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 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.

John H. Anderson March 21, 1891 at Tom Anderson place, Edgefield County, SC

came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of one Henry Ryan

George W. Barker December 27, 1854 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the deceased came to his death by pistol shots, received in an affray between the deceased and Richard N. McMaster, from a pistol fired in the hands of Richard N. McMaster on the night of the 26th.

Unknown Infant Unknown Infant April 8, 1873 at Martins Depot, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Infant came to its death by the hands of Rebecca East, against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid.

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...

Robert Melton April 19, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Melton, the deceased came to his death from two gun shot wounds, one taking affect in the left hip; the other in the region of the stomach, inflicted by some person or persons unknown to this Jury, this taking place at the Residence of the deceased

Rufus Harling September 16, 1897 at Clarks Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say. That the Said Rufus Harling Came to his death by a gun Shot wound. . . inflicted by a Shot gun in the hands of Parties unknown

Joe Weston January 31, 1895 in Edgefield County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joe Weston aforesaid came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hands of parties to us unknown

Johnson Johnsons infant June 18, 1875 at Roberts Tuckers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That it was the child of Henretta Johnson that rivers found dead in the woods near the Robert Tucker House and that from appearance that it was the propper time for it to be deliverd and if the child was not murderd She intendedto murder it and it was don on or about the 11 of June 1875[.]

Jim McKie October 26, 1898 near John starks, Edgefield County, SC

do say that Jim McKie came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hands of some unknown parties

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

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

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

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

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

Barnett S. Langston August 8, 1889 at Lanfords station, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that the said Barnett S Langston came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of Jno. W. Lanford

Frank Dillard September 24, 1890 on the plantation of William Patterson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Frank Dillard came to his death by "a gun shot wound in the hands of W.B. Patterson

Thornton Nance August 7, 1891 at Milton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he the said Thornton Nance came to his death by Pistol shot wound in the hands of Jim Young - & his accessories - Jno Adams - Perry Adams Jno Atkinson, Lige Atkinson - Tom Atkinson Jack Williams - Henry Suber, Monroe Young - Henderson Young & Allen Young.

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

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.

Presley Wise July 11, 1891 at D W. Padgetts plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Presley Wise came to his death by gun Shot wound in the hands of an unknown person

Joe slave, boy September 13, 1860 at the residence of D. M. Glover, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say the said Joe came to his death. . .from the effects of a gunshot in the hand of G M Broadwaters the shot taking affect in the left leg and thigh thereby producing his death

Unknown Infant Unknown Infant October 17, 1873 at Abraham Cooks, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the afforesaid infant child in manner & form afforesaid Edna Young Feloniously did kill, against the peace & dignity of the same state afforesaid. . .

Hon. Joseph Crews September 14, 1875 at Laurens C.H., Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joseph Crews came to his Death by means certain gun shot wounds inflicted by person or persons to the jurors unknown

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

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

Joe Coleman near Willing, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the Said Joe Coleman came to his death by gun shot wounds, by the hands of person or persons unknown to the Jury, but suspicion and evidence points to William Woodward principal and we further think that he had accessories[.]

infant child infant child April 14, 1895 at Charley Moors, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death at the hands of Laura White and her daughter Anna by some means unknown

William Coker June 23, 1876 at Mrs. Sutter Tolbert, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Coker came to his death by som cuse or causes unknown to the jurors

George Sullivan June 26, 1893 at Prospect church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That his death was caused by a pistol shot, fired from an American double action, .38 cal, five shot pistol, By Edgar Sullivan, on the 25 day of June, about one oc in the evening, at Prospect church in Laurens Co SC.

Luther Sullivan October 26, 1898 near John Stuarts, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Luther Sullivan came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hand of unknown parties

Clement D. Wallace November 28, 1867 at Gopher Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clement D Wallace was disabled or killed with some instrument unknown or by the burning of his dwelling house

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

John Wyatt May 25, 1834 at House of Harry Gant[?], Union County, SC

do say upon thare oaths than one Ellis Fowler [?] of said District not having god before his eyes but Being moved and Seduced by the Instirgation of the devil . . .shoot the [?] and give to the said John Wyatt . . .one mortal wound of the breast

Albert Jenkins September 13, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Albert Jenkins received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Bullet in the hands of Buster Ellebre

Joseph W. Glover September 2, 1844 at Charles Comptys[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the he came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of Lovett Gomillion loaded with [?] Bullets which load of shot entered the said Joseph W Glovers body a little above the nipple on the right side of the breast . . .said pistol was discharged by said Gomillion in a street fight between himself and said Glover in self defence

Albert Williams August 9, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersign Jurors agree that Albert Williams came to his death at the hands of Pete Parson in a gun fight

Jno Fuller October 6, 1890 on the plantation of Melmoth Hooker, Laurens County, SC

by their oaths do say that the said Jno Fuller came to his death "From Gun Shot wounds in the hands of Perry Gray without cause."

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

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.

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

Certain Mail Bastard Child Certain Mail Bastard Child January 16, 1838 at the house of Joseph McConathy, Laurens County, SC

do say on these oaths that the said child came to its death either by being smothered or for the want of that attention which was necessary to sustain life and which was Intentionally withheld from it. And that the mother of the child (viz) Martha McConathy was the principle in the crime and that Isabelah McConathy Accessory to it.

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

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

Moses Blalock May 19, 1882 on the Plantation of W G McDavid, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Moses Blalock Death was Caused by a Gun Shot Wound the gun was in the hands of Mose Lackhart and in our opinion it is wilful Murder

Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by a Gun shot wound . . . in the hands of Job McGee

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.

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

Al White October 12, 1898 at Mundy[?] Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Al White came to his death by a gun show wound in the hands of Will McClenden in the discharge of his duty & that said act was justified in self Defence

Pink Williams October 6, 1898 at or near Mr E.F. Pickles residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths, do Say that Pink Williams came to his death by Gun Shot wounds in the hands of Lawyer[?] Holoway[?]

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

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