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
Abe Simmons October 21, 1870 near Samuel Blakeleys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Abe Simmons aforesaid, came to his death at Samuel J Blakeleys in County aforesaid by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to the jury

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

Irving Stallings March 3, 1857 at Court House, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Jeremiah Benson, (Called J. M. Benson) in manner and form aforesaid Irving Stallings, then and there feloniously did Kill against the Peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Edgar Kelly December 27, 1913 at Colan Herdon's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Edgar Kelley came to his death by Knife wounds in the hand of Neal Hendrix

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

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

Pollock Chewning October 14, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Luke Smith and Pollock Chewning came to their Deaths by means un known.

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

Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings April 10, 1893 behind Elihu Bullock's stables, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest... find that this child came to his death. . .By the hands of G.Y. Jennings, By some means unknown to us, And aided And abetted by Elihu Bullock Clara Bullock and wife of G.Y. Jennings against the peace and dignity of the state of So Car.

Rob Watkins December 11, 1927 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robt. Watkins came to his death by reason of a gun-shot wound inflicted by Mark Sellers

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

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

Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
James Thomas colored July 20, 1869 at Liberty Hill County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Thomas came to his death by a gun shot wound in the stomach . . .from a gun in the hands of some person or person unknown

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

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

Rose 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

Wade Burnside December 7, 1893 at Wade Burnside's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. We do find that deceased Wade Burnside came to his death from a pistol wound, at his house in Waterloo the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Wade Burnside in manner and form aforesaid Semore Anderson then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

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

George Ross June 29, 1898 at Adoms[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that George Ross, came to his death by a pistol shot wilfully in the hands of Ed Hood

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry 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

Thomas Glover August 2, 1893 at Bill Werk[?] Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .Thomas Glover came to his death from Gun shot wounds in his left breast in the region of the hear. . .by Ed Williams alias Werk

Henry Dennis August 22, 1876 at the residence of Laurens County's Jefferson Abercrombie, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Dennis in manner and form aforesaid on the night of the 20 isnt was shot by some person or persons unknown.

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

Luke Smith October 14, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the coroners Jury in the case of L. Smith find that L. Smith came to his death by Gunshot wounds of Gun in the hands of Paul Cuffin

Nancy Suggs September 15, 1863 at Seth Belleme's . . .and continued by adjournment and taken at M.r J. J. Worthams, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by Arsenic and that the same was administered by Arthur Suggs at his own residence

infant September 12, 1882 at Chester Scruggs well, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant was murdered by being thrown into an unused well by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Infant Child Infant Child July 27, 1809 at the house of John Brysons, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths aforesaid say that the aforesaid female Child came to its death by a Stroke on the head by the Reputed Mother Jean Bryson. . .

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.

Mrs. Mary E. Parker January 9, 1933 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Mary E. Parker came to her death from gunshot wounds in the hands of Clyde Parker

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. . .

female child, white child female child, white child January 21, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said unknown female child came to her death from violence at the hands of a party or parties to the Jury unknown

Henry freemen formerly the slave October 30, 1865 at or near Dr. Bery F. Few's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry was killed and homicideed by some person or persons by the discharge of a gun to the jurors unknown

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

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

infant January 8, 1815 at the plantation of James Leatherwood, Spartanburg County, SC
Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC

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

Henry Blassingham July 10, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .the said Henry Blassingham came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound. The gun being in the hands of Frank Nelson. The ball entering the body to the left and a little above the left nipple and ranging[?] upwards

infant April 14, 1869 at Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child was killed by its mother Peggy Bedenbaugh [and] after she was delivered of it ... that she buried it about thirty yards back of the house in which she resides on Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation

W. C. Benson October 25, 1889 at the police station in Spartanburg City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the decased came to his death by a supposed fall from a trestle ... said fall causing concussion of the brain

Perry Rook May 28, 1894 in Clinton, Laurens Co, Laurens County, SC

we the jury find that the deceased Perry Rook came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound, said gun being in the hands of Dennis Rook.

Viny Davis June 1, 1872 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death by foul means at the hands of parties unknown to the jurors

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

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

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

Ineed Madden Daughter of Perry & Della Madden July 12, 1897 at Buford Burns plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ineed Madden infant of Perry & Della Madden came to her death by Gun shot wound inflicted by the hand of Ause Simpson Col on the 11th day of July 1897 at the House of Rudy Barksdale on B.C. Burns plantation.

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Charles August 2, 1846 [near the house of David L Milling], Fairfield County, SC

the death of the afforesaid Charles was caused by a stab inflicted by a pocket knife near the joint[?] of the breast bone which wound is horizontal & about 1 1/4 inch in length 2nd That from the testimony produced they are fully satisfied that the wound was caused the death of Charles was inflicted by the hand of a negro boy Ned the property of Andrew [?]

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

infant March 10, 1865 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that it came to its death ^at the house of Wm Shanachans[?] in the town of Anderson^ by violence inflicted by its mother Adelia C. Parker

Alice Adkinson October 18, 1898 at Republican Church, Edgefield County, SC

do say that Mrs Alice Atkinson come to her death, from a gun Shot wound, in the hands of Jim McKie & Luther Sullivan & Wash McKie was accesory to the murder

Arch September 4, 1864 at SR Todds plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot wound, by M.P. Traynham in self defence at SR Todds plantation about one oclock the 3rd Sept Inst AD 1864.

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