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 1 - 50 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Agness Fowler January 26, 1897 at J.Y. Petts, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Agness Sullivan (Fowler) came to her death by Bullet fired from the Pistol of either Wm Wright or Ned Rosewood.

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

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

Haigood Mirfan[?] Fairfield County, SC

NO OFFICIAL STATEMENT

Infant child of Ellen, enslaved by Robert Workman Infant child of Ellen, enslaved by Robert Workman July 6, 1855 at a grave yard near Odells Mill, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Infant came to its death by violence by the hand of some person unknown against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid and that the negro woman that Doct J.J. Boozer was sent for to see is an Idiot.

Joe June 26, 1837 at the house of John Holley, Fairfield County, SC

are of the opinion that he [Joe] came to his death by a wound in his abdomen near his navel about one inch in Length committed on the body of Joe by the Hand of one Robert Freeman on the 22nd of June 1837.

J. M. Long October 10, 1891 at J. M. Longs, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say That he came to his death by a gun Shot wound from the hands of Anthany Carter

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...

John Jefferson March 17, 1936 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Jefferson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Draarn in the hands of Aiken Jefferson

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

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

Reeves February 23, 1855 Laurens County, SC
Archie Woods February 8, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Archie Woods received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Marion Johnson

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

Timothy Spann April 24, 1812 two miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe that said Timothy Spann came to his death in consequence of a wound received by a shot in a duel with a certain ---- Lowell

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

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

Ambrose slave September 25, 1828 at the house of [?] Duke, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave Ambrose came to his death early in the morning of the twenty-forth of September instant by buck shot discharged from a gun presented at him by Kirkland Harmon ... [the shot] entering his back loins & hips

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

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
John McKinny September 26, 1894 at W P. Lipfords[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that. . . John Mckenny. . .came to his death by gun shot wound in the hands of Jessie Bostie and Edmon Jones and others unknown

infant, (male) infant, (male) April 29, 1857 at Potterville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .from the effects of Laudanum. . .administerted by Mrs Matilda Reynolds. . .the aforesaid infant (male child) in manner and for aforesaid, Matilda Reynolds, then and there feloniously did Kill

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

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

Mrs. Sue Rushing January 29, 1912 at C. P. Rushings, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Mrs Sue Rushing come to her death By Pistol shot wounds in the hands of C. P. Rushing

Howard E. Fields September 24, 1948 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Howard E. Fields received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by_______ in the hands of Lee Freeman & Garland Smith

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

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

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.

William Bailey July 19, 1846 at the House of Samuel C Scott, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Bailey was feloniously Killed and Murdered by Thomas Prince at the house of Saml C. Scott . . .with a pocket Knife

Absalom Causey September 27, 1863 at Reaves Mill Branch, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that he came to his death by wounds inflicted with a hickory club on the head and side and hip in the hand of Doctor Miles Gilmore

Claud Thompson December 4, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Claud Thompson came to his Death by Gun Shot Wound in the hands of C. L. Newman

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Will Simpson July 30, 1894 at Ella Nelson's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Will Simpson came to his death by a pistol shot on the 29th day July 1894 at the house of Ella Nelson, by W.H. Henderson in self defence and the verdict of the jury is justifiable homicide.

David Primus July 5, 1943 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that David Primus received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Ernest (Peter) Howard

Benjamin Farmer April 9, 1804 at the dwelling house of Benjamin Farmer, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] a certain Denis Crain with volence and force of arms ... did attack, wound & kill ... Benj'n Farmer

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
Anthony October 30, 1860 at Dr. McCoys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Antony came to his death from Shot wounds of a gun in the hands of John P Templeton on the 29th day of Oct

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[.]

Clara Bell colored child June 23, 1868 at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: . . . the elder Child was conscious before it died and did say that a black man, and others say that she (the child) said that it was a yellow man that set fire to the house which burnt her & the other child to death hence we find that the Children were burnt to death but unknown by whom, and if it shall appear that the deceased were wilfully killed by another

Willie Adair May 25, 1875 at D.A. Glenns, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Willie Adair, was killed and murdered at the house of Charley Adairs on the plantation of D.A. Glenns by blows with a large hammer, in left temple, mashing in the skull badly, after the blows, by hanging with a split to a ladder, also by blows with stick, all by the hands of Rachel Fowlers, the nurse of Wille...

Harry Shelton March 28, 1871 in the County aforesaid, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Harry Shelton came to his Death from a Ball shot from a pistol or Rifle by an unknown hand being done near Shelton Depot.

Howel slave October 3, 1835 at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC
infant November 28, 1829 in Camden on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welsh[?] resided, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the remains of an infant born at "full time" were found in a smoke house, suspiciuosly concealed in a jar with lime on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welch[?] resided; but how, or when the infant came to its death we know not.

Gus Blocker August 18, 1892 at the plantion of July Blocker, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Gus Blocker came to his death by a gun Shot in the hands of one Isiac[?] Blocker

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

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

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

Cole white infant November 18, 1827 near the house of William Cole, Union County, SC
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

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

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

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