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 251 - 300 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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[.]

George Pye December 13, 1857 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think he came to his death by wounds inflicted on his person; from the evidence we believe that Gilbert Fleming did feloniously kill the said George Pye against the peace and dignity of the state

Richard Lundy December 7, 1891 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that the aforesaid came to his death from gun & pistol shot wound and also 1 cut in neck in the hands of unnown parties

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

Male Child Male Child January 30, 1809 at David Cowens, Laurens County, SC

do believe upon their oathes that. . . by some means unknown to the Jurors and so these Jurors upon their oathes aforesaid Doth say the Jurors also believe that Jane Cowan was accessory to the sd. Murder. . .

Peter October 25, 1854 Laurens County, SC
Wesley male slave, child October 5, 1857 at the residence of Sophia A Tilman, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the said male slave Wesley came to his death by blows given by Joe a slave the Property of F Oconner

Hon. Joseph Crews September 14, 1875 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joseph Crews came to his Death by means certain gun shot wounds inflicted by person or persons to the jurors unknown

Pink Williams October 6, 1898 at or near Mr E.F. Pickles residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths, do Say that Pink Williams came to his death by Gun Shot wounds in the hands of Lawyer[?] Holoway[?]

Nestor Ellison freedman June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

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

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

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

death was caused from concussion of the brain caused from some blow or lick.

Edward Bridges March 19, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC
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

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.

Mary Hicks May 10, 1881 at the residence of Widow Lucy Clements, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... Mrs. Mary Hicks came to her death by a gun shot and a knife or some sharp tool in the hands of one B. Whitney Hicks, her husband

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

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that the aforesaid Willis Asbell came to his death from wounds received in a fracas or fight, with Nathan Fallow Henry Fallow, Robt Fallow Mary Fallow Anna Fallow and a little boy (Prisoner) name William Ellis

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.

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

Christopher Campbell April 16, 1835 Kershaw County, SC

after hearing the evidence together with the opinion of Doctors DeLeon and Young are of opinion that the deceased came to his death from a disease of the brain hastened by blows on his head inflicted by some person or persons unknown

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

Lewis Hall in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Lewis Hall was killed on the 9th day of January 1883, in Fairfield County in what manner and with what instrument unknown to the Jurors

Clement D. Wallace November 28, 1867 at Gopher Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clement D Wallace was disabled or killed with some instrument unknown or by the burning of his dwelling house

Andrew Lynch August 22, 1868 at or near Gosmills Mill's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot taken affect in his abodomen discharged near his spine fired by some person inward[?]

Francis Stuart May 8, 1883 in a house occupied by Henry Langford on the plantation of W.S. Pitts, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that on the night of 7th of May 1883 about half past 8 O'clock the said Francis Stuart came to her death from the effects of a gun shot wound supposed to have been inflicted by Lewis Stuart, her husband, and so the jurors aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid Lewis Stuart, in manner and form aforesaid, Francis Stewart, then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

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

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

William Clyburn September 15, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William Clyburn received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 S&W Pistol in the hands of Mr. Ike Plyler. . . The Jury recommends that I. K. Plyler be not held responsible -- justifiable Homicide

Peter Goddard November 3, 1866 Laurens County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors return the following verdict. That Peter Goadard Freedman came to his death by the means of two Balls shot from a gun in the hands of one Jacob Spoon Freedman on the night of the 20th of Oct 1866 on or near the Bank of Saluda River on Christopher Smith's plantation on Larens side.

Willie G. Harris March 25, 1897 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

We the Jury find that Willie G Harris came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of [?] Wm Thurmond

Jane Young February 11, 1853 at the late residence of Mrs. Jane D. Young, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Mrs. Jane D. Young came her death by [being] shotint he left breast feloniously, wilfully & maliciously by a gun in the hands of Hiram a negro slave the property of L.W.R. Blair

Freedwoman Freedwoman October 23, 1867 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said infant came to its death by strangulation by the hands of its mother Clary Williams, a freed woman in the town of Anderson . . .immediately after its birth

Haigood Mirfan[?] Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .J. William M. Brown ... then and there [did] inflict three severe blows upon the head of deceased fracturing his skull in two places

Thornton Nance August 7, 1891 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he the said Thornton Nance came to his death by Pistol shot wound in the hands of Jim Young - & his accessories - Jno Adams - Perry Adams Jno Atkinson, Lige Atkinson - Tom Atkinson Jack Williams - Henry Suber, Monroe Young - Henderson Young & Allen Young.

A. infant child January 13, 1832 at the house of John Nelson, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that a certain person unknown did kill and but[?] believe that A was a black woman Slave named [?] the property of John Nelson of said district did kill and homicide the said infant A and the said Jurors upon oaths afforesaid further say that the said person unknown or Palmer at above Said after she had commited the said felony and homicide did flee away

Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson January 14, 1865 at W.B. Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they beloeve the Infant slave above mentioned came to its death by violence inflicted by the hands of some unknown person by thrusting a common sewing needle through the scalp into the brain. . .Either by the hand of the Mother, or The Slave Girl Lucy, The property of W.B. Henderson.

Stephen December 6, 1833 at Ephraim Morgan's house, Fairfield County, SC

do believe that the s'd boy Stephen came to his death by a gunshot wound, inflicted by Ephraim Morgan: and that in accordance with the testimony adduced, we believe that the s'd boy was killed by the sd. Ephraim Morgan in self defence.

Willie Toney March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Willie Toney came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hand of Robert Coill[?], Dan Coward, Hill Hoawrd and R. L. Burnett as principals. Milledge Reese and A. J. Corley as accessories.

infant July 16, 1868 in the town of Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

the jury ... were lead to believe that Lula Collins (alias Deas) was the mother of the dead child, and that Louisa Deas in trying to conceal the body of said child in the well leads the jury to suspect that she had knowledge of the manner by which it came there. How the child come to its death, the jury are unable to determine.

Jasper Thomas March 28, 1934 at Cheraw, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersigned jurors find that Jasper Thomas, colored, came to his death aobut 6:25 P.M. Thursdday, March 22nd 1934 by pistol wound at the hands of John Mack, colored.

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

Elizabeth South June 23, 1839 at the dwelling House of William South, Laurens County, SC

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

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

Marcus April 12, 1836 at Gibson's Neck on the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

we find that the negro is Marcus the property of D. A. Brevard but are unable to say whether his death was caused by certain blows inflicted on the head & drowning or by drowning alone

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 September 19, 1833 at the home of William Griffin, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . .that the infant was put to death by violence of Harriet Bagood

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

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

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

Moses Blalock May 19, 1882 on the Plantation of W G McDavid, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Moses Blalock Death was Caused by a Gun Shot Wound the gun was in the hands of Mose Lackhart and in our opinion it is wilful Murder

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