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 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

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.

Archie Woods February 8, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Archie Woods received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Marion Johnson

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

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

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

Martha Armstrong March 30, 1840 at the house of Archibald Armstrong, Fairfield County, SC

The following jurors on the inquest are of the opinion that Mrs Martha Armstrong came to his death by violence inflicted as they believe by Mr Armstrong the husband of the deceased

Levi H. McDaniel March 9, 1859 at or near the 17 mile Post on the Scotts Ferry Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .the deceased came to his death by a Pistol shot in the left side near the region of the heart fired from the hands of one James H. Jones

Infant Brown September 26, 1932 near Angelus, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say, that the aforesaid Infant Brown We, the Jury of Inquest find, according to evidence produced, that the infant came to its death by Neelie Brown, its Mother.

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

infant June 15, 1884 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child name unknown was killed and murdered by some person, or persons, or by some means, either by crushing of th head with some instrument unknown by drowning or both

Perry Rook May 28, 1894 in Clinton, Laurens Co, Laurens County, SC

we the jury find that the deceased Perry Rook came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound, said gun being in the hands of Dennis Rook.

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

infant March 29, 1842 at Tabitha Laird's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say according to evidence taken before us at this inquest do believe that the Tabitha Laird. . .did destroy her infant child against the peace and dignity of said state have no proof how the infant came to its death

Lilie May Dove November 29, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Flossie Sellers received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 22 Caliber rifle in the hands of Lillie Mae Dove

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[.]

Robert J. Butler September 15, 1864 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Robert J Butler sen[?] came to his death by gun shot wound inflicted by Doct J D Twiggs

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

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

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.

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

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

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Cesar Negro, negro boy July 7, 1843 at the house of Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say. . .believe said negro came to his death by a sever blow given him by Jerry one of said Watsons negroes not with the intention to Kill

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

Patterson Blackwill May 22, 1914 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

on the 22 day of May 1914 find that the deceased came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the heands of J. A. Blackwill and our virdic is a justified homiside this 22 day of May 1914

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

Charles M. Creswell August 5, 1869 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

the said Charles M Creswell came to his death do say that . . .the deceased Charles M Creswell came to his death by a gunshot wound from a gun in the hands of some person or persons unknown

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

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

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

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

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

John M. Tillman May 6, 1860 at Mr J.A Tillmans Steam Mill, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . . J. M. Tillman was shot. . .with fire arm in the hands of George R Mays the Ball entering the brest neat the Pit of the Stomac Passing through the right side internily come near out under the right arm

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.

William Gathings August 16, 1932 at Pageland Township, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: William Gathings came to his death by Pistol Shot wounds in the hands of Guy Watts

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

Julius Metskie June 27, 1887 at Valley Falls, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Julius Metskie came to his death by a gun shot would inflicted in the head by George S. Turner at Valley Falls

James Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Jas Booth. . .came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

Young Fuller October 21, 1870 at W.J. Copelands plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that Young Fuller, the deceased aforesaid, came to his death at his house near W.J. Copelands, in County aforesaid, on the 20th October AD 1870, from gunshot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to this jury.

Mary Belton at the Sylvia Brice Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That she came to her death from causes unknown to the Jurors.

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

Wilson Sosbee June 19, 1845 near G.B. Bishop's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Sosbee came to his death by being shot wilfully with a shot gun by the hands of Joseph Hughes[?]

Meredith Griffin February 15, 1889 at F D Hunters, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Turner Jones did discharge the contents of a shot gun in the body of Meridith Griffin thereby killing him about 8 Oclock on the Evening of the 14 Feb 1889. And the jurors aforesaid upon their Oaths do say the killing was done in self defence.

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

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

William Flemming October 20, 1870 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon making view and inquests that the said William Fleming came to his death by gun shot would from guns that were in the hands of some person or persons unknown.

George Ross June 29, 1898 at Adoms[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that George Ross, came to his death by a pistol shot wilfully in the hands of Ed Hood

Will Coe September 17, 1914 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

The verdic of the Jury was that McCoy was Justifiable Homcid

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

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

Isham Glover August 10, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that the said Isham Glover came to his death from the effects of a gun Shot wound in the hands of C.H. Anderson

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

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

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

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia