallings March 3, 1857 at Court House, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Jeremiah Benson, (Called J. M. Benson) in manner and form aforesaid Irving Stallings, then and there feloniously did Kill against the Peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Albert Williams August 9, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersign Jurors agree that Albert Williams came to his death at the hands of Pete Parson in a gun fight

Joe Coleman near Willing, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the Said Joe Coleman came to his death by gun shot wounds, by the hands of person or persons unknown to the Jury, but suspicion and evidence points to William Woodward principal and we further think that he had accessories[.]

William Rosborough at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that that the said William Rosborough was willfully, unlawfully and maliciously killed by a gun shot wound and that he was willfully killed and murdered[.]

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

infant June 12, 1872 Anderson County, SC
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

D. M. Pettit December 19, 1899 at G.J. Redfern, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: we the jurors find that D M Pettit came to his death by a wound on left side of his head causing fracture of the skull and depression on the brans in some manner unknown to the jury

infant March 6, 1884 in the City of Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said child . . .came to its death from injuries received at the hands of Mary McKeys, Lizzie Mills, Paul Mills, and Alexander Mills, all of whom we deem cognizant of and accessory to the death

Howard E. Fields September 24, 1948 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Howard E. Fields received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by_______ in the hands of Lee Freeman & Garland Smith

Charlie Prince January 25, 1914 at R. B. Laney's farm, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Charlie Prince came to his death by knife wounds in the hands of Gus. Hubbard and that Charlie Williams is an accessory before and after the fact

Anthony October 30, 1860 at Dr. McCoys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Antony came to his death from Shot wounds of a gun in the hands of John P Templeton on the 29th day of Oct

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

Frank slave July 16, 1840 at the house of Charles M. Breaker, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we suppose he came to his death by the evidence before us by being stabbed in the thigh with a deadly weapon and that done by the hands of a negro man slave by the name of Titus the property of Samuel A.B. Shannon in or near the main road leading from Camden to Salisbury

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

W. C. Benson October 25, 1889 at the police station in Spartanburg City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the decased came to his death by a supposed fall from a trestle ... said fall causing concussion of the brain

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.

Henry Woolbright October 26, 1843 at Wm. C. Brown's near Howell's Ferry, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry Woolbright died in consequence of [?] abuse recd from his Father Tom Woolbright & from neglect at Various times by especially from the abuse recd . . .by certain strokes & blows inflicted by Thomas Woolbright at their own house

infant November 28, 1829 in Camden on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welsh[?] resided, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the remains of an infant born at "full time" were found in a smoke house, suspiciuosly concealed in a jar with lime on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welch[?] resided; but how, or when the infant came to its death we know not.

William slave November 10, 1856 near Prospect Church near the line of Richland and on the waters of Wayland's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the said negro man William came to his death from a wound in the back caused by a shot gun in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Henry Little October 9, 1911 at Henry Little's near Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the Said Henry Little came to his death By goon Shot wounds in the hands of Parties unknown to the Jury

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

female child, white child female child, white child January 21, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said unknown female child came to her death from violence at the hands of a party or parties to the Jury unknown

Certain Mail Bastard Child Certain Mail Bastard Child January 16, 1838 at the house of Joseph McConathy, Laurens County, SC

do say on these oaths that the said child came to its death either by being smothered or for the want of that attention which was necessary to sustain life and which was Intentionally withheld from it. And that the mother of the child (viz) Martha McConathy was the principle in the crime and that Isabelah McConathy Accessory to it.

Robert Williams November 4, 1881 at Wilson's Bridge, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Robert Williams came to his death . . . by hanging at the hands of parties unknown to the jury

Mahlon Jones December 25, 1891 at Landrams Farm, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Mahlon Jones was . . .killed by a pistol. . .shot in the hands of Henry Scott and that Coleman Maroney was accessoror

Hugh Barkley September 20, 1836 in the house of Hugh Barkley, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that according to the evidence adduced to them the said Hugh Barkley came to his death by a wound inflicted on him with a dirk or knife by Baby Flemming on the left side above the Pubis which we suppose cut the spermatic[?] artery & caused the effusion of blood into the scrotum

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

Claude McKenzie February 1, 1935 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say that Claude McKenzie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun done willfully . . . in the hands of Gillespie McKenzie

Wesley Smith at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Worley Smith came to his death on the sixteenth day of February A.D. 1900 from blows inflicted by one

Abe Dubose Jr. at the old[?] mill place of S.D. Dunn, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Abe Dubose Jr. came to his death by a gunshot wound at the hands of William Dubose and that Frances Dubose is accessory to the killing[.]

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

Mary Grace Aldrich infant child August 11, 1856 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that said child came to her death at the time and place aforesaid by having large portions of laudaunum administered by a servant girl the nurse of the name of Clarissa. . .with felonious intent

James Nelson November 22, 1903 at E. C. Clark's place, Chesterfield County, SC

We the undersigned juror of inquest over the body of James Nelson find that he Come to his death by being hanged by some unKnown Partyes.

black child black child July 31, 1849 at Morton's old place, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Harriot and Amy and Jenny did then and there feloniously cause the death of the said chile contrary to the peace and dignity of the state.

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

John David Twiggs September 15, 1864 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Doct J D Twiggs came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of R. J. Butler sen on the Publick Rode

infant September 12, 1882 at Chester Scruggs well, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant was murdered by being thrown into an unused well by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

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

infant March 29, 1842 at Tabitha Laird's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say according to evidence taken before us at this inquest do believe that the Tabitha Laird. . .did destroy her infant child against the peace and dignity of said state have no proof how the infant came to its death

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