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
Baby Boatwright February 26, 1937 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Baby Boatwright received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a stick in the hands of Gertrude Boatwright

Richmond slave March 3, 1857 at V[?] Elbert Blands residence at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, by a wound in the head inflicted in the left temple, coming out in the left side of the forehead in Mr J.[?] H. Goodes black Smiths Shop . . .by a pistol shot by the hands of Joseph Williams

Infant enslaved by William Philson Infant enslaved by William Philson September 11, 1858 at the plantation settlement of William Philson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death at the residence of Wm Philson in Laurens District by the Hands of Naty & Maria Negro women slaves the property of Wm Philson against the peace & Dignity of the State aforesaid.

Cane Garlington March 19, 1877 at C M Kellets Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the afforesaid Cane Garling in the manner and form aforesaid was shot in the head on the Right sid [sic] & coming out on the back Part of the Head & Braken the scull [sic] by sum [sic] Person un known to us

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. . .

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

Gabriel Rabon October 9, 1862 at Turf Camp Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say he came to death by wounds inflicted by shot penetrating the heart by some means to the Jurors unknown . . . But according to evidence we believe that Johnathan J Carroll did kill the said Gabrell Rabon

Luther Harris May 26, 1899 at the plantation of George F Towns, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, that the Said Luther Harris was killed at John Davis' house . . . by a Gun Shot wound fired by the hands of Hamp Davis.

William Rosborough at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that that the said William Rosborough was willfully, unlawfully and maliciously killed by a gun shot wound and that he was willfully killed and murdered[.]

Farquer Ratliff August 11, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Farquer Ratliff & Bertha Evans received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Gun shot wounds in the hands of James Evans

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

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the san Summer a slave came to his deth [sic] by blow or blows inflicted over his left temple and over the nasal bone, which caused inflamation of the brain. . .the blow or blows supposed to have been inflicted by Monroe, a slave the property of T.L. Boykin

Hardy Boulware January 2, 1862 at Hardy Boulwares, Edgefield County, SC

by the oaths of that Hardy Bolware came to his death by a gun shot wound from the hands of David W. Padgett

infant January 8, 1815 at the plantation of James Leatherwood, Spartanburg County, SC
Aaron Hughes October 15, 1865 at the residence of Aaron Hughes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Aaron Hughes ... was feloniously killed and murdered by being shot in the mouth with a small ball and being struck a severe blow across the nose and ... then dragged across the road into the woods. . .by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Wilson Griffin freedman February 13, 1867 at Luke Rodgers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Griffin freedman came to his death from a gun or pistole shot wound in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Claud Thompson December 4, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Claud Thompson came to his Death by Gun Shot Wound in the hands of C. L. Newman

Julia Van June 20, 1892 at the plantation of Mr Joe Thurmond, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Rial Williams Killed the said Julia Van by misfortune and contrary to his will

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

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.

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

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
Lula Smith child June 22, 1894 at James A Satcher's Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Lula Smith aforesaid came to her death, by a cause unknown

Ben October 10, 1865 at Abram Putnams, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the freedman came to his death from a Gun shot wound in the head and the cutting of his throat with some sharp instrument, by persons unknown to the jurors

Rufus Springs April 20, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rufus H Springs came to his death . . . from a gun shot wound in the hands of a party[?] to this jury unknown

male baby male baby May 24, 1891 at the Saluda River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he was feloniously murdered and thrown in the Salud River at the hands of his own Mother or at the hands of Some one known to her

Flora Harrison November 4, 1890 at Liberty Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sam Moss the Said Flora Harrison by Misfortune and contrary to his Will in manner and form aforesaid did Kill and Slay

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

John Adamson August 23, 1825 Kershaw County, SC

do find [that] John Adamson came to his death by a gun shot in the right side before the right rib which shot penetrated the body through the intestines and the shot lodged in the left side of the body . . .but who discharged the gun. . . the jurors. . . cannot report

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

unknown Negro unknown Negro October 24, 1865 at the plantation of Saml. Todd, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that these two negroes came to there death by being shot by some person or persons unknown to us, from the evidence we think one of them is the boy Squire. . .

Willis Lodd July 25, 1877 at Loutens [?] cross roads, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said Willis Lodd came to his death by a pistol shot fired from the hands of one Butler Putman

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.

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

Infant of Nann Williams Infant of Nann Williams February 4, 1889 at Nelly Sanders, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the Jurors aforesaid do say that the said infant came to its death by the hands its mother Nann Williams, by strangulation at Nelly Sanders in Laurens County and State aforesaid, on the the morning of the third day of February AD 1889.

Willis Rabon September 4, 1849 at William Rabon Sen.r, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Abram Rabon Jun'r of the State and District aforesaid did feloneously with a Kinfe stab and Kill the said Willis Rabon and further saith that Abraham Rabon Sen.r and Duke Rabon were Accessories to the same

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

Bertha Evans August 11, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Farquer Ratliff & Bertha Evans received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Gun shot wounds in the hands of James Evans

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[.]

Sarah Watson January 31, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sarah Watson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Buckshot from Shotgun in the hands of Jas. Stacks

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.

David Primus July 5, 1943 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that David Primus received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Ernest (Peter) Howard

Thomas Waters April 7, 1866 on the plantation of Daniel McCaskill on Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... they do believe that the said Thomas Waters was killed ... by a gun shot in the head & that the said gun was in the hands of Elias McLandon

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

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

Mary Hicks May 10, 1881 at the residence of Widow Lucy Clements, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... Mrs. Mary Hicks came to her death by a gun shot and a knife or some sharp tool in the hands of one B. Whitney Hicks, her husband

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

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

infant September 19, 1833 at the home of William Griffin, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths. . .that the infant was put to death by violence of Harriet Bagood

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