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 a 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. We will never know precisely how many enslavers murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But in cases where the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, or where the enslaver failed to cover it up, there usually was 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 enslaved 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 an enslaved man named Dick who became so jealous that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the man who was staying in the cabin of a woman he wanted to sleep with.

Today, 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 was an interracial liaison. More often it was 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 might be considered extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother, for instance, 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 enslavers to believe 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
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

Richard Lundy December 7, 1891 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that the aforesaid came to his death from gun & pistol shot wound and also 1 cut in neck in the hands of unnown parties

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

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

Monroe Nathan June 5, 1889 at Allen Dials, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Monroe Nathan came to his death by gun shot wounds by a Pistol in the hands of Constable Jno D Watts he acting in self defence on the 5th day of June 1889.

Pink Williams October 6, 1898 at or near Mr E.F. Pickles residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths, do Say that Pink Williams came to his death by Gun Shot wounds in the hands of Lawyer[?] Holoway[?]

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

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.

Henry Turner September 24, 1878 at Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said Henry Turner came to his death by a pistol or gun shot from the hands of Cato[?] Butler

Male Child Male Child January 30, 1809 at David Cowens, Laurens County, SC

do believe upon their oathes that. . . by some means unknown to the Jurors and so these Jurors upon their oathes aforesaid Doth say the Jurors also believe that Jane Cowan was accessory to the sd. Murder. . .

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

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.

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

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

death was caused from concussion of the brain caused from some blow or lick.

Haup W. Oliver June 9, 1912 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

David Cornelius Boan January 18, 1943 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that David Cornelius Boan received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Hiram Mareen Linton

Wade Burnside December 7, 1893 at Wade Burnside's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. We do find that deceased Wade Burnside came to his death from a pistol wound, at his house in Waterloo the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Wade Burnside in manner and form aforesaid Semore Anderson then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

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

Henry Parks September 14, 1895 at Parksville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Henry Parks came to his death. . . by a gun shot wound in the hands of Perrin Wells

William C. Driggers August 1, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That W. T. Driggers came to his death by an acute heart attack caused by knife wounds in the hands of Raymond Driggers

infant July 28, 1836 at the palntation of Mr. Richard Shotford[?], Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that Nancy Owens of. . .district is living at the house of sd district is the mother and murderer of sd. Child which they have examined but how killed they could not tell.

negro woman negro woman January 11, 1867 at David Mill, Greenville County, SC

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

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC
Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Barnett S. Langston August 8, 1889 at Lanfords station, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that the said Barnett S Langston came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of Jno. W. Lanford

Freedwoman Freedwoman October 23, 1867 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said infant came to its death by strangulation by the hands of its mother Clary Williams, a freed woman in the town of Anderson . . .immediately after its birth

Willie Toney March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Willie Toney came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hand of Robert Coill[?], Dan Coward, Hill Hoawrd and R. L. Burnett as principals. Milledge Reese and A. J. Corley as accessories.

Joe slave, boy September 13, 1860 at the residence of D. M. Glover, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say the said Joe came to his death. . .from the effects of a gunshot in the hand of G M Broadwaters the shot taking affect in the left leg and thigh thereby producing his death

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

Abe Simmons October 21, 1870 near Samuel Blakeleys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Abe Simmons aforesaid, came to his death at Samuel J Blakeleys in County aforesaid by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to the jury

Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson January 14, 1865 at W.B. Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they beloeve the Infant slave above mentioned came to its death by violence inflicted by the hands of some unknown person by thrusting a common sewing needle through the scalp into the brain. . .Either by the hand of the Mother, or The Slave Girl Lucy, The property of W.B. Henderson.

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

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.

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

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

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

black child black child July 31, 1849 at Morton's old place, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Harriot and Amy and Jenny did then and there feloniously cause the death of the said chile contrary to the peace and dignity of the state.

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

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

Jacob Horn February 25, 1866 at the hous of Jacob Horns, Edgefield County, SC

upon there Oaths do say that Jacob Horn came to his death by a Malicious discharge of a Gun or Pistol entering the left Groin from which wound he [?] langushed and languishing died in about half an hour

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.

infant April 14, 1869 at Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said male infant child was killed by its mother Peggy Bedenbaugh [and] after she was delivered of it ... that she buried it about thirty yards back of the house in which she resides on Capt. J.D. Jakell's plantation

Willie G. Harris March 25, 1897 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

We the Jury find that Willie G Harris came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of [?] Wm Thurmond

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

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[.]

Reeves February 23, 1855 Laurens County, SC
Andrew Lynch August 22, 1868 at or near Gosmills Mill's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot taken affect in his abodomen discharged near his spine fired by some person inward[?]

Anthony October 30, 1860 at Dr. McCoys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Antony came to his death from Shot wounds of a gun in the hands of John P Templeton on the 29th day of Oct

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

Edward Bridges March 19, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC

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