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.


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 301 - 350 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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

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

Elias Earl January 22, 1867 at Boyds Mills, Laurens County, SC

uppon theire oaths do say. That he came to his death by being shot on Sunday night last by some person or persons unknown to us, further than the statement of deceased that he was shot by Brown, against the peace & dignity of the state afforesaid

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

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

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. . .

James M. D'young February 16, 1879 at John J. Moore's, Spartanburg 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

Woodward June 9, 1879 on the road leading from Dantzler's Bridge on South Tyger River via G. W. Duncan's and R. T. McElvath's to Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the deceased came to her death by gunshot wound in the Breast, and incised wound on the neck, which severed the carotid arteries, windpipe, and other vital organs, and that we believe the said wounds were inflicted by weapons in the hands of John J. Moore

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

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.

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

Rose three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Riller Lizzy and Rose were feloniously Killed and Murdered in the negro house of said Philip Brogden on the night of the 1st inst by breaking their sculls with an axe and cutting the throats of Riller & Lizza by the hands of their own Mother named Clarisy the property of said Brogden

Enoch Stevens August 2, 1859 at Stephens Mill, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Enoch Stevens came to his dith by the wound received from James Huggins and Samuel Taylor one wound on the head the skull bone broke, one wound on the leg and the bone ruptured then and there feloniously did kill the said Stevens

Henry Dennis August 22, 1876 at the residence of Laurens County's Jefferson Abercrombie, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Henry Dennis in manner and form aforesaid on the night of the 20 isnt was shot by some person or persons unknown.

Julia Van June 20, 1892 at the plantation of Mr Joe Thurmond, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Rial Williams Killed the said Julia Van by misfortune and contrary to his will

S. B. C. Lowney March 5, 1873 Fairfield County, SC
Andrew Lynch August 22, 1868 at or near Gosmills Mill's, Greenville County, SC

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

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

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.

Jasper Thomas March 28, 1934 at Cheraw, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersigned jurors find that Jasper Thomas, colored, came to his death aobut 6:25 P.M. Thursdday, March 22nd 1934 by pistol wound at the hands of John Mack, colored.

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

John McKinny September 26, 1894 at W P. Lipfords[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that. . . John Mckenny. . .came to his death by gun shot wound in the hands of Jessie Bostie and Edmon Jones and others unknown

Ambrose slave September 25, 1828 at the house of [?] Duke, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave Ambrose came to his death early in the morning of the twenty-forth of September instant by buck shot discharged from a gun presented at him by Kirkland Harmon ... [the shot] entering his back loins & hips

Sax slave, boy March 11, 1865 at UnionVille, Union County, SC

do say that the boy Sax was taken out of goal by an armed force unknown to the [?] and hanged

Farquer Ratliff August 11, 1941 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Farquer Ratliff & Bertha Evans received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Gun shot wounds in the hands of James Evans

Dr. E. C. Shell November 5, 1868 at Henry Shell's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they do believe from the evidence given that from the evidence given that Jess Woody, Rich Dial, Nathan Crews, Bill Bryson, Samuel Allison Sr., Daniel Allison Jr., Harry Shell Jr. and Mar Williams either as principals or accessories did willfully and feloniously kill and Murder Dr. E.C. Shell by a shot gun or musket shot on the second day of Nov 1868 near the residence of his father H R Shell against the peace and dignity of the State afore said.

Johnson Johnsons infant June 18, 1875 at Roberts Tuckers, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That it was the child of Henretta Johnson that rivers found dead in the woods near the Robert Tucker House and that from appearance that it was the propper time for it to be deliverd and if the child was not murderd She intendedto murder it and it was don on or about the 11 of June 1875[.]

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.

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC
Unknown September 6, 1827 near the house of James Walling, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the sd infant came to its death by being struck against a log which lay about four or five steps from the place of its birth on Tuesday morning the 4th instant by Letitia Vaugh, who they believe delivered the child

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
George Ross June 29, 1898 at Adoms[?] place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that George Ross, came to his death by a pistol shot wilfully in the hands of Ed Hood

Nancy Suggs September 15, 1863 at Seth Belleme's . . .and continued by adjournment and taken at M.r J. J. Worthams, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by Arsenic and that the same was administered by Arthur Suggs at his own residence

Elick Youngblood child March 21, 1881 at S[?] R Warren, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Elick Youngblood come to his death near S R Warren water gin on Polys[?] Branch ... from Exposure Caused by the wilfull Neglect and cruel treatment of Eliza Hunt[?]

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

Claud Thompson December 4, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Claud Thompson came to his Death by Gun Shot Wound in the hands of C. L. Newman

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

John R. McMillan March 5, 1879 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that aforsaid John McMillin came to his death in Winnsboro on the 4 day of March 1879. from a wound by pistol received on the 16 of Feb 1879. in the hand of some person to the jurors unknown[.]

Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by a Gun shot wound . . . in the hands of Job McGee

Albert Blakeney October 18, 1937 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Albert Blakeney received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Herman Massey

James Mayes infant March 24, 1870 taken [???], Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said James Mays came to his death at A. M. Gilreaths . . .cause unknown . . .misfortune or accident

Henry Blakeny June 6, 1893 at Ana Deason, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Henry Blakeney came to his death by a Pistol ball in the heands of Thos ingram at the residence of Ana Deason on the 6th June A.D. 1893.

Thomas Waters April 7, 1866 on the plantation of Daniel McCaskill on Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... they do believe that the said Thomas Waters was killed ... by a gun shot in the head & that the said gun was in the hands of Elias McLandon

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

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

Agness Fowler January 26, 1897 at J.Y. Petts, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Agness Sullivan (Fowler) came to her death by Bullet fired from the Pistol of either Wm Wright or Ned Rosewood.

Richmond slave March 3, 1857 at V[?] Elbert Blands residence at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, by a wound in the head inflicted in the left temple, coming out in the left side of the forehead in Mr J.[?] H. Goodes black Smiths Shop . . .by a pistol shot by the hands of Joseph Williams

Frank Flowers January 31, 1921 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

We the Jury . . . find that the Said Frank Flowers came to his death by gun Shot in the had of Dan Bittle

Charity Norris May 29, 1869 at B. F. McGee's residence, Anderson County, SC

do say that she was killed, and brutally murdered, in a most shocking & barberous manner by some person or persons unknown, by shooting her in diferent [sic] places, two of her fingers shot off of one hand, and one finger from the other hand, and a large wound on her right arm, with her throat cut from ear to ear

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