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 151 - 200 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Cane Garlington March 19, 1877 at C M Kellets Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the afforesaid Cane Garling in the manner and form aforesaid was shot in the head on the Right sid [sic] & coming out on the back Part of the Head & Braken the scull [sic] by sum [sic] Person un known to us

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

infant Child infant Child August 22, 1842 at or near Mrs Marium Kershaw plantation, Union County, SC

do say that the bones shown to them at the Stump was the bones of an infant [?] Child and it appeared that they had been put there for the purpose of Consealing them [??] they war put thare in the flesh or cleand of flesh is to us 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

John Henry King October 29, 1865 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say he was Killed by a Pistol shot from the hands of a colord Soldier belonging to the U S Troops now station in Augusta Ga the name of said Soldier not known

Ineed Madden Daughter of Perry & Della Madden July 12, 1897 at Buford Burns plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say Ineed Madden infant of Perry & Della Madden came to her death by Gun shot wound inflicted by the hand of Ause Simpson Col on the 11th day of July 1897 at the House of Rudy Barksdale on B.C. Burns plantation.

Peter White March 11, 1898 at Jacob White upon the Plantation Silvester Chipley, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say that Peter White came to his Death by Gun Shot wound in the hands of Henry Calhoun

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

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

Albert Trapp near Blairs, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: "That the said Albert Trapp came to his death from a gun shot wound inflicted by the hands of Hop Thompson"

John Larke December 14, 1884 at J D Sullivans place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid John Larke came to his death on J D Sullivans place in Laurens County on the 13th day of December AD 1884 by a pistol shot in the hands or believed to be in the hands of N D Franks while the discharge of his official duties. And so the jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid N D Franks in manner and form aforesaid John Larke then and there feloniously did Kill and slay against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

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. . .

infant child infant child August 5, 1878 at the residence of H J Wright, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the female Child . . . Came to its death by Misfortune or accident

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

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

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

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

Elizer slave June 13, 1845 at the plantation of Mrs S. C. Sims, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say . . .the death was occasioned by the violent abuse given her by the hands of David R. Henderson the overseer of [??] Sims by beating her with such weapons as was calculated to destroy life

Evans Gulledge November 23, 1940 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Evans Gulledge received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot Wounds in the hands of Silas Johnson

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

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

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
William Samuel April 26, 1891 at Scima[?] Hill Church, Edgefield County, SC

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

Harriet M. Melton April 18, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Mrs Harriet M. Melton came to her death by a gunshot wound inflicted form the hands of some person or persons unknown to this Jury

Willis Lodd July 25, 1877 at Loutens [?] cross roads, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said Willis Lodd came to his death by a pistol shot fired from the hands of one Butler Putman

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.

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[.]

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[?]

white infant child, boy white infant child, boy March 24, 1858 at John Thomas Boat Landing, Union County, SC

the infant Came to it Death by it being Killed and throwed in the River

James Thomas colored July 20, 1869 at Liberty Hill County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Thomas came to his death by a gun shot wound in the stomach . . .from a gun in the hands of some person or person unknown

Robert Davis July 17, 1897 at Garlington, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the the aforesaid Robert Davis came to his death from gunshot wounds at the hand of G. F. Young.

Rufus Harling September 16, 1897 at Clarks Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say. That the Said Rufus Harling Came to his death by a gun Shot wound. . . inflicted by a Shot gun in the hands of Parties unknown

John Adamson August 23, 1825 Kershaw County, SC

do find [that] John Adamson came to his death by a gun shot in the right side before the right rib which shot penetrated the body through the intestines and the shot lodged in the left side of the body . . .but who discharged the gun. . . the jurors. . . cannot report

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

infant September 12, 1882 at Chester Scruggs well, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant was murdered by being thrown into an unused well by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

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

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

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

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

Charley Ryan May 9, 1892 at T. H. Ramsford Plantion, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Charlie Ryan Came to his death by the hands of Sam Nobles and it was wilful Murder

Charles Williams July 5, 1885 Laurens County, SC

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

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.

J.D. "Doc" Wallace March 19, 1915 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Dock Wallace came to his death by pistol shot wound in the hands of Walker Arant.

Charles August 2, 1846 [near the house of David L Milling], Fairfield County, SC

the death of the afforesaid Charles was caused by a stab inflicted by a pocket knife near the joint[?] of the breast bone which wound is horizontal & about 1 1/4 inch in length 2nd That from the testimony produced they are fully satisfied that the wound was caused the death of Charles was inflicted by the hand of a negro boy Ned the property of Andrew [?]

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.

Sarah Hardy free girl of color October 4, 1865 at William Page's, Union County, SC

We the Jurors can [?] deceasd came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by some person unknown

Robert J. Butler September 15, 1864 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Robert J Butler sen[?] came to his death by gun shot wound inflicted by Doct J D Twiggs

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

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

Tandy Holmes September 21, 1894 at or on Dr. W.C. Prescotts Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, We find that Tandy Holmes, came to his death by a blow on the head, with a gun in the hands of T.K. McKenny and that the said McKenny struck said blow in self defense and was justifiable in so doing

male baby male baby May 24, 1891 at the Saluda River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he was feloniously murdered and thrown in the Salud River at the hands of his own Mother or at the hands of Some one known to her

Robert Melton April 19, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Melton, the deceased came to his death from two gun shot wounds, one taking affect in the left hip; the other in the region of the stomach, inflicted by some person or persons unknown to this Jury, this taking place at the Residence of the deceased

infant April 6, 1865 near Hobbysville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that after a most careful investigation of the whole matter ... that the said child, we are satisfied, came to its death by having the posterior part of its head crushed, wilfully and violently, by the hands of Martha Robinson, the mother of said child, or Elizabeth Robinson, the grandmother of said child, later in the evening of Tuesday the 4th day of April

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the san Summer a slave came to his deth [sic] by blow or blows inflicted over his left temple and over the nasal bone, which caused inflamation of the brain. . .the blow or blows supposed to have been inflicted by Monroe, a slave the property of T.L. Boykin

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