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.

NEXT: Suicide

 


Murder Cases Tried in South Carolina, 1887-1900

Year Number of Homicides Tried Not Guilty Verdicts Guilty Verdicts Cases Dismissed or Continued Percentage Found Guilty
1887 79 54 11 14 13.9%
1888 117 61 36 20 30.1%
1889 120 69 30 21 25.0%
1890 incomplete returns - - - -
1891 151 76 46 29 30.0%
1892 incomplete returns - - - -
1893 incomplete returns - - - -
1894 incomplete returns - - - -
1895 210 112 67 31 31.9%
1896 201 110 67 24 33.3%
1897 215 120 64 31 29.7%
1898 248 105 96 47 44.0%
1899 205 83 97 35 47.3%
1900 224 127 71 26 31.7%

Credit: John Hammond Moore, Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 130-131, taken from Reports and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina

Homicide Inquests

Displaying 1 - 50 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

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

Dorcas Henderson November 11, 1855 at Jackson Henderson's, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that from the best information that they could gather that they think the child … Dorcas Henderson came to its death on account of having had an excessive portion of spiritous liquor given to it by a free boy of color named Tobe

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

Annie West March 4, 1871 at the late residence fo Rob't West, Spartanburg County, SC arson

upon their oaths do say that the house in which Mrs. Annie West lived was set on fire by some person or persons unknown & that she perished in the flames

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 Clarisy 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

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

do say upon their oaths that the negro woman named Clarisy … 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

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

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

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.

Henry Heavener March 5, 1853 at Thomas Lynch's, Spartanburg County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that to the satisfaction of the jury he came to his death by violence … by some person or persons to the jurors unknown, by, the jurors suppose, an axe

Riller 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

Holman Smith May 28, 1855 at the late residence of Holman Smith, Spartanburg County, SC axe and stick

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

Mary Lipscomb May 3, 1889 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC beating

upon their oaths do say that the said Mary Lipscomb died of apoplexy

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

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

Gabavila Steadman May 15, 1889 at Joseph Stedman's, Spartanburg County, SC blows to head

upon there oaths do say that the said Gabriella Stedman came to her death by blows inflicted on the head by person or persons unknown to the jury

James Reynolds December 20, 1860 at the residence of James Reynolds, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon there oaths do say that the said James Reynolds came to his death feloniously at the hand of Joseph Samuel … from the affects of a wound inflicted on the head Just above the left ear by a large stick

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

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

Christopher Campbell April 16, 1835 Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

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

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

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

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

Howel slave at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC blunt instrument
Matilda H. Posey February 26, 1849 at the house of Martin Posey, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their Oaths do say, she came to her death, by violence inflicted on her person … by a stick or some deadly instrument in the hands of a negro man name App, or Appling belonging to, or owned by Martin Posey

negro woman slave negro woman slave July 12, 1851 at Jackson Pattison's, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say … are inclined to the belief that there might have been violence inflicted which might have caused death upon the head or throat. Those parts being in so [?] a state of decomposition that it was impossible to determine whether there had been injuries inflicted on those parts or not.

Henry slave July 8, 1856 at the house of Wm M. Hawkins, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said Slave Henry was killed by Jr.[?] a slave of the said Wm M. Hawkins … with a hoe held by the said slave Jr.[?] [?] in self defense

March slave February 24, 1845 at Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a blow inflicted with some blunt instrument upon the head fracturing the skull for some five or seven inches by some person or persons unknown

Micajah Hilliard November 28, 1829 in the house of Joseph Ward, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by an affray with Joseph Ward & John Ballard at the residence of Joseph Ward on the 27th Inst.

Charley Ryan May 9, 1892 at T. H. Ramsford Plantion, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do Say that the said Charlie Ryan Came to his death by the hands of Sam Nobles and it was wilful Murder

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

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

Cesar Negro, negro boy July 7, 1843 at the house of Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

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

Elizabeth Bowing May 30, 1831 at the residence of Mrs. Ann Bowing, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Elizabeth Bowing came to her death by abuse inflicted on her by the hand of Priscilla Robertson

Baylis Edwards May 30, 1864 at the residence of Franis Edwards, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say … that he came to his death by a blow from a [?] on the throat from an unknown hand

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

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

Wesley male slave, child October 5, 1857 at the residence of Sophia A Tilman, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

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

Watson Jackson June 5, 1880 at Jackson Grove Church, Spartanburg County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that at his mother's house of the plantation of Mr. A. Smith ... Watson Jackson came to his death by Malarial Fever

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC blunt instrument
Lee Ryan September 27, 1877 at the plantation of Abram F Broadwater, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their Oaths do say that the said Lee Ryan came to his death from wounds inflicted upon the head by some Iron Instrument in the hands of Some one to the Jury unknown and that Alice Ryan was an accessory to the Crime

Ann Kimball September 4, 1895 at China grove church, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by William Kimball

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC blunt instrument
Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden , Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

Jim slave June 19, 1858 at the plantation of A.H. Boykin, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Jim came to his death … from three wounds inflicted on and across the face by some weapon or instrument to the jury unknown in the hands of Dick a slave of William Sanders

Reuben Dodson November 7, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that … the said Reuben Dodson came to his by a visitation of God

John Goodlett December 28, 1880 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

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

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

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

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument/sharp instrument

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

Samuel A. Geer January 15, 1866 at David Geer's House, Anderson County, SC blunt object

do say that the said S. A. Geer was killed by blows over the head producing five separate fractures of the skull, near the residence of David Geer….by some metalic instrument in the hands of some person or persons unknown.

Jake slave July 24, 1852 at the plantation of Mrs. Amelia Haile near the bridge crossing the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC brick

that the slave Jake came to his death from a blow or blows inflicted on his head by a brick in the hands of Ceily the nurse, a slave property of Charles Haile

Paul Williams Kershaw County, SC brick

upon their oaths do say that the said Paul Williams came to his death from a blow inflicted with a brick upon the right side of the stomach ... the said brick having been thrown at the deceased by Robert Nixon

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