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
infant March 29, 1842 at Tabitha Laird's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say according to evidence taken before us at this inquest do believe that the Tabitha Laird. . .did destroy her infant child against the peace and dignity of said state have no proof how the infant came to its death

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

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

male baby male baby May 24, 1891 at the Saluda River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he was feloniously murdered and thrown in the Salud River at the hands of his own Mother or at the hands of Some one known to her

Julia Mundy June 17, 1881 at Jas H Banknight, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Julia Mundy Came to her death from a pistol shot and fired by Josh Mundy her husband and made one mortal wound in the Right breast of her

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

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

Mary Grace Aldrich infant child August 11, 1856 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that said child came to her death at the time and place aforesaid by having large portions of laudaunum administered by a servant girl the nurse of the name of Clarissa. . .with felonious intent

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

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

Rose negro woman Slave March 14, 1846 at Michael Longs, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Rose being chained in the Meat house of said M. Long, around the neck with a common chain trace with one ened and the Other end of said chain aforesaid to the Joist broke her neck either by design or by accident

Wesley Smith at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Worley Smith came to his death on the sixteenth day of February A.D. 1900 from blows inflicted by one

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

Infant Brown September 26, 1932 near Angelus, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say, that the aforesaid Infant Brown We, the Jury of Inquest find, according to evidence produced, that the infant came to its death by Neelie Brown, its Mother.

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

James Mayes infant March 24, 1870 taken [???], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James Mays came to his death at A. M. Gilreaths . . .cause unknown . . .misfortune or accident

C. Walker Arant June 29, 1933 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid C. Walker Arant in manner and form aforesaid, Came to his death by gun shot wounds at the hands of his Wife Mrs Juanita Arant at his home near Pageland on the 28 day of June 1933.

Mahlon Jones December 25, 1891 at Landrams Farm, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Mahlon Jones was . . .killed by a pistol. . .shot in the hands of Henry Scott and that Coleman Maroney was accessoror

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

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

James Duckett November 9, 1859 at James Sutton's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted by a sharp instrument held in the hands of Boy named Abe the property of H. J. Gilreath

Charles slave, boy September 25, 1861 at Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Charles came to his death. . .from the affects of a gun shot in the hands of Z.[?] P. Claxton the shot taken affect in the samll of the back

black child black child July 31, 1849 at Morton's old place, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Harriot and Amy and Jenny did then and there feloniously cause the death of the said chile contrary to the peace and dignity of the state.

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

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

John James April 13, 1892 at the Traynham place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at his residence in Laurens County on or about 12 oclock on the 18th day of April AD 1892 the said John James came to his death by two gunshot wounds said wounds being made by a Pistol fired by one Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu Sheriff and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu sheriff in manner and form aforesaid John James then and there did Kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

Andrew Moore August 10, 1889 at Samson Simons', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Andrew Moore did come to his death by a Knif in the hand of Robert Moore by inflicting a wound with said Knif in the Regions of the heart

infant March 16, 1870 at Isaac Young's on Pacolet River, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said child came to its death by some means to the jurors unknown against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Squire 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

James Nelson November 22, 1903 at E. C. Clark's place, Chesterfield County, SC

We the undersigned juror of inquest over the body of James Nelson find that he Come to his death by being hanged by some unKnown Partyes.

Ann slave January 2, 1844 at Capt. B. Haile's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the little girl Ann, a slave the property of B. Haile, came to her death by being burnt intentionally by the nurse, Tamer, a slave of B. Haile.

infant June 15, 1884 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child name unknown was killed and murdered by some person, or persons, or by some means, either by crushing of th head with some instrument unknown by drowning or both

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

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.

Baby Boatwright February 26, 1937 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Baby Boatwright received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a stick in the hands of Gertrude Boatwright

John Kellett July 24, 1876 at the residence of John Kellet, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John Kellet in manner and form aforesaid on the morning of the 19th inst was shot by some person or persons unknown by us

Howel slave October 3, 1835 at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC
Azariah Butler August 25, 1876 at the Residence of Azeriah Butler, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Azeriah Butler in the manner and form aforesaid on the Night of the 24 Inst was shot by some Person or Persons unknown by us and Seven Shot Entered the Head arms and body

William Gathings August 16, 1932 at Pageland Township, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: William Gathings came to his death by Pistol Shot wounds in the hands of Guy Watts

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

Angie Bell Crawford October 6, 1933 near Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that We the Jury find that Angie Bell Crawford came to her death by Natural Causes.

Enoch Stevens August 2, 1859 at Stephens Mill, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Enoch Stevens came to his dith by the wound received from James Huggins and Samuel Taylor one wound on the head the skull bone broke, one wound on the leg and the bone ruptured then and there feloniously did kill the said Stevens

Charles Little June 11, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: as the result of pistol shot in the hands of W. Lester Russell

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

Van Hendrix February 14, 1877 at John Garmany's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Van B Hendrix came to his death from a gun shot wound made in his right breast[?] from a gun then and there fired from the hands of Herbert Garmany

John M. Tillman May 6, 1860 at Mr J.A Tillmans Steam Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . . J. M. Tillman was shot. . .with fire arm in the hands of George R Mays the Ball entering the brest neat the Pit of the Stomac Passing through the right side internily come near out under the right arm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

James Pinson deserter December 5, 1864 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (by a gun shot (in the breast on the morng of the 4th inst) to) the jurors unknown

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

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