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.

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 1 - 50 of 325
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Whit Terry J.K. Corleys Place, Edgefield County, SC gun

the said Whit Terry came to his death upon the plantation of J.K. Corley … from a gun shot wound inflicted by some one of the searching party, to the jury unknown inflicted in self defense

Paul Williams Kershaw County, SC brick

upon their oaths do say that the said Paul Williams came to his death from a blow inflicted with a brick upon the right side of the stomach ... the said brick having been thrown at the deceased by Robert Nixon

Moses Blalock on the Plantation of W G McDavid, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that Moses Blalock Death was Caused by a Gun Shot Wound the gun was in the hands of Mose Lackhart and in our opinion it is wilful Murder

Howel slave at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC blunt instrument
John H. Kelley on the [?] Road near the city of Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that said ... came to his death from a cut or stab in the left breast with a knife in the hands of Patrick Henry

Rolen Hutcheson January 3, 1803 at the dwelling house of William Davis, Spartanburg County, SC shovel

upon their oaths … say that the aforesaid Wm. Davis … did with a large wooden shovel strike the sd. Rolen Hutcheson on the head which did brake the skull

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC unknown

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

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

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

William Stone November 1, 1809 at James Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC pine stick

do say upon their oathsthat James Arnold [with] one pine stick [did] kill and murder against the piece [sic] of this state

Thomas Clark September 14, 1811 at plantation on Little Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Clark came to his death by a blow received with a stick above his left temple struck by the hand of Stephen Carter of which he died in about four hours afterward

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

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

Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC sharp instrument
Sam Sinclair slave March 24, 1820 at John Chesnut plantation near Chesnut's Ferry on Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC beating

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave the property of John Chesnut son of James Chesnut Esquire was violantly [sic] Murdered

slave slave July 23, 1820 Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths [that] the said Henry [Schrock] fired at him [unknown African American] with an intention of shooting him in the legs but by chance seventeen low mold shot took him in the body of which wound he instantly died.

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC gun

do say upon thare [sic] oaths … that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

Sylvia slave May 21, 1822 at John Brown plantation, Kershaw County, SC large switch

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro woman Sylvia came to her death by two strokes which she received with a large switch, one across her arm and the other over her breast and shoulder from the hand of Gabiel Coats on the 14th Instant which seems to have been done without intention to kill or maim ... and what most men would have done in such a case and not otherwise

Captain slave January 24, 1824 at plantation of Captain John Boykin, Kershaw County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that they are of opinion that the deceased was killed on the morning fo the 21st January 1824 between daylight and sun rise with a knife being cut upon the chin and stabbed in the upper part of the right breast near the collar bone and so jurors conclude that the deceased was feloniously killed by some person unknown

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

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

Tom slave July 10, 1824 at the plantation of Mr. Wm. W. Lang, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that William R. Young … did by shooting with buckshot kill the said negro man named Tom and we the jury aforesaid find that the said William R. Young was justifiable in shooting and killing the said negro man Tom

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

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

Joseph Burgess boy October 16, 1824 at the premises of Mrs. Hales[?], Union County, SC gun

say upon their oaths the said Joseph Burgess in manner and form came to his death by a stroke or blows withs with a gun across his right ear and the back part of his head. Supposed to have been effected from every circumstance in our view by George McKnight

Maria negro woman slave April 10, 1825 at Mrs. Williams, Union County, SC fist

do say upon their oathes that from a [?] Given by whiping by the aforesaid Thomas Beleu at his own hous on the 6 Inst with Switches[?] & a blow with his fist which was Given in heat of passion by the Sd Thomas Beleu on the thighs loins belly & breast of Sd negroe Maria but not with the intent to homicide

John Adamson August 23, 1825 Kershaw County, SC gun

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

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

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

Adam slave December 29, 1828 at the house of Jesse Crook, Spartanburg County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that on Saturday night 27 of this instant at the [?] house of Maj. J. Crook … that Lewis slave of Capt. W. H. Dickee did strike said Adam with a large stick on the left side of the forehead

Micajah Hilliard November 28, 1829 in the house of Joseph Ward, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by an affray with Joseph Ward & John Ballard at the residence of Joseph Ward on the 27th Inst.

Reuben Parker August 22, 1830 at house of Edwerd Sherman, Anderson County, SC chair

do say upon their oaths, that in their opinion are that the death of Sd Parker was brought about and occationed [sic] by Edward Sherman who struck Sd Parker with a chair on the left side of the head….and further that Robert Sherman struck Sd deceased in the forehead with a little wheel...but on the whole we are of the opinion that the wound in the forehead was not of itself alone mortal.

Elizabeth Bowing May 30, 1831 at the residence of Mrs. Ann Bowing, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Elizabeth Bowing came to her death by abuse inflicted on her by the hand of Priscilla Robertson

Edom slave November 7, 1832 Spartanburg County, SC whip

do say upon their oaths that … the said Edom did come to his death by the [?] Gabriel Cannon[?] striking him on the head with the but [sic] of a whip

Henry Long January 7, 1834 Union County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that one Saml P Bailey of Said District not having the fear of God Before his Eyes But moved by the instigation of the Devil did … in the House or Store of James R. Nathens … with a Pistol wound & Kill the said Henry Long

John Wyatt May 25, 1834 at House of Harry Gant[?], Union County, SC gun

do say upon thare oaths than one Ellis Fowler [?] of said District not having god before his eyes but Being moved and Seduced by the Instirgation of the devil … shoot the [?] and give to the said John Wyatt … one mortal wound of the breast

Christopher Campbell April 16, 1835 Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

after hearing the evidence together with the opinion of Doctors DeLeon and Young are of opinion that the deceased came to his death from a disease of the brain hastened by blows on his head inflicted by some person or persons unknown

James Hembree September 24, 1835 at the house of Jesse Hembree, Anderson County, SC club and knife

do say upon their oaths that the said James Hembree…was killed and murderd by Nancy Black and Samuel Black by striking with a club or stick on the neck and shoulders and stabbing with a knife or dirk through the muscular part of the left thigh

Marcus April 12, 1836 at Gibson's Neck on the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC unknown

we find that the negro is Marcus the property of D. A. Brevard but are unable to say whether his death was caused by certain blows inflicted on the head & drowning or by drowning alone

Eldridge Brown August 5, 1837 in Camden, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oath that the said Eldridge Brown came to his death by a ball or balls shot from a pistol by Mr. F. S. Bronson in a encounter with that gentleman

William Byers December 30, 1837 at William Z. Ford's blacksmith's shop, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon the view of the body of William Byers we the jury say that we believe he came to his death by a stab in the abdomen at or near the navel with a large singl bladed knife inflicted by the hand of Nubell Johnson or Manly Johson at the dwelling house of William Z. Ford

Thomas Smith January 16, 1838 at George Born's[?], Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that after examining the Body of the sd. Smith they believe that he came to his death by a wound in the throat which appears to have been done by the hand of some person with a knife

Peter negro man June 16, 1838 at a Mr. Azariah[?] Abneys, Edgefield County, SC stick or stomping

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Peter came to his death by blows he received on his head either with a stick or by Stomping in a combat which accured between him and Mr.[?] Caleb Watkins (the overseer)

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

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.

Mary slave October 31, 1838 at the house of Saml L Martin, Union County, SC ax

do say upon their oaths that the negro woman named Clarisy … not having God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil … with force and arms … and upon the said Mary then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State, feloniously voluntarily and of his own malice ... did then and there with a certain axe did then and there violently feloniously and with malice aforethough struck and pierced[?] and gave to the said Mary with the said axe in and upon the forehead of the said Mary one mortal wound

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 Clarisy 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

negro woman negro woman March 26, 1840 at John Garrotts, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that … they believe she the said negro woman come to her death by drinking too great a quantity of water which they believe caused inward pain and perhaps spasm

George Prisock June 11, 1840 at E. P. Porters, Union County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that the said George Prisock, was Struck one violent blow with a weading[?] hoe on the head which broke his skill, the above blow was Struck by a negro man Slave name James, the property of E. P. Porter

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

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

George slave September 1, 1841 at the plantation of Wm. K. Clowney, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … the above named slave was Shot with a Shot gun in the plantation of Wm. K. Clowney by Charles Ming the overseer of the above name plantation

John Pitts June 11, 1842 at Elias Ford's, Kershaw County, SC gun

by their oaths do say that the said John Pitts was willfully and feloniously shot by Elias Ford with a long shotgun loaded with powder & large shot and ball somewhere near the residence of Elias Ford

James B. Brawly November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the sd. J.B. Brawly came to his death by a stab wound from a common packet kinfe inflicted on his left side opposite his navel and about 4 inches from the same by the hand of John Davis

Thomas Linder November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the said T.Linder came to his death by a stab from a common pocket knife inflicted on his left breast about two inches from his left nipple by the hand of John Davis

John Pettigrew January 17, 1843 at the Irish buying ground, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that on the 27th day of last December one Bennett Dozier of Kershaw District did wound with a knife the deceased John Pettigrew of Kershaw District so as to cause his, John Pettigrew's death on Sunday the first day of January

Cesar Negro, negro boy July 7, 1843 at the house of Elijah Watson, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their Oaths do say … believe said negro came to his death by a sever blow given him by Jerry one of said Watsons negroes not with the intention to Kill

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