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
John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
William Clyburn September 15, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William Clyburn received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 S&W Pistol in the hands of Mr. Ike Plyler. . . The Jury recommends that I. K. Plyler be not held responsible -- justifiable Homicide

infant female child infant female child March 31, 1857 at Turner Duncan's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the infanct was killed or homicideed by some person or persons, or (by some means) came to its death to the jurors unknown

Kitty April 27, 1865 at David Owens's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That they have thoroughly Examined the body of the decd Kitty and find no marks of violence on the body sufficient to cause death, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid do Say that the deceased came to her death by some cause unknown to them...

Jim slave June 19, 1858 at the plantation of A.H. Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Jim came to his death. . .from three wounds inflicted on and across the face by some weapon or instrument to the jury unknown in the hands of Dick a slave of William Sanders

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

[No official declaration]

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.

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

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

George Watkins October 10, 1866 at George Watkins, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that George Watkins came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of Newton Corley

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

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

Charlie Prince January 25, 1914 at R. B. Laney's farm, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Charlie Prince came to his death by knife wounds in the hands of Gus. Hubbard and that Charlie Williams is an accessory before and after the fact

Harriet M. Melton April 18, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Mrs Harriet M. Melton came to her death by a gunshot wound inflicted form the hands of some person or persons unknown to this Jury

George Fowler November 4, 1885 at Mrs S E Dunlop plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the said George Fowler came to his death on Mrs S E Dunlops place in Laurens County at about 7 oclock PM the 6th day of November AD 1885 by a pistol shot in the hands of Ira Hughes.

Robert Davis July 17, 1897 at Garlington, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the the aforesaid Robert Davis came to his death from gunshot wounds at the hand of G. F. Young.

Edmund Brown December 24, 1853 at the house of Wm Merchantile[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Edmund Brown came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side of his neck, by the dischard of a Shot Gun, held in the hands of Carson Warren

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.

Francis Stuart May 8, 1883 in a house occupied by Henry Langford on the plantation of W.S. Pitts, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that on the night of 7th of May 1883 about half past 8 O'clock the said Francis Stuart came to her death from the effects of a gun shot wound supposed to have been inflicted by Lewis Stuart, her husband, and so the jurors aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid Lewis Stuart, in manner and form aforesaid, Francis Stewart, then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

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. . .

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

Wesley male slave, child October 5, 1857 at the residence of Sophia A Tilman, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the said male slave Wesley came to his death by blows given by Joe a slave the Property of F Oconner

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

negro woman slave negro woman slave July 12, 1851 at Jackson Pattison's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . . are inclined to the belief that there might have been violence inflicted which might have caused death upon the head or throat. Those parts being in so [?] a state of decomposition that it was impossible to determine whether there had been injuries inflicted on those parts or not.

Dave Gillam August 25, 1892 at the house of Cal Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

the Said Dave Gillam Came to his death from a gun Shot wound inflicted by the hands of Eliott Johnson

infant male child infant male child March 27, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid unknown male child came to his death from causes to this jury unknown

white child white child January 20, 1871 at Wilson's Bridge, Anderson County, SC

do say that it appears that the deceased was willfully killed, by some person or persons unknown

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

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

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

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

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

George freedmen October 25, 1865 at John H. Campbell's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . . that the said George was willfully homicideed . . .received a bullet wound near the reg of the heart and lodged 2 1/2 inchs below the right nipple also a bullet wound in the left shoulder lodging in the body

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

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

Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

Henry Purse September 23, 1838 at Camden, on the corner of Market & York Streets, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we found upon examination that the Boddy is that of H. W. Purse who came to his death by the discharging fo a gun supposed to be loaded with shot by Franklin Ray. The wound inflicted was mortal, the load having passed into the right breast.

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

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

Houston Taylor October 6, 1915 at G. F. Erasmo, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the aforesaid Houston Taylor came to his death as the result of pistol shot rounds at the hands of Dr. R. L. McManus, a justifiable homicide

J. M. Clark July 19, 1897 at J.M. Clark's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that J.M. Clark came to his death by Gun shot wounds inflicted by the hands of Willie Franks on the 10th day of June 1897 and that his father F.B. Franks was accessory to the act.

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.

nameless newborn boy or male child nameless newborn boy or male child January 12, 1885 at T P Byrds Campbell place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said nameless boy or male child came to his death on the 10th day of January AD 1885 and in Laurens County by strangulation cause by criminal negligence on the part of Kittie F. Malone.

Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson Unknown Infant, supposed to be of Amanda Simpson December 1, 1846 at James Brewsters, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths do Say, That the said infant, came to its death by violence, unknown to us, (and from reports, supposed to be the Child of Amanda Simpson, against the peace and dignity of the same State afforesaid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Williams November 4, 1881 at Wilson's Bridge, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Robert Williams came to his death . . . by hanging at the hands of parties unknown to the jury

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
negro woman negro woman January 11, 1867 at David Mill, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said unknwon person came to her death by some means unknown to the jury

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

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

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