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 a 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. We will never know precisely how many enslavers murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But in cases where the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, or where the enslaver failed to cover it up, there usually was 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 enslaved 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 an enslaved man named Dick who became so jealous that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the man who was staying in the cabin of a woman he wanted to sleep with.

Today, 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 was an interracial liaison. More often it was 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 might be considered extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother, for instance, 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 enslavers to believe 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 551 - 600 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

William Martin May 24, 1891 on the premises of W. E. Friday, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Wm Martin came to his death from a pistol shot wound and that Augustus Dearing firered the pistol

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

William Wallace at Beau's, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say: That the said William Wallace came to his death from a pistol shot fired in the hands of Jule[?] Tole[?]

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.

Frank Burnett colored September 15, 1869 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Frank Burnett colored was killed at Spartanburg Courhouse in the rear of Thomson's blacksmith shop. . .by a pistol or gun shot wound in the heart given by the hand or hands of Henry Jones colored and Moses Young colored

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

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.

Poole Croft colored man September 9, 1880 at Barksdale Church, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Poole Croft came to his death . . . by means of a pistol in the hands of Jefferson D. Gilreath by misfortune and contrary[?] [?] will in manner and found aforesaid did kill & slay

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.

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

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

W. S. Rodgers March 8, 1866 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC pitcher

fom the testimony befouse us, that W.S. Rogers came to his death by wounds inflicted upon his head on the 7th inst. By several blows with a metal Pitcher & the blow with a Decanter in the hands of W.A. Rose

Stephen Stalmaker August 30, 1850 at J.M.C. Freeland's, Edgefield County, SC plank

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by blow inflicted on the side of his head with a piece of plank four feet long five & a half inches wide & one inch thick used as the [?] of a door which had fractured the right parietal[?] & Temporal bones by the hands of Thomas Parker

Mose Lowery March 16, 1940 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that Mose Lowery received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by pocket knife in the hands of unknown hands

Lewis Moore November 30, 1891 at the plantation of Robert Smith, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that one Lewis Moore . . .came to his death from wounds in right arm inflicted with pocket knife in the hands of Robert Bauknight (Col)

James B. Brawly November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that the sd. J.B. Brawly came to his death by a stab wound from a common packet kinfe inflicted on his left side opposite his navel and about 4 inches from the same by the hand of John Davis

Thomas Linder November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pocket knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the said T.Linder came to his death by a stab from a common pocket knife inflicted on his left breast about two inches from his left nipple by the hand of John Davis

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

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

Will slave November 18, 1854 at William Nevitt's, Anderson County, SC rail

do say that the said deceased came to his death?from wounds inflicted on the 6th day of said month with the end of a rail in the hands of Robert C. Nevitt that Robert C. Nevitt the said slave [unkown word] misfortune and in self defense & contrary to his will in manner & form aforesaid did kill & slay

Andrew slave September 3, 1850 at A.P. Butlers plantation, Edgefield County, SC rail

upon their oaths do say that . . .Andrew came to his death by a lick on the head on the right side inflicted by Ben a slave of A.P. Butler with a half of rail done in the heat of passion while in an affray

Alfred Hollingsworth October 10, 1898 at David Strothers place, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say, that Alfred Hollingsworth came to his death by a razor cut in the hands of George Hutcherson

Charles Kelly August 14, 1866 at the town of Anderson, Anderson County, SC razor

do say that the said Charles Kelly came to his death?.from the effects of one mortal wound across the throat of him the said Kelly which wound was inflicted by means of a certain razor which one Thomas Berry, private of Company (I) 8th U.S. Infantry--then & there in his hand had and held and of which wound the said kelly did instantly die.

Mary Randall October 19, 1857 at the Residence of John Randall, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Mart Randall came to her death from a large cut or gash across the throat made by a Razor in the hand of her husband John Randall

John Pedeu[Peden?] February 11, 1851 at the house of John S. Pedeu[?], Greenville County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say. . . came to his death. . . in consequence of a wound received on the sixth instance from a rifle ball

Captain Andrew Feaster February 6, 1808 at the house of Abner Fant, Fairfield County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that on the night of the fifth day of February instant the said Andrew Feaster was killed and murdered by Shadrick Jacobs with a ball discharged from a Rifle Gun belonging to Randall Woodward near a path leading from said Randall Woodwards home to the house of the said Shadrick Jacobs.

Boyd Cutner December 21, 1937 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC rifle

We the jorors after considering evidence in this case conclude that Boyd Cutner came to his death from gun shot wound in the neck said gun 22 (caliber rifle) in the hands of Ben Ganzy

John Simmons March 21, 1810 at John Simmons, Laurens County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that on the 20th day of March 1810 that about a half mile from his house the said John Simmons was cild [sic] by a Rifle ball shot by John Hall by his own confession which said ball went through the write [sic] arm and into his write [sic] side of him the said John Simmons said was the Cause of his Death but we believe that it was innocently - Done by him the said John Hall and not in mallice [sic]...

Peter slave March 31, 1848 at or near Calum Foster's[?], Spartanburg County, SC rifle

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hands of C. Alexander being shot with a rifle ball through the head

Wesley Arant March 12, 1915 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC rifle

upon their oaths, do say: Wesley Arant came to his death by a Rifle shot in the hands of Shep West.

L. F. Pinson December 17, 1890 at the Residence of Jabe Pinson, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say, That the said L.F. Pinson came to his death by a blow inflicted on the head with a rock at the hands of Coleman Nelson

John W. Buchanan July 18, 1936 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that John W. Buchanan received in _____ County a mortal wound by Rock in the hands of Ed. Mack, Jr.

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

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

William Dillard November 28, 1833 at Pleasant Hill Church, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their othas do Say. That Said William Dillard came to his death by a rock or brick thrown at him by James Dillard in Self defence.

William Roster June 9, 1891 on the plantation of Go Y Young, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm Roster alias Berges came to his death From a blow received by a rock thrown from the hands of Rafe Dickson this the 9th day of June 1891.

William Mauldin September 15, 1867 at Emoree Factory, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said William Mauldin came to his death. . .from a blow or blows inflicted with a rock or rocks from the hands of John Burgess

Willis slave October 5, 1847 at James Burnett's, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by a wound with a rock in the forehead at the camp meeting at Prospect[?] by the hands of Dave belonging to John Liles of Polk County, N.C.

Charles King October 10, 1869 at Charles Kings, Laurens County, SC rock or club
George Blakeney February 12, 1896 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC rocks

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Geo. Blakney came to his death from the rupture of a blood vessel in the abdoman caused by some over exertion in attempting to escape from the chain gang on the 16th of Feb 1896

John G. Gorley July 26, 1866 Anderson County, SC rope

the said John G. Gorly came to his death?by having been hanged by the nexck until his body was dead, by means of a certain of a certain grass rope fastened to the limb of a certain oak sapling near to the spot where the bones then lay....and that Henry J. Knauff of Pendleton village...and John Baskins and Thompson Oliver...did there and there feloneously hang and murder the said John G. Gorly

William Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Albert Shaw July 1, 1946 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Albert Shaw received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Oliver Johnson

Edmond Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Eleck slave May 30, 1850 at the quarter of A.D. Jones Esq., Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say that he came to his death by a shot gun wound inflicted by the hands of Thos. Mickle under justifiable circumstances.

Seymore Crawford January 9, 1933 at Mt. Croghan, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths, do say: That Seymore Crawford came to his death by Gun Shot wounds at the hands of Luther Kelley did wastfully and feloniously did kill, against the peace and dignity of the aforesaid state.

James Busby June 21, 1860 at J[?]essey L. J[?]eter, Union County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that from wounds on the decsd and the evidence before them they do believe decsd came to his death by the hands of one David E Jeter[?] in the yard of Jessey[?] L Jeter ... [?] shooting him with a shot gun

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

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

Jesse Weatherford September 4, 1849 at the plantation of Mrs R Blaylock, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say the said Jesse Weatherford was killed & murdered at the plantation of Mrs Rossita Blaylock . . .by a negro man named Jo the property of Mrs Rositta Blaylock by the said Jo shooting the said Jesse Weatherford in the left side and arm with a shot gun loaded with powder & leaden shot

Daniel slave, boy May 27, 1862 at John H. Fair, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon there oaths do say that Daniel came to his death by a wound in the hipp receive at Edgefield Court House in B. C. Bryant store from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Bryant

Leonard Dixon October 27, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Dixon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Frank DeBerry on the 26 day of October 1934, and that form such mortal wound deceased died in South Carolina on October 26-1934.

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