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 51 - 100 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that. . .the said Mary came to her death by being choked, by Joe, a negro man belong to Omey Patterson, who confined to us that he was the murder, and purpetrated said deed on Sunday 16th inst. Showing us where he had Killed her near the above named Plantation

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

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

Rose 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

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

D. M. Pettit December 19, 1899 at G.J. Redfern, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: we the jurors find that D M Pettit came to his death by a wound on left side of his head causing fracture of the skull and depression on the brans in some manner unknown to the jury

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that the aforesaid Willis Asbell came to his death from wounds received in a fracas or fight, with Nathan Fallow Henry Fallow, Robt Fallow Mary Fallow Anna Fallow and a little boy (Prisoner) name William Ellis

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.

Col. John Taylor July 8, 1904 at Miden dolph, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceast John Taylor came to his death By measures unknown to the Jury.

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

James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .J. William M. Brown ... then and there [did] inflict three severe blows upon the head of deceased fracturing his skull in two places

Henry Dennis August 22, 1876 at the residence of Laurens County's Jefferson Abercrombie, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Dennis in manner and form aforesaid on the night of the 20 isnt was shot by some person or persons unknown.

March slave February 24, 1845 at Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a blow inflicted with some blunt instrument upon the head fracturing the skull for some five or seven inches by some person or persons unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frank Flowers January 31, 1921 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jury . . . find that the Said Frank Flowers came to his death by gun Shot in the had of Dan Bittle

Stephen December 6, 1833 at Ephraim Morgan's house, Fairfield County, SC

do believe that the s'd boy Stephen came to his death by a gunshot wound, inflicted by Ephraim Morgan: and that in accordance with the testimony adduced, we believe that the s'd boy was killed by the sd. Ephraim Morgan in self defence.

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 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.

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

Gabavila Steadman May 15, 1889 at Joseph Stedman's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Gabriella Stedman came to her death by blows inflicted on the head by person or persons unknown to the jury

James Mayes infant March 24, 1870 taken [???], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James Mays came to his death at A. M. Gilreaths . . .cause unknown . . .misfortune or accident

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

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
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

Peter Goddard November 3, 1866 Laurens County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors return the following verdict. That Peter Goadard Freedman came to his death by the means of two Balls shot from a gun in the hands of one Jacob Spoon Freedman on the night of the 20th of Oct 1866 on or near the Bank of Saluda River on Christopher Smith's plantation on Larens side.

James Nelson November 22, 1903 at E. C. Clark's place, Chesterfield County, SC

We the undersigned juror of inquest over the body of James Nelson find that he Come to his death by being hanged by some unKnown Partyes.

Vollney Powell October 21, 1870 on public highway from Laurens C.H. to Clinton, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, We, the jury empannelled this day, to view the body of Volney Powell of Laurensville now lying dead before us, do find, upon making view and inquest, that the said Volney Powel - came to his death on public highway between Laurens and Clinton by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands some person or persons unknown to this Jury.

Thomas Hoiston August 13, 1907 at Bethel, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol Shot wound at the hand of Wes McDonald

Clement D. Wallace November 28, 1867 at Gopher Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clement D Wallace was disabled or killed with some instrument unknown or by the burning of his dwelling house

Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by a Gun shot wound . . . in the hands of Job McGee

Lewis slave March 27, 1865 at or near the residence of [?] Gossett, Spartanburg County, SC

that he came to his from a gun shot wound through the neck passing out at his jaw and the said show was from a gun in the hands of some person unknown

Warren slave July 13, 1859 at Camden at the residence of John Workman, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Warren. . .came to his death from Lock jaw produced by a gun shot wound in the inner side of the right thigh discharged by John Workman and from his own impudence & exposure afterward

Nestor Ellison freedman June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

Irving Stallings March 3, 1857 at Court House, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths aforesaid do say, that the aforesaid Jeremiah Benson, (Called J. M. Benson) in manner and form aforesaid Irving Stallings, then and there feloniously did Kill against the Peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

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

Jim April 26, 1856 on the Public Road leading from Conwayboro, to Bull Creek Ferry, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said slave Jim Came to his death from the effect of Gun shot wounds--discharged from a Gun in the hands of J.s W. Holiday, his (the said Slave imployer) said slave at the time being in a state of insubordiation, and we the Jurors, do say that the aforesaid Jo.s W. Holiday did in self defence and contrary to his will, Kill and slave the said boy Jim

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. . .

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

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

Ephram Neetles February 1, 1890 at the residence of Ephram Neetles, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the said Ephram Neettles came to his death by a shot from a Pistol in the hands of Rich Davenport - and George Henderson and Hugh Henderson being acceessories.

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

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

Annie Streeter July 12, 1919 at a House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

find that the said Annie Streeter came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by Alexander Streeter

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[.]

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.

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