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.


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 601 - 642 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Albert Shaw July 1, 1946 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Albert Shaw received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Oliver Johnson

Tamar Clark November 9, 1871 at Henry L. Hunter's resident at Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that ... Tamar Clark came to her death from gun shot wounds, the said gun having been fired from the hands of Henry L. Hunter and having inflicted between ninety and one hundred wounds on the right breast, right shoulder and right fore arm ... with squirrel shot

Moses Slave April 10, 1844 at Clayton Webb's Plantation...near the Spring Branch, Anderson County, SC shotgun

do say that Moses died?we are of the opinion that Sd Moses came to his death by a wound that we have seen below the back bone of the rightshoulder inclining to the right nipple rather downward made by a leaden ball or buck shot shot out of a double barrell gun...by Clayton Webb the owner of Moses

Seymore Crawford January 9, 1933 at Mt. Croghan, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths, do say: That Seymore Crawford came to his death by Gun Shot wounds at the hands of Luther Kelley did wastfully and feloniously did kill, against the peace and dignity of the aforesaid state.

Tom slave July 10, 1824 at the plantation of Mr. Wm. W. Lang, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say upon their oaths that William R. Young . . . did by shooting with buckshot kill the said negro man named Tom and we the jury aforesaid find that the said William R. Young was justifiable in shooting and killing the said negro man Tom

William Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Margaret Simpkins September 21, 1879 on Jas C Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

do say that the said Margaret Simpkins came to her death by a gun Shot wound inflicted with a single Barrel Shot gun in the hands of John Simpkins

Edmond Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Eleck slave May 30, 1850 at the quarter of A.D. Jones Esq., Kershaw County, SC shotgun

do say that he came to his death by a shot gun wound inflicted by the hands of Thos. Mickle under justifiable circumstances.

Leonard Dixon October 27, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Leonard Dixon received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Frank DeBerry on the 26 day of October 1934, and that form such mortal wound deceased died in South Carolina on October 26-1934.

B. F. Stephens September 27, 1875 near Cross Hill, Laurens County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say That the said B.F. Stephens, was willfully, feloniously, and voluntarily, killed & murdered, at his house on Sunday evening, the 26th day of September A.D. 1875 by Tilda Stephens "alias" Norris, with a double barrel shot gun

Benjamin F. Jones March 24, 1845 at W B Griffins, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that the said B F Jones was wilfully Killed by one Charles Price in the Store house of the above name W B Griffin . . .by shooting him the said B F Jones with a gun commonly Known as a shot gun in the left side of chest below the left Nipple

Riley Hinson February 2, 1934 at Teal's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths, do say: We the Jury find that Riley Hinson came to his by gunshot wounds in the hand of J.T. Hanna Sr.

Julia Long November 22, 1883 at the residence of David Long, Anderson County, SC shovel

do say that the deceased Julia Long came to her death by natural causes.

Rolen Hutcheson January 3, 1803 at the dwelling house of William Davis, Spartanburg County, SC shovel

upon their oaths. . .say that the aforesaid Wm. Davis . . .did with a large wooden shovel strike the sd. Rolen Hutcheson on the head which did brake the skull

Wesley Murrell colored January 6, 1869 at Col. W. J. Reynolds plantation, Kershaw County, SC spade

upon their oaths do say that said Wesley Murrell came to his death by [?] spade inflicted by the hands of Morris[?] Corbert[?]

John Wilson July 26, 1817 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC stake

do say upon their oaths & affirmations that the said John Wilson decsd. Son John came to his death on the twenty sixth day of July in the year aforesaid by a stroke or strokes with a part of a fence rail or stake on the forehead of the said John above the left Eye and the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths and affirmations aforesaid do say that from the Evidence... before them that a certain John Wilson decsd. son of James then and there with the fence rail or stake aforesaid did Kill and murder against the peace of the said state.

Isaac Whitworth March 8, 1840 at Isaac Whitworths, Laurens County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that the said Decd. Came to his death by blow recd. By a stick in the hand of Negro boy named Willis, the property of Jas Watts Esq. on the on the 7th Inst

Lucinda Clantice May 1, 1849 at the late residence of Lucinda Clantice, Laurens County, SC stick

do say upon their oath that one Nancy Morgan late of the District aforesaid not having God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the 29th day of April in year 1849 at Joel L. Andersons Saw Mill in the District aforesaid in and upon the said Lucinda Clantice then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State feloniously voluntarily and of her own laaice afore though made an assault and that the aforesaid Nancy Morgan then and there with a certain wooden Stick which She the said Nancy Morgan then and there held in her hand the afore said Lucinda Clantice; upon the left sideof the head about three Inches above the left Ear together with other wounds to wit one on the left arm one on the left hip one of the left lef of the said Lucinda Clantice... the afore said Nancy Morgan did then and there feloniously kill and Murder the Said Lucinda Clantice agains the peace of this State...

Will Wallace September 19, 1937 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that Will Wallace received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Blunt Instrument (Stick) in the hands of Homer Bunn

Thomas Clark September 14, 1811 at plantation on Little Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Clark came to his death by a blow received with a stick above his left temple struck by the hand of Stephen Carter of which he died in about four hours afterward

Peter negro man June 16, 1838 at a Mr. Azariah[?] Abneys, Edgefield County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Peter came to his death by blows he received on his head either with a stick or by Stomping in a combat which accured between him and Mr.[?] Caleb Watkins (the overseer)

John Kirk November 28, 1826 near the house of Ezekiel Jenkins, Fairfield County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that one negro man to wit Harry belonging to Ms. Martha Ann Dickson with a stick about three feet long and the size of the wrist of a man struk and and gave the said John Kirk said stick upon aforesaid occipital bone with three other wounds...so the said negro man Harry then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said John Kirk

Eisex Brown February 12, 1869 at John Canty's plantation, Kershaw County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the said Eisex Brown came to his death from two blows upon the head inflicted with a stick in the hands of Friendly Gowdin [?]

Matilda H. Posey February 26, 1849 at the house of Martin Posey, Edgefield County, SC stick

upon their Oaths do say, she came to her death, by violence inflicted on her person. . .by a stick or some deadly instrument in the hands of a negro man name App, or Appling belonging to, or owned by Martin Posey

Lydia McKay September 2, 1869 at Burches Spring branch near the residence of Mr. B. T. Ellerbe in Steerpeu township, Chesterfield County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid [????] Emanuell Cash did confess before the Jury and say That he did strike diseased after striking her several blows with sticks and a Lightwood knot and the jury aforesaid on this oath do say that the aforesaid Emanual Cash in manner and form aforesaid Lydia McKey then and there feloniously did kill

William Owens May 28, 1859 at Wm Owens, Laurens County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that Wm Owens came to his death by blows inflicted upon his face neck and head with a large stick in the hands of Thomas Owens on the evening of the 18th day of May 1859

Bill September 29, 1861 at HN Carters, Laurens County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death at Clement Wells on the night of the 27th inst by means of a blow upon the head with a stick in the hands of a negro man slave named Lank the property of John G. Turner.

Bob January 16, 1847 at Francis Thomasson's, Laurens County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say, that the said Bob came to his death by a blow on his head with a stick by Henry Hill at Francis Thomasson's in the district aforesaid on the 15th Jany 1847. And do the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the said Henry Hill did kill the said Bob in self defence in witness thereof I C.G. Franks Coroner aforesaid and the Jurors aforesaid so this inquisition have interchangeably put out hands and seals the day and year above mentioned.

John Inlow October 1, 1852 at Hill's Factory, Spartanburg County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that they believe John Broughton did kill him the sd. Inlow. . .with a stick about five feet long & about 2 1/4 inches in diameter

Vincent Hanes Fairfield County, SC stick
John Williams August 21, 1898 at S H Nicholson, Edgefield County, SC stick

on their Oaths do say, that the aforesaid John Williams came to his death by a blow with a stick in the hand of Ed Brooks

Joseph Hughes July 25, 1853 at the house of James A. Price, Union County, SC stick or board

upon their oaths do say that James A. Price did . . .at his own house in the said District with a club, stick or board hit the said Joseph Hughes over the head inflicting three severe wounds in the forehead and bruising the head nearly all over

Jack December 30, 1851 at Big Bay, Horry County, SC stomped

upon their Oaths do say, that when and where they Know not, nor by what instrument the deceast was Kild, But that the said Jack was feloniously by Beeting, that the said Jack was Killed and murdered by some person or persons by some means to the Jurors unknown

John South September 30, 1818 at Allen Clarks, Laurens County, SC stone

doth say on their oathes - after the Exammination of the body of said John South they found the head of the said John South cut and his mouth mashd. Or broken by a stroke made their on - and from Information the said stroke was made by Richard Manning with a stone which we believe to be the Cause of Death of said John South deceased.

Sylvia slave May 21, 1822 at John Brown plantation, Kershaw County, SC switch

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro woman Sylvia came to her death by two strokes which she received with a large switch, one across her arm and the other over her breast and shoulder from the hand of Gabiel Coats on the 14th Instant which seems to have been done without intention to kill or maim ... and what most men would have done in such a case and not otherwise

Ford Rayfield August 17, 1935 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC truck

upon there oaths do say that Ford Rayfield received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Lick from Right rear wheel of Truck in the hands of Cleo Perdue While intoxicated and driving Recklessly

Charles Cobb March 13, 1893 at or near Johnston, Edgefield County, SC umbrella

upon their oaths do say. . .that Charles Cobb, did come to his death. . .from injuries inflicted by the hands of one Thomas Cherry, with an umbrella

Edom slave November 7, 1832 Spartanburg County, SC whip

do say upon their oaths that. . .the said Edom did come to his death by the [?] Gabriel Cannon[?] striking him on the head with the but [sic] of a whip

Bacchus September 28, 1840 at the plantation of John Lowery, Fairfield County, SC whip

upon their oaths do say..that the believes the said negro Bacchus came to his death on the 26th day of Sept. Instant by Certain Blows inflicted on him by Wm L. Galloway with the but end of a waggon whip and by no other way

John Nickle October 30, 1853 at the House of David Owens, Laurens County, SC whip

upon their oaths do say That after having the body of the Decd. John Nickle exposed & after examining the body & all the circumstances that the sd. John Nickle came to his death from a severe whipping inflicted upon the body of the sd. Decd. On the 24th of October Inst (Monday) about 3 or oclk in the afternoon by William Hazle of the state & District aforesaid and that the said whipping as proven by witnesses examined & as exhibited upon the body as exposed to the undersigned, was inflicted... willfully by the sd. William Hazel against the peace the humanity & dignity of the same State aforesd. This Inquest concur in the opinion that as before stated that as the sd. Decd. John Nickle was but a youth - he being about six years of age - his health at the time of the infliction of the whipping as before state being feeble, & suffering with disease are of opinion that the diseased health of the boy & the whipping as a secondary cause...

Maria negro woman slave April 10, 1825 at Mrs. Williams, Union County, SC whip

do say upon their oathes that from a [?] Given by whiping by the aforesaid Thomas Beleu at his own hous on the 6 Inst with Switches[?] & a blow with his fist which was Given in heat of passion by the Sd Thomas Beleu on the thighs loins belly & breast of Sd negroe Maria but not with the intent to homicide

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