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.


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 351 - 400 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Barnett S. Langston August 8, 1889 at Lanfords station, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that the said Barnett S Langston came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of Jno. W. Lanford

Haup W. Oliver June 9, 1912 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

William M. Tredaway March 27, 1851 at the house of William M Tredaway at Beach Island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death from a gun shot fired at him by William Wilson

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[.]

Will Love January 27, 1891 Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest in the case of the state vs the dead body of Will Love find from the testimony taken in the above case that, he the said Love came to his deth from the Effects of gun shot wounds from the hands of Geo Demly, that he died on the Morning of the 27 inst.

Lewis slave March 27, 1865 at or near the residence of [?] Gossett, Spartanburg County, SC

that he came to his from a gun shot wound through the neck passing out at his jaw and the said show was from a gun in the hands of some person unknown

Hardy Boulware January 2, 1862 at Hardy Boulwares, Edgefield County, SC

by the oaths of that Hardy Bolware came to his death by a gun shot wound from the hands of David W. Padgett

W. H. H. Richards February 1, 1884 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said W.H.H. Richards came to his death by a pistol shot, received on 23rd July 184, at the hands fo W B Cash

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
Cesar Negro, negro boy July 7, 1843 at the house of Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say. . .believe said negro came to his death by a sever blow given him by Jerry one of said Watsons negroes not with the intention to Kill

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

Albert Blakeney October 18, 1937 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Albert Blakeney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Herman Massey

Vollney Powell October 21, 1870 on public highway from Laurens C.H. to Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, We, the jury empannelled this day, to view the body of Volney Powell of Laurensville now lying dead before us, do find, upon making view and inquest, that the said Volney Powel - came to his death on public highway between Laurens and Clinton by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands some person or persons unknown to this Jury.

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

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

Isham Glover August 10, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that the said Isham Glover came to his death from the effects of a gun Shot wound in the hands of C.H. Anderson

Sam Pratt at Woodward, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Sam Pratt came to his death from the effects of a gunshot wound, inflicted by one Sol[?] McElhenny on the 5th day of Jan 1894, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid Sol[?] McElhenny in manner and form aforesaid, Sam Pratt did feloniously kill[.]

Sarah Hardy free girl of color October 4, 1865 at William Page's, Union County, SC

We the Jurors can [?] deceasd came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by some person unknown

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

Dave Gillam August 25, 1892 at the house of Cal Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

the Said Dave Gillam Came to his death from a gun Shot wound inflicted by the hands of Eliott Johnson

Warren slave July 13, 1859 at Camden at the residence of John Workman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Warren. . .came to his death from Lock jaw produced by a gun shot wound in the inner side of the right thigh discharged by John Workman and from his own impudence & exposure afterward

Cole white infant November 18, 1827 near the house of William Cole, Union County, SC
white infant child, boy white infant child, boy March 24, 1858 at John Thomas Boat Landing, Union County, SC

the infant Came to it Death by it being Killed and throwed in the River

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

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

infant male child infant male child March 27, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid unknown male child came to his death from causes to this jury unknown

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

G. B. Kelly December 16, 1896 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said G.B. Kelly came to his death from a gun shot wound on the 12th day of Dec. 1896 in the hands of W.P. Swinnie and died on the 14th of Dec from the effects

infant April 6, 1865 near Hobbysville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after a most careful investigation of the whole matter ... that the said child, we are satisfied, came to its death by having the posterior part of its head crushed, wilfully and violently, by the hands of Martha Robinson, the mother of said child, or Elizabeth Robinson, the grandmother of said child, later in the evening of Tuesday the 4th day of April

Edmund Brown December 24, 1853 at the house of Wm Merchantile[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Edmund Brown came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side of his neck, by the dischard of a Shot Gun, held in the hands of Carson Warren

A. G. Douglass May 6, 1889 at A. G. Douglass', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said A.G. Douglass came to his death By a gunshot wound in the hands of W. D. Merriman and A. B. Merriman Bill Merriman & James Pegg Being Acessors to the crime

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[.]

Sarah Sweat February 4, 1871 at the dwelling house of Sarah Sweat, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oath, do say: that Sarah Sweat came to her death on the 4th of February 1871, by the visitation of Providence.

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

Lewis Green free man of color September 17, 1859 at the Williamston Hotel, Anderson County, SC arsenic

do say that the said Lewis Green came to his death by poisioning with arsnick at the Williamston Hotel. . . on the night of the seventeenth day of September. . . the said poison being administered at the said Hotel somewhere about the thirteenth day of September...the medium of a certain sponge cake or pudding by some person or persons unknown

James W. Allred Sr. September 21, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that James W. Allred, Sr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile Collision in the hands of Wade A. Outlaw

Mary Jane Dunbar April 21, 1913 at Cutarrh, Chesterfield County, SC ax

upon their oaths, do say: That she came to her death from the blow of an axe inflicted by Isadore Dunbar

A. G. McDonald March 11, 1927 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC ax

upon their oaths, do say: we the jury find that the deceased A.G. McDonald came to his death by being struck on the head by an ax in the hands of Will Alias Man Dawkins and we recommend that Katie Howard be heald as an accessory before and after the fact

Holman Smith May 28, 1855 at the late residence of Holman Smith, Spartanburg County, SC ax

upon their oaths do say [deceased] was wilfully, maliciously, & feloniously murdered at his own residence. . .by Phillis and John, slaves of the deceased, by beating him with an Axe and a stick. . .and that Charley, a slave of dec's'd, was accessory to the murder being present and making no effort to prevent the murder

Edward Faircloth March 2, 1855 at the house of Edward T. Richs, Horry County, SC ax

upon their Oaths do say that at a negro House on the primises of the residence of Edward T. Ricks. Was struck one mortal blow with the edge of an ax, inflicting a wound six inches long and throuhg to his hollow on his left brest by the hands of one Tilson a slave belong to James F. Clark of North Carolina

Rachel slave November 2, 1838 at the House of Samuel L Martin, Union County, SC ax

do say oppon their oaths that wone negro woman name Clansy propperty of Samuel Martin not having got Before his Eyes Being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil . . .with force and arms . . .with a sertain ax did then and there vilently and feloniously with malice of forethough strike and pierce and give to the said Rachel with the said ax in and uppon the front as well as the Back part of the head two mortal wounds

Lizzy three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC axe

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

Newton Cox October 30, 1875 at Robert Thomson's, Greenville County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say Newton Cox . . .came to his death. . . from a blow struck on his head [?] an axe in the hands of one Charlie Sulivan at the house of one Joycy Batson

Augustus W. Burt March 25, 1847 at the Plantation of A.W. Burt, Edgefield County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said A.W. Burt was Killed by his own slave Toll with an axe

Allen S. Barksdale June 23, 1876 at the house of Robert A. Gray, Anderson County, SC axe

do say that Allen S. Barksdale came ot his death by an axe in the hands of Mary A. Gray on the night of 22nd June 1876 in self-defense in her own house and yard with several wounds with a mortal wound inflicted with ^the edge of^ an axe upon the top of the head to length of 3 inches severing in the skull bone.

Young Fuller May 3, 1854 at Mary McCrackins, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by Three wounds Inflicted on his head with an ax by the hand of Mary McCrackin Either being mortal

George Huggins November 30, 1814 at John Pitts, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say. That the deceased George Huggins came to his Death By a Blow struck by Jay Pitts with an axe

Mary slave October 31, 1838 at the house of Saml L Martin, Union County, SC axe

do say upon their oaths that the negro woman named Clarrasan[?] ... not having God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil . . .with force and arms . . .and upon the said Mary then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State, feloniously voluntarily and of his own malice ... did then and there with a certain axe did then and there violently feloniously and with malice aforethough struck and pierced[?] and gave to the said Mary with the said axe in and upon the forehead of the said Mary one mortal wound

Thompson slave April 1, 1863 at Thomas Spencers, Union County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said Thompson was felloniously and maliciously homicideed by some person with an axe by a blow on the head, and the evidence before us justifies us in finding that the boy Henry was at least accessory to the decd

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