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 1 - 50 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Riller three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

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

Infant enslaved by William Philson Infant enslaved by William Philson September 11, 1858 at the plantation settlement of William Philson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death at the residence of Wm Philson in Laurens District by the Hands of Naty & Maria Negro women slaves the property of Wm Philson against the peace & Dignity of the State aforesaid.

Unknown Infant at William L. Powers Unknown Infant at William L. Powers March 10, 1867 at the late residence of Wm L. Powers Decsd., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say - that the said Infant child came to its death by hand of Nancy A. Morgan formerly Nancy A. Powers by choking it with her drawers tied round its neck - the time unknown to the Jury. . .

Elias Earl January 22, 1867 at Boyds Mills, Laurens County, SC

uppon theire oaths do say. That he came to his death by being shot on Sunday night last by some person or persons unknown to us, further than the statement of deceased that he was shot by Brown, against the peace & dignity of the state afforesaid

John R. McMillan March 5, 1879 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that aforsaid John McMillin came to his death in Winnsboro on the 4 day of March 1879. from a wound by pistol received on the 16 of Feb 1879. in the hand of some person to the jurors unknown[.]

Unknown September 6, 1827 near the house of James Walling, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the sd infant came to its death by being struck against a log which lay about four or five steps from the place of its birth on Tuesday morning the 4th instant by Letitia Vaugh, who they believe delivered the child

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon thare [sic] oaths . . .that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

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

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

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

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

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.

infant Child infant Child August 22, 1842 at or near Mrs Marium Kershaw plantation, Union County, SC

do say that the bones shown to them at the Stump was the bones of an infant [?] Child and it appeared that they had been put there for the purpose of Consealing them [??] they war put thare in the flesh or cleand of flesh is to us unknown

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

Eli Thompkins September 5, 1860 at Conwayboro near the residence of Samuel Bell, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Eli Thompkins came to his death by a wound inflicted from a knife in the hands of William P. Hughes

Jane slave March 10, 1863 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that she came to her death on sabath the eighth day of March?at the residence of her master A. A. Morse, of deceased hastened or made premature by the maltreatment of her Master A. A. Morse and his mistress Mrs. C. T. [?] Morse, and more particularly on the part of the latter, and....that the said slave Jain the said A. A. Morse & C. T. Morse, by misfortune, and contrary to their will

Robert Jefferson July 13, 1932 at the Home of Agnes Smith, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Jefferson came to his death by gun shot wounds in hands of John Henry Smith Justifiable Homicide

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

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

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

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

infant June 12, 1872 Anderson County, SC
infant child infant child December 14, 1877 at Dr. K N Hudsons plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that. . .Ella Talbert did murder her own child with some instrument unknown then burned it

Levi H. McDaniel March 9, 1859 at or near the 17 mile Post on the Scotts Ferry Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .the deceased came to his death by a Pistol shot in the left side near the region of the heart fired from the hands of one James H. Jones

Whit Terry October 19, 1894 J.K. Corleys Place, Edgefield County, SC

the said Whit Terry came to his death upon the plantation of J.K. Corley. . .from a gun shot wound inflicted by some one of the searching party, to the jury unknown inflicted in self defense

infant March 6, 1884 in the City of Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the said child . . .came to its death from injuries received at the hands of Mary McKeys, Lizzie Mills, Paul Mills, and Alexander Mills, all of whom we deem cognizant of and accessory to the death

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

Lilie May Dove November 29, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Flossie Sellers received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 22 Caliber rifle in the hands of Lillie Mae Dove

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

Aaron Hughes October 15, 1865 at the residence of Aaron Hughes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Aaron Hughes ... was feloniously killed and murdered by being shot in the mouth with a small ball and being struck a severe blow across the nose and ... then dragged across the road into the woods. . .by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Kitty April 27, 1865 at David Owens's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That they have thoroughly Examined the body of the decd Kitty and find no marks of violence on the body sufficient to cause death, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do Say that the deceased came to her death by some cause unknown to them...

infant infant January 10, 1898 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do Say: That the said Infant was killed and murdered by Some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

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

unknown Negro unknown Negro October 24, 1865 at the plantation of Saml. Todd, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that these two negroes came to there death by being shot by some person or persons unknown to us, from the evidence we think one of them is the boy Squire. . .

Apling negro man April 5, 1849 in the woods in said district near the Lexington line on a branch of McGier Creek, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon their oaths do say that they believe the decd to be the remains of Ap or Apling . . .and that he came to death by a leaden ball shot from a gun[?] or pistol by the hands of some person or persons unknown

Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson December 1, 1846 at James Brewsters, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do Say, That the said infant, came to its death by violence, unknown to us, (and from reports, supposed to be the Child of Amanda Simpson, against the peace and dignity of the same State afforesaid.

Dr. E. C. Shell November 5, 1868 at Henry Shell's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they do believe from the evidence given that from the evidence given that Jess Woody, Rich Dial, Nathan Crews, Bill Bryson, Samuel Allison Sr., Daniel Allison Jr., Harry Shell Jr. and Mar Williams either as principals or accessories did willfully and feloniously kill and Murder Dr. E.C. Shell by a shot gun or musket shot on the second day of Nov 1868 near the residence of his father H R Shell against the peace and dignity of the State afore said.

Infant child of Susanah Finny Infant child of Susanah Finny June 8, 1821 at the House of Mary Holland, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

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

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

unnamed infant unnamed infant January 21, 1868 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say,--That they find the Said Infant to have dead some two or three weeks--that from the evidence before them they belie vethe Said Infant to be the offstriping of Emma Gallard a colored woman now in the Jail . . . and that they believe that the said Infant came to its death by Violence at the hands of the Said Emma Gaillard

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

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

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

Edward slave August 3, 1824 on the main Charleston Road five miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC

are of the opinion that the fellow Edward has come to his death by causes unknown to them

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

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

infant July 28, 1836 at the palntation of Mr. Richard Shotford[?], Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that Nancy Owens of. . .district is living at the house of sd district is the mother and murderer of sd. Child which they have examined but how killed they could not tell.

Herman Tadlock December 24, 1932 at Cross Roads, Chesterfield County, SC

Herman Tadlock came to his death by a gunshot wound in ride of face from the hands of Sam McCray on Wednesday December 21st, 1932.

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

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

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

Spencer Simpson November 25, 1896 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest. . . find that Spencer Simpson died in Laurens County on 21st Day of Nov AD 1896 - from the Effects of a gunshot wound from the hands of Jno. Miller, and so we all agree.

John W. Meeks May 4, 1872 at Brown & Rice's Mill, Anderson County, SC

do say that. . .the said John W. Meeks was killed by gun-shot wound, and violent battery with gun on the back of his neck

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