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 201 - 250 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

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

Wilson Griffin freedman February 13, 1867 at Luke Rodgers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Griffin freedman came to his death from a gun or pistole shot wound in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Robert Williams November 4, 1881 at Wilson's Bridge, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Robert Williams came to his death . . . by hanging at the hands of parties unknown to the jury

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
unnamed infant unnamed infant May 18, 1870 at and near Cools Spring, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said infant came to its death by the Hands of providence

two negro children two negro children June 4, 1824 at Ellis Palmers, Union County, SC

do say upon their oaths that a negro woman named Sunaka Another of said children property of said Ellis Palmer did . . .choake the said children with a glove

Joe June 26, 1837 at the house of John Holley, Fairfield County, SC

are of the opinion that he [Joe] came to his death by a wound in his abdomen near his navel about one inch in Length committed on the body of Joe by the Hand of one Robert Freeman on the 22nd of June 1837.

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

Azariah Butler August 25, 1876 at the Residence of Azeriah Butler, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Azeriah Butler in the manner and form aforesaid on the Night of the 24 Inst was shot by some Person or Persons unknown by us and Seven Shot Entered the Head arms and body

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

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.

Haywood Barksdale May 11, 1893 near A.H. Martin's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death in Laurens Counrt on the 10th day of May 1893 from strangulation by being hung by the neck, by parties unknown to the jury.

nameless newborn boy or male child nameless newborn boy or male child January 12, 1885 at T P Byrds Campbell place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said nameless boy or male child came to his death on the 10th day of January AD 1885 and in Laurens County by strangulation cause by criminal negligence on the part of Kittie F. Malone.

Lula Smith child June 22, 1894 at James A Satcher's Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Lula Smith aforesaid came to her death, by a cause unknown

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

George Franklin of color December 4, 1866 at Hush[?] Creek, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . he came to his death by means of a gun shot which entered about five inches below the right nipple & passed out just above the left [?] bone at Thor[?] Callaway's still house

Sarah Sweat February 4, 1871 at the dwelling house of Sarah Sweat, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oath, do say: that Sarah Sweat came to her death on the 4th of February 1871, by the visitation of Providence.

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.

Charles Little June 11, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: as the result of pistol shot in the hands of W. Lester Russell

Howel slave October 3, 1835 at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC
Albert Jones April 29, 1885 at Pickens Reynolds house, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Albert Jones came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Jack Jones in self defence

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

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

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

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

Aaron Hughes October 15, 1865 at the residence of Aaron Hughes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that said Aaron Hughes ... was feloniously killed and murdered by being shot in the mouth with a small ball and being struck a severe blow across the nose and ... then dragged across the road into the woods. . .by some person or persons to the jurors unknown

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

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. . .

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

Timothy Spann April 24, 1812 two miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe that said Timothy Spann came to his death in consequence of a wound received by a shot in a duel with a certain ---- Lowell

Albert Jenkins September 13, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Albert Jenkins received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Bullet in the hands of Buster Ellebre

William male slave, boy March 12, 1857 at Doct Milton [?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that from what testimony they can get they are together with the wounds & bruises found on the body of the boy both on the head & [?] made by one Lewis Jones . . .came to his death that the said Lewis Jones the said boy William by misfortune & contrary to his will in manner & form afforesaid did Kill & Slay

L. Roy Lavender June 9, 1838 at Lucey Lavenders, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that one James Sessions[?] feloniously voulantary and of his own malice aforethought made an assault uppon the said L.R. Lavender with a [?] dirk knife made of Iron and Steel of the value of $1.25 [?] Mortal Wound . . . which Mortal Wound by the Stab of Said Knife the said L.R. Lavender came to his death.

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

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

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

Luke Smith October 14, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the coroners Jury in the case of L. Smith find that L. Smith came to his death by Gunshot wounds of Gun in the hands of Paul Cuffin

Riley Parker January 15, 1884 at Clifton in Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Clifton S.U. on Jan. 14th 1884 that the said dec'd Riley Parker in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by means unknown to us

George Sullivan June 26, 1893 at Prospect church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That his death was caused by a pistol shot, fired from an American double action, .38 cal, five shot pistol, By Edgar Sullivan, on the 25 day of June, about one oc in the evening, at Prospect church in Laurens Co SC.

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

Henry Purse September 23, 1838 at Camden, on the corner of Market & York Streets, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we found upon examination that the Boddy is that of H. W. Purse who came to his death by the discharging fo a gun supposed to be loaded with shot by Franklin Ray. The wound inflicted was mortal, the load having passed into the right breast.

Walter Brown November 26, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Walter Brown received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by _______ in the hands of Mose McKay. . . He came to his death by a gun in hands of Mose McKay.

Joe Coleman near Willing, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the Said Joe Coleman came to his death by gun shot wounds, by the hands of person or persons unknown to the Jury, but suspicion and evidence points to William Woodward principal and we further think that he had accessories[.]

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

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

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[?]

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

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.

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

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

Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia