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 351 - 400 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
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

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.

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

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.

Charles slave, boy September 25, 1861 at Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Charles came to his death. . .from the affects of a gun shot in the hands of Z.[?] P. Claxton the shot taken affect in the samll of the back

Luther Sullivan October 26, 1898 near John Stuarts, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Luther Sullivan came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hand of unknown parties

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.

Sindy Brighthop August 21, 1898 on S.W. Gardners place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Sindy Brighthop came to her death, from a dislocated neck done by th parties in the house

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

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

John James April 13, 1892 at the Traynham place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at his residence in Laurens County on or about 12 oclock on the 18th day of April AD 1892 the said John James came to his death by two gunshot wounds said wounds being made by a Pistol fired by one Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu Sheriff and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu sheriff in manner and form aforesaid John James then and there did Kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

J. M. Long October 10, 1891 at J. M. Longs, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say That he came to his death by a gun Shot wound from the hands of Anthany Carter

Squire October 24, 1865 at the plantation of Saml. Todd, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that these two negroes came to there death by being shot by some person or persons unknown to us, from the evidence we think one of them is the boy Squire

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

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

Rufus Springs April 20, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rufus H Springs came to his death . . . from a gun shot wound in the hands of a party[?] to this jury unknown

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

Charlie Prince January 25, 1914 at R. B. Laney's farm, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Charlie Prince came to his death by knife wounds in the hands of Gus. Hubbard and that Charlie Williams is an accessory before and after the fact

Willie G. Harris March 25, 1897 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

We the Jury find that Willie G Harris came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of [?] Wm Thurmond

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.

Lucious Perry November 8, 1891 at the plantation of Ben Boatwright, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Lucious Perry came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Ben Curry Willfully and that Henry Robertson was aiding and abetting the same

Frank slave July 16, 1840 at the house of Charles M. Breaker, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say we suppose he came to his death by the evidence before us by being stabbed in the thigh with a deadly weapon and that done by the hands of a negro man slave by the name of Titus the property of Samuel A.B. Shannon in or near the main road leading from Camden to Salisbury

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

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[.]

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

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

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

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

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

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

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

Hardy Boulware January 2, 1862 at Hardy Boulwares, Edgefield County, SC

by the oaths of that Hardy Bolware came to his death by a gun shot wound from the hands of David W. Padgett

Al White October 12, 1898 at Mundy[?] Place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Al White came to his death by a gun show wound in the hands of Will McClenden in the discharge of his duty & that said act was justified in self Defence

infant male child infant male child October 28, 1851 at the Reedy River Factory, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said infant male child was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (or by some means) to the jurors unknown

Riller 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

Infant enslaved by William Philson Infant enslaved by William Philson September 11, 1858 at the plantation settlement of William Philson, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said child came to its death at the residence of Wm Philson in Laurens District by the Hands of Naty & Maria Negro women slaves the property of Wm Philson against the peace & Dignity of the State aforesaid.

Lewis Green free man of color September 17, 1859 at the Williamston Hotel, Anderson County, SC arsenic

do say that the said Lewis Green came to his death by poisioning with arsnick at the Williamston Hotel. . . on the night of the seventeenth day of September. . . the said poison being administered at the said Hotel somewhere about the thirteenth day of September...the medium of a certain sponge cake or pudding by some person or persons unknown

James W. Allred Sr. September 21, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC automobile

upon their oaths do say that James W. Allred, Sr. received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Automobile Collision in the hands of Wade A. Outlaw

Holman Smith May 28, 1855 at the late residence of Holman Smith, Spartanburg County, SC ax

upon their oaths do say [deceased] was wilfully, maliciously, & feloniously murdered at his own residence. . .by Phillis and John, slaves of the deceased, by beating him with an Axe and a stick. . .and that Charley, a slave of dec's'd, was accessory to the murder being present and making no effort to prevent the murder

A. G. McDonald March 11, 1927 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC ax

upon their oaths, do say: we the jury find that the deceased A.G. McDonald came to his death by being struck on the head by an ax in the hands of Will Alias Man Dawkins and we recommend that Katie Howard be heald as an accessory before and after the fact

Rachel slave November 2, 1838 at the House of Samuel L Martin, Union County, SC ax

do say oppon their oaths that wone negro woman name Clansy propperty of Samuel Martin not having got Before his Eyes Being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil . . .with force and arms . . .with a sertain ax did then and there vilently and feloniously with malice of forethough strike and pierce and give to the said Rachel with the said ax in and uppon the front as well as the Back part of the head two mortal wounds

Mary Jane Dunbar April 21, 1913 at Cutarrh, Chesterfield County, SC ax

upon their oaths, do say: That she came to her death from the blow of an axe inflicted by Isadore Dunbar

Edward Faircloth March 2, 1855 at the house of Edward T. Richs, Horry County, SC ax

upon their Oaths do say that at a negro House on the primises of the residence of Edward T. Ricks. Was struck one mortal blow with the edge of an ax, inflicting a wound six inches long and throuhg to his hollow on his left brest by the hands of one Tilson a slave belong to James F. Clark of North Carolina

Henry Heavener March 5, 1853 at Thomas Lynch's, Spartanburg County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that to the satisfaction of the jury he came to his death by violence. . .by some person or persons to the jurors unknown, by, the jurors suppose, an axe

Barbara Milam September 25, 1850 at T R Milams, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that She came to her Death by violence inflicted upon her person and by burning, the bruises having been first inflicted. They find the bruises & cuts upon and about the head and face inflicted with an axe or other heavy weapon - from the circumstances they conclude the blows to have been inflicted by the negro woman Eliot, the property of Milam the husband of Deceased.

Young Fuller May 3, 1854 at Mary McCrackins, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by Three wounds Inflicted on his head with an ax by the hand of Mary McCrackin Either being mortal

Thompson slave April 1, 1863 at Thomas Spencers, Union County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said Thompson was felloniously and maliciously homicideed by some person with an axe by a blow on the head, and the evidence before us justifies us in finding that the boy Henry was at least accessory to the decd

Allen S. Barksdale June 23, 1876 at the house of Robert A. Gray, Anderson County, SC axe

do say that Allen S. Barksdale came ot his death by an axe in the hands of Mary A. Gray on the night of 22nd June 1876 in self-defense in her own house and yard with several wounds with a mortal wound inflicted with ^the edge of^ an axe upon the top of the head to length of 3 inches severing in the skull bone.

George Huggins November 30, 1814 at John Pitts, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say. That the deceased George Huggins came to his Death By a Blow struck by Jay Pitts with an axe

Augustus W. Burt March 25, 1847 at the Plantation of A.W. Burt, Edgefield County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said A.W. Burt was Killed by his own slave Toll with an axe

Newton Cox October 30, 1875 at Robert Thomson's, Greenville County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say Newton Cox . . .came to his death. . . from a blow struck on his head [?] an axe in the hands of one Charlie Sulivan at the house of one Joycy Batson

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