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
Sam Sinclair slave March 24, 1820 at John Chesnut plantation near Chesnut's Ferry on Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave the property of John Chesnut son of James Chesnut Esquire was violantly [sic] Murdered

Ann slave January 2, 1844 at Capt. B. Haile's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the little girl Ann, a slave the property of B. Haile, came to her death by being burnt intentionally by the nurse, Tamer, a slave of B. Haile.

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

Gus Blocker August 18, 1892 at the plantion of July Blocker, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Gus Blocker came to his death by a gun Shot in the hands of one Isiac[?] Blocker

Absalom Causey September 27, 1863 at Reaves Mill Branch, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that he came to his death by wounds inflicted with a hickory club on the head and side and hip in the hand of Doctor Miles Gilmore

George Watkins October 10, 1866 at George Watkins, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that George Watkins came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of Newton Corley

John E. Paul June 14, 1892 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased John Paul came to his death. . .from the effects of a gun shot wound in the hand of one Henry Griffin and that Guss Longstreet and Sidney Longstreet were accesors

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

Ned Dozier September 27, 1893 at MJ Holsteins, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the said Ned Dozier aforesaid came to his death from the effects of a gun or a pistol shot wonds at the hands of Fred singleton

Gabriel Rabon October 9, 1862 at Turf Camp Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say he came to death by wounds inflicted by shot penetrating the heart by some means to the Jurors unknown . . . But according to evidence we believe that Johnathan J Carroll did kill the said Gabrell Rabon

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

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

George Sullivan June 26, 1893 at Prospect church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That his death was caused by a pistol shot, fired from an American double action, .38 cal, five shot pistol, By Edgar Sullivan, on the 25 day of June, about one oc in the evening, at Prospect church in Laurens Co SC.

Mrs. Sue Rushing January 29, 1912 at C. P. Rushings, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Mrs Sue Rushing come to her death By Pistol shot wounds in the hands of C. P. Rushing

L. Roy Lavender June 9, 1838 at Lucey Lavenders, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that one James Sessions[?] feloniously voulantary and of his own malice aforethought made an assault uppon the said L.R. Lavender with a [?] dirk knife made of Iron and Steel of the value of $1.25 [?] Mortal Wound . . . which Mortal Wound by the Stab of Said Knife the said L.R. Lavender came to his death.

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

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

Patterson Blackwill May 22, 1914 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

on the 22 day of May 1914 find that the deceased came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the heands of J. A. Blackwill and our virdic is a justified homiside this 22 day of May 1914

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.

Henry freemen formerly the slave October 30, 1865 at or near Dr. Bery F. Few's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry was killed and homicideed by some person or persons by the discharge of a gun to the jurors unknown

Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that. . .the said Mary came to her death by being choked, by Joe, a negro man belong to Omey Patterson, who confined to us that he was the murder, and purpetrated said deed on Sunday 16th inst. Showing us where he had Killed her near the above named Plantation

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

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

Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings April 10, 1893 behind Elihu Bullock's stables, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest... find that this child came to his death. . .By the hands of G.Y. Jennings, By some means unknown to us, And aided And abetted by Elihu Bullock Clara Bullock and wife of G.Y. Jennings against the peace and dignity of the state of So Car.

infant female child infant female child March 31, 1857 at Turner Duncan's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the infanct was killed or homicideed by some person or persons, or (by some means) came to its death to the jurors unknown

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

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.

negro woman negro woman March 26, 1840 at John Garrotts, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they believe she the said negro woman come to her death by drinking too great a quantity of water which they believe caused inward pain and perhaps spasm

Walter Brown November 26, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Walter Brown received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by _______ in the hands of Mose McKay. . . He came to his death by a gun in hands of Mose McKay.

slave slave July 23, 1820 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] the said Henry [Schrock] fired at him [unknown African American] with an intention of shooting him in the legs but by chance seventeen low mold shot took him in the body of which wound he instantly died.

William male slave, boy March 12, 1857 at Doct Milton [?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that from what testimony they can get they are together with the wounds & bruises found on the body of the boy both on the head & [?] made by one Lewis Jones . . .came to his death that the said Lewis Jones the said boy William by misfortune & contrary to his will in manner & form afforesaid did Kill & Slay

Sylvester Streater August 18, 1947 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sylvester Streater received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Thelma Williams Streater

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

Archie Woods February 8, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Archie Woods received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Marion Johnson

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

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

Julia Van June 20, 1892 at the plantation of Mr Joe Thurmond, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Rial Williams Killed the said Julia Van by misfortune and contrary to his will

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

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

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

William Padgett February 22, 1894 at W.D. Readys plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said William Padgett aforesaid Came to his death from a gun shot wound in the hands of Tom Rutland

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

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

Susan Medlock April 7, 1894 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Susan Medlock aforesaid, Came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by the hands of Boston Jones Jr

Willis Rabon September 4, 1849 at William Rabon Sen.r, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Abram Rabon Jun'r of the State and District aforesaid did feloneously with a Kinfe stab and Kill the said Willis Rabon and further saith that Abraham Rabon Sen.r and Duke Rabon were Accessories to the same

Wade Burnside December 7, 1893 at Wade Burnside's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. We do find that deceased Wade Burnside came to his death from a pistol wound, at his house in Waterloo the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Wade Burnside in manner and form aforesaid Semore Anderson then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

John McKinny September 26, 1894 at W P. Lipfords[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that. . . John Mckenny. . .came to his death by gun shot wound in the hands of Jessie Bostie and Edmon Jones and others unknown

Jeff Evins March 24, 1895 at the residence of Jeff Evans, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Jeff Evans came to his death by Pistol Shot fired from the hands of Will Smith, and so the jurors afore said do say that the afore said will Smith in mann. And form then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State afore said...

Ben October 10, 1865 at Abram Putnams, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the freedman came to his death from a Gun shot wound in the head and the cutting of his throat with some sharp instrument, by persons unknown to the jurors

Lewis Trabough July 14, 1913 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Lewis Trabough came to his death From pistol shot in the hand of Ben Gardner.

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.

Will Coe September 17, 1914 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

The verdic of the Jury was that McCoy was Justifiable Homcid

Joe negro man, boy March 5, 1865 Greenville County, SC

who came to his death from a gun shot wound in the breast at the hands of Midleton Patterson

Infant Child Infant Child July 27, 1809 at the house of John Brysons, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths aforesaid say that the aforesaid female Child came to its death by a Stroke on the head by the Reputed Mother Jean Bryson. . .

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