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
Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
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

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

Jacob Horn February 25, 1866 at the hous of Jacob Horns, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that Jacob Horn came to his death by a Malicious discharge of a Gun or Pistol entering the left Groin from which wound he [?] langushed and languishing died in about half an hour

Will Johnson August 16, 1931 at Ingram's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC

do upon oath say that Will Johnson came to his death by gunshot wound in the hands of Alex Brown.

John Henry King October 29, 1865 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say he was Killed by a Pistol shot from the hands of a colord Soldier belonging to the U S Troops now station in Augusta Ga the name of said Soldier not known

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

Wallace E. Bland July 4, 1880 at Edgefield C. House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said W E. Bland came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of A. A. Elisby [Clisby?]

Unknown [?], Fairfield County, SC

JUST A DISCHARGE PAPER

James M. D'young February 16, 1879 at John J. Moore's, Spartanburg County, SC
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

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

Jason Hendrick [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

negro woman negro woman March 26, 1840 at John Garrotts, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . .they believe she the said negro woman come to her death by drinking too great a quantity of water which they believe caused inward pain and perhaps spasm

Infant child of Susanah Finny Infant child of Susanah Finny June 8, 1821 at the House of Mary Holland, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

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

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

Ned Dozier September 27, 1893 at MJ Holsteins, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the said Ned Dozier aforesaid came to his death from the effects of a gun or a pistol shot wonds at the hands of Fred singleton

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

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

William Milligan June 7, 1852 at Conway borough, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that we believe he came to his death by wounds inflicted in the throat, and in the Stomach by a Knife in the hands of Absalom Causey

John Rhodes July 13, 1853 at Feathery Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Although it appears that the said John Rhodes has been missing ever since the day before Fall Court 1852, yet there is no proof to them that the said John Rhodes has ever been murdered

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

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

Sax slave, boy March 11, 1865 at UnionVille, Union County, SC

do say that the boy Sax was taken out of goal by an armed force unknown to the [?] and hanged

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

Annie Lowery May 15, 1923 at D.W. Arant Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Jonnie Lowery came to her death by being Drowned in a Well of water at the hands off Rosa Lowry her mother

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.

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

Claude McKenzie February 1, 1935 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say that Claude McKenzie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun done willfully . . . in the hands of Gillespie McKenzie

slave slave July 23, 1820 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] the said Henry [Schrock] fired at him [unknown African American] with an intention of shooting him in the legs but by chance seventeen low mold shot took him in the body of which wound he instantly died.

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...

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

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

Unknown Colored Man Unknown Colored Man July 5, 1892 at Will Davis, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the unknown man came to his death from Gun Shot wound in the hands of A B Blakely in self defence.

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 [?]

white infant child, boy white infant child, boy March 24, 1858 at John Thomas Boat Landing, Union County, SC

the infant Came to it Death by it being Killed and throwed in the River

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.

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

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

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

William Padgett February 22, 1894 at W.D. Readys plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said William Padgett aforesaid Came to his death from a gun shot wound in the hands of Tom Rutland

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

Elizabeth M. Skipper June 5, 1857 at the House of Abraham B. Skipper, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That the said Elizabeth M. Skipper, was killed and murdered by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

Henry Blakeny June 6, 1893 at Ana Deason, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Henry Blakeney came to his death by a Pistol ball in the heands of Thos ingram at the residence of Ana Deason on the 6th June A.D. 1893.

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

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

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
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

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

Elick Youngblood child March 21, 1881 at S[?] R Warren, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Elick Youngblood come to his death near S R Warren water gin on Polys[?] Branch ... from Exposure Caused by the wilfull Neglect and cruel treatment of Eliza Hunt[?]

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

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