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
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

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.

infant infant March 24, 1892 at Pinksville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say said Infant came to its death by the hands of Jane Gilchrist

Haman Miller October 30, 1824 at Blacks Store, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Haman Miller came to his Death by Violence committed on his sides by a number of Blows with the fist of John Prince and a fall... as a consequence of of Said Blows, and that the said John Prince did then and there feloniously Kill and Murder, against the peace and Dignity of this State.

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

Unknown [?], Fairfield County, SC

JUST A DISCHARGE PAPER

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

Robert Templeton May 5, 1837 at Benj Puckett's old place, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said negro man Peter property of John Boyd of said Dist not having God before his eyes but being moved and secuced by the instigation of the devil on the fifth day of May 1837 with force and arms at the late residence of Benj Puckett Decd in the dist aforesaid in and upon the said Robt Templeton then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State, feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethought, made an assault and that the aforesaid negro man Pete, then and there with a certain Knife which the said negro man Peter held in his right hand and aforesaid Robt Templeton about the lower portion of the breast bone or sternum of the said Robt Templeton then and there violently, feloniously and of his Malice aforethough, struck and pierced, and gave to the said Robt Templeton then and there with the Knife aforesaid, in and upon the aforesaid, in and upon the aforesaid lower portion of the breast bone or sternum of the said Robt Templeton one mortal wound of the breadth of an inch...

Alfred runaway slave June 16, 1862 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that within the incorporation of Williamston on the night of the 15th of June. . .that he came to his death by some person or persons unknown to the jurors by hanging by the neck until his body was dead.

Edward Bridges March 19, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC
George Franklin of color December 4, 1866 at Hush[?] Creek, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . he came to his death by means of a gun shot which entered about five inches below the right nipple & passed out just above the left [?] bone at Thor[?] Callaway's still house

infant child infant child July 21, 1851 at the residence of Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . . said infant cause to its death by misfortune or accident either in the act of being born or short time after its birth

negro negro February 27, 1868 at or near Pacolet Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that Catherine, a black woman living at Col. R.C. Poole's at Pacolet Spring, called by some Berry, did have and was delivered of said child and that she throwed [sic] it in the river ... feloniously drownding said child against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

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[?]

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
Col. John Taylor July 8, 1904 at Miden dolph, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceast John Taylor came to his death By measures unknown to the Jury.

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

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

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

Charlotte February 22, 1862 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Charlotte a slavey here lying dead before us came to her death by a wound inflicted by a six Barreled repeater in the hands of James J. Wortham on the 20th of February 1862

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

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

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

Sam Pratt at Woodward, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Sam Pratt came to his death from the effects of a gunshot wound, inflicted by one Sol[?] McElhenny on the 5th day of Jan 1894, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid Sol[?] McElhenny in manner and form aforesaid, Sam Pratt did feloniously kill[.]

Christopher Campbell April 16, 1835 Kershaw County, SC

after hearing the evidence together with the opinion of Doctors DeLeon and Young are of opinion that the deceased came to his death from a disease of the brain hastened by blows on his head inflicted by some person or persons unknown

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

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

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.

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

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

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

James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .J. William M. Brown ... then and there [did] inflict three severe blows upon the head of deceased fracturing his skull in two places

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

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 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. . .

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

Eunice Hogan October 26, 1851 at the house of John Briskey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eunice Hogan was killed and murdered by some person or persons . . .unknown

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

Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson January 14, 1865 at W.B. Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they beloeve the Infant slave above mentioned came to its death by violence inflicted by the hands of some unknown person by thrusting a common sewing needle through the scalp into the brain. . .Either by the hand of the Mother, or The Slave Girl Lucy, The property of W.B. Henderson.

Lucious Perry November 8, 1891 at the plantation of Ben Boatwright, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Lucious Perry came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Ben Curry Willfully and that Henry Robertson was aiding and abetting the same

Unknown at Pollete [?] Harrison, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths that the said Child came to its death by premeditated[?] and criminal negligence and exposure on the part of the parents or others unknown to the Jury

Larken Bramblett June 8, 1838 at the House of Newton Bramblett, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that Hiram Holcombe of the state and District aforesaid, on yesterday evening the 7th Inst. Betweeen sundown & dark, did feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethough with a certain shot gun shoot and wound the said Larken Bramblett in the breast neck and head, of which said mortal wounds the aforesaid Larken Bramlett then and there instantly died, and so the said Hiram Holcombe, then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said Larken Bramblett, against the peace of this State.

Leonard Clark July 3, 1946 at Jefferson, SC, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Clark received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Bill Sowell

Annie Streeter July 12, 1919 at a House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

find that the said Annie Streeter came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by Alexander Streeter

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.

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

Henry Little October 9, 1911 at Henry Little's near Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the Said Henry Little came to his death By goon Shot wounds in the hands of Parties unknown to the Jury

James M. D'young February 16, 1879 at John J. Moore's, Spartanburg County, SC
William slave November 10, 1856 near Prospect Church near the line of Richland and on the waters of Wayland's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the said negro man William came to his death from a wound in the back caused by a shot gun in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Willie Toney March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Willie Toney came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hand of Robert Coill[?], Dan Coward, Hill Hoawrd and R. L. Burnett as principals. Milledge Reese and A. J. Corley as accessories.

Thomas Hoiston August 13, 1907 at Bethel, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol Shot wound at the hand of Wes McDonald

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

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