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
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. . .

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 [?]

W. C. Benson October 25, 1889 at the police station in Spartanburg City, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the decased came to his death by a supposed fall from a trestle ... said fall causing concussion of the brain

infant November 28, 1829 in Camden on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welsh[?] resided, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the remains of an infant born at "full time" were found in a smoke house, suspiciuosly concealed in a jar with lime on the lot on which Mr. Thomas Welch[?] resided; but how, or when the infant came to its death we know not.

infant male child infant male child October 28, 1851 at the Reedy River Factory, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant male child was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (or by some means) to the jurors unknown

John David Twiggs September 15, 1864 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Doct J D Twiggs came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of R. J. Butler sen on the Publick Rode

Sindy Brighthop August 21, 1898 on S.W. Gardners place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Sindy Brighthop came to her death, from a dislocated neck done by th parties in the house

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
infant January 8, 1815 at the plantation of James Leatherwood, Spartanburg County, SC
William Samuel April 26, 1891 at Scima[?] Hill Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the decease William Samuel Came to his death ... by a Gun Shot Wound in the hands of Henry Glover in Self defince

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

female daughter of female daughter of November 28, 1841 at graveyard at Hammonds Old Field, Anderson County, SC

do say on oaths from the evidence before us and examination of the body that it came to its death by the improper interference of the mother Rebecca Mullinax cutting the string of the naval omiting to cord the same

Gus Blocker August 18, 1892 at the plantion of July Blocker, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Gus Blocker came to his death by a gun Shot in the hands of one Isiac[?] Blocker

Caleb Campbell near Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Caleb Campbell was killed and murdered by hanging by some person or persons to the jury unknown[.]

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

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

G. B. Kelly December 16, 1896 at Chesterfield Court House, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said G.B. Kelly came to his death from a gun shot wound on the 12th day of Dec. 1896 in the hands of W.P. Swinnie and died on the 14th of Dec from the effects

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.

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

Tom negro slave December 18, 1858 at Chlo Watsons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Jim in manner and form aforesaid, Tom then and there feloniously did kill

Charles Williams July 5, 1885 Laurens County, SC

We find that the deceased Charley Williams, whose dead body is before us, came to his death from Gunshot wounds at the hands of Parties to the jury unknown on the night of July 4th 1885.

Will Collens October 20, 1894 at Gaines SC, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Will Collens came to his death by gun shot wound by the hands of Jack Harrison

Arthur Jordan at W.B. Dixon's place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oathes do say, the said Arthur Jordan came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Thomas Thompson on the night of the 24th day of Dec 1903 in the house of John [?] on D. Barns[?] Mobley place[.]

Riller three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Riller Lizzy and Rose were feloniously Killed and Murdered in the negro house of said Philip Brogden on the night of the 1st inst by breaking their sculls with an axe and cutting the throats of Riller & Lizza by the hands of their own Mother named Clarisy the property of said Brogden

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

Howard Braxton April 20, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Howard Braxton received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Wallace Turner

W. H. H. Richards February 1, 1884 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said W.H.H. Richards came to his death by a pistol shot, received on 23rd July 184, at the hands fo W B Cash

A. G. Douglass May 6, 1889 at A. G. Douglass', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said A.G. Douglass came to his death By a gunshot wound in the hands of W. D. Merriman and A. B. Merriman Bill Merriman & James Pegg Being Acessors to the crime

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.

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

Peter October 25, 1854 Laurens County, SC
Micajah Hilliard November 28, 1829 in the house of Joseph Ward, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by an affray with Joseph Ward & John Ballard at the residence of Joseph Ward on the 27th Inst.

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

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

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

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

Bookey January 26, 1863 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the slave Bookey came to his death by a State of General Congestion through the internal organs caused bya whipping at the hands of Henry Mardy, Murphy Hughes N. A. McLeod and R G W Grissett Instruments a Strap & Paddle Justifiable in the punishment they inflicted

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon thare [sic] oaths . . .that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

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

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

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

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

Albert Jenkins September 13, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Albert Jenkins received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Bullet in the hands of Buster Ellebre

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

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

Eddie Sellers November 2, 1899 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say The deceased came to his death from a Pistol shot round in the hands of parties unknown to the Jury

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.

Dorcas Henderson November 11, 1855 at Jackson Henderson's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that from the best information that they could gather that they think the child. . .Dorcas Henderson came to its death on account of having had an excessive portion of spiritous liquor given to it by a free boy of color named Tobe

Reece Chapman July 26, 1948 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

VERDICT: The said Reece Chapman came to his death by a 31 Pistol at the hands of Buck Diggs.

Woodward June 9, 1879 on the road leading from Dantzler's Bridge on South Tyger River via G. W. Duncan's and R. T. McElvath's to Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the deceased came to her death by gunshot wound in the Breast, and incised wound on the neck, which severed the carotid arteries, windpipe, and other vital organs, and that we believe the said wounds were inflicted by weapons in the hands of John J. Moore

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