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 151 - 200 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

Infant of Nann Williams Infant of Nann Williams February 4, 1889 at Nelly Sanders, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. And so the Jurors aforesaid do say that the said infant came to its death by the hands its mother Nann Williams, by strangulation at Nelly Sanders in Laurens County and State aforesaid, on the the morning of the third day of February AD 1889.

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

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

Henry freemen formerly the slave October 30, 1865 at or near Dr. Bery F. Few's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry was killed and homicideed by some person or persons by the discharge of a gun to the jurors unknown

Mary Lipscomb May 3, 1889 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Mary Lipscomb died of apoplexy

Jeff Evins March 24, 1895 at the residence of Jeff Evans, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Jeff Evans came to his death by Pistol Shot fired from the hands of Will Smith, and so the jurors afore said do say that the afore said will Smith in mann. And form then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State afore said...

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

Joe Weston January 31, 1895 in Edgefield County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joe Weston aforesaid came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hands of parties to us 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

Kenneth M. Douglas October 17, 1946 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Kenneth M. Douglas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 32 Pistol in the hands of M. Stuart Funderburk

Eunice Hogan October 26, 1851 at the house of John Briskey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eunice Hogan was killed and murdered by some person or persons . . .unknown

Jane slave March 10, 1863 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that she came to her death on sabath the eighth day of March?at the residence of her master A. A. Morse, of deceased hastened or made premature by the maltreatment of her Master A. A. Morse and his mistress Mrs. C. T. [?] Morse, and more particularly on the part of the latter, and....that the said slave Jain the said A. A. Morse & C. T. Morse, by misfortune, and contrary to their will

Wesley Smith at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Worley Smith came to his death on the sixteenth day of February A.D. 1900 from blows inflicted by one

Nelson Smith freedman, boy October 4, 1866 at Andrew Warts, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Nelson Smith freedman came to his death from being shot with some kind of fire arms in the hands of two persons from the way he was shot by persons unknown

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

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.

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

Claude McKenzie February 1, 1935 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say that Claude McKenzie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun done willfully . . . in the hands of Gillespie McKenzie

Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
Unknown at Pollete [?] Harrison, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths that the said Child came to its death by premeditated[?] and criminal negligence and exposure on the part of the parents or others unknown to the Jury

Mary Grace Aldrich infant child August 11, 1856 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that said child came to her death at the time and place aforesaid by having large portions of laudaunum administered by a servant girl the nurse of the name of Clarissa. . .with felonious intent

Sam Dehays October 23, 1870 at Thernus quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon the oaths do say that the said Sam Dehay came to his death on the road between Duncans creek & Clinton on the 22d Oct 1870 by a gunshot from parties unknown to the jury

Houston Taylor October 6, 1915 at G. F. Erasmo, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the aforesaid Houston Taylor came to his death as the result of pistol shot rounds at the hands of Dr. R. L. McManus, a justifiable homicide

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
Annie West March 4, 1871 at the late residence fo Rob't West, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the house in which Mrs. Annie West lived was set on fire by some person or persons unknown & that she perished in the flames

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

Haman Miller October 30, 1824 at Blacks Store, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Haman Miller came to his Death by Violence committed on his sides by a number of Blows with the fist of John Prince and a fall... as a consequence of of Said Blows, and that the said John Prince did then and there feloniously Kill and Murder, against the peace and Dignity of this State.

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

Edward slave August 3, 1824 on the main Charleston Road five miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC

are of the opinion that the fellow Edward has come to his death by causes unknown to them

Sarah Watson January 31, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sarah Watson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Buckshot from Shotgun in the hands of Jas. Stacks

William Bailey July 19, 1846 at the House of Samuel C Scott, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Bailey was feloniously Killed and Murdered by Thomas Prince at the house of Saml C. Scott . . .with a pocket Knife

Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings Infant male child of G.Y. Jennings April 10, 1893 behind Elihu Bullock's stables, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest... find that this child came to his death. . .By the hands of G.Y. Jennings, By some means unknown to us, And aided And abetted by Elihu Bullock Clara Bullock and wife of G.Y. Jennings against the peace and dignity of the state of So Car.

Harry Shelton March 28, 1871 in the County aforesaid, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Harry Shelton came to his Death from a Ball shot from a pistol or Rifle by an unknown hand being done near Shelton Depot.

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

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

Benjamin Farmer April 9, 1804 at the dwelling house of Benjamin Farmer, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] a certain Denis Crain with volence and force of arms ... did attack, wound & kill ... Benj'n Farmer

C. Walker Arant June 29, 1933 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid C. Walker Arant in manner and form aforesaid, Came to his death by gun shot wounds at the hands of his Wife Mrs Juanita Arant at his home near Pageland on the 28 day of June 1933.

Joe negro man, boy March 5, 1865 Greenville County, SC

who came to his death from a gun shot wound in the breast at the hands of Midleton Patterson

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

Spencer Simpson November 25, 1896 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest. . . find that Spencer Simpson died in Laurens County on 21st Day of Nov AD 1896 - from the Effects of a gunshot wound from the hands of Jno. Miller, and so we all agree.

Wallace E. Bland July 4, 1880 at Edgefield C. House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said W E. Bland came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of A. A. Elisby [Clisby?]

infant child infant child April 14, 1895 at Charley Moors, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that the child came to its death at the hands of Laura White and her daughter Anna by some means unknown

infant March 10, 1865 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that it came to its death ^at the house of Wm Shanachans[?] in the town of Anderson^ by violence inflicted by its mother Adelia C. Parker

George Watkins October 10, 1866 at George Watkins, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that George Watkins came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of Newton Corley

Frank Dillard September 24, 1890 on the plantation of William Patterson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Frank Dillard came to his death by "a gun shot wound in the hands of W.B. Patterson

John H. Anderson March 21, 1891 at Tom Anderson place, Edgefield County, SC

came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of one Henry Ryan

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
Unknown May 2, 1862 at the house of Washington Hathcock, Fairfield County, SC

upon examination of the Infant found its Skull Broken and other Marks of violence, Sufficient to cause death

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