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.


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 1 - 50 of 642
Name Deceased Description Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Mary Robertson Fairfield County, SC bed slat
Albert Trapp near Blairs, Fairfield County, SC

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

Caleb Campbell near Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Caleb Campbell was killed and murdered by hanging by some person or persons to the jury unknown[.]

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

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

Vincent Hanes Fairfield County, SC stick
Abe Dubose Jr. at the old[?] mill place of S.D. Dunn, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Abe Dubose Jr. came to his death by a gunshot wound at the hands of William Dubose and that Frances Dubose is accessory to the killing[.]

Lewis Hall in Fairfield County, South Carolina, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, That Lewis Hall was killed on the 9th day of January 1883, in Fairfield County in what manner and with what instrument unknown to the Jurors

Haigood Mirfan[?] Fairfield County, SC


Andrew Caldwell at Rockton, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that the deceased came to his death on the 21st day of June 1889 near Rockton . . . by a gun shot wound in the head inflicted by parties to us unknown.

Jor.[?] Seabrook JUST TESTIMONY, Fairfield County, SC pistol
Jason Hendrick [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

James Walls at the Tevin Pines', Fairfield County, SC baseball bat

upon their Oaths do say the deceased came to his death at Ware's base ball ground, the 5th of Sept 1891 from a blow on the head with a base ball bat in the hands of Charles Young.

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[.]

Nelson Davis at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death. . .the 6th day of April 1893 from a pistol shot wound at the hands of William Gilchrist, and that twelve of the jurors say justifiable homicide and two against. The last tow signing being against justifiable homicide.

Sam Pratt at Woodward, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Sam Pratt came to his death from the effects of a gunshot wound, inflicted by one Sol[?] McElhenny on the 5th day of Jan 1894, and so the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, do say that the aforesaid Sol[?] McElhenny in manner and form aforesaid, Sam Pratt did feloniously kill[.]

Mary Belton at the Sylvia Brice Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That she came to her death from causes unknown to the Jurors.

William Wallace at Beau's, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say: That the said William Wallace came to his death from a pistol shot fired in the hands of Jule[?] Tole[?]

Unknown [?], Fairfield County, SC


William Rosborough at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that that the said William Rosborough was willfully, unlawfully and maliciously killed by a gun shot wound and that he was willfully killed and murdered[.]

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

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

Huey A Stevenson Fairfield County, SC pistol

We the Jury [?] to hold an inquisition over the body of Huey A Stevenson find that the deceased came to his death form a pistol shot wound inflicted by Johnson Cameron[.]

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

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

S. P. Martin Fairfield County, SC

We find that- S.P. Martin came to his death by a Gunshot wound inflicted in the bowels, and we suspect one Hugh M. Gaither as being accession to the killing

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

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

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

Captain Andrew Feaster February 6, 1808 at the house of Abner Fant, Fairfield County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that on the night of the fifth day of February instant the said Andrew Feaster was killed and murdered by Shadrick Jacobs with a ball discharged from a Rifle Gun belonging to Randall Woodward near a path leading from said Randall Woodwards home to the house of the said Shadrick Jacobs.

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
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. . .

Jarrett February 9, 1809 at the House of James Loughridge, Laurens County, SC hoe

do say upon their oaths that at the House of the aforesd. James Loughridge in the Village aforesaid on the ninth day of the Instant upon view of the body of the said boy saith that the aforesaid Boy on the night of the Eighth Instant died by the hands of James Loughridge aforesaid through Several Strokes from the Edge and corner of an Iron Hoe, and a large stick.

Infant Child Infant Child July 27, 1809 at the house of John Brysons, Laurens County, SC

upon there oaths aforesaid say that the aforesaid female Child came to its death by a Stroke on the head by the Reputed Mother Jean Bryson. . .

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

John Simmons March 21, 1810 at John Simmons, Laurens County, SC rifle

do say upon their oaths that on the 20th day of March 1810 that about a half mile from his house the said John Simmons was cild [sic] by a Rifle ball shot by John Hall by his own confession which said ball went through the write [sic] arm and into his write [sic] side of him the said John Simmons said was the Cause of his Death but we believe that it was innocently - Done by him the said John Hall and not in mallice [sic]...

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

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

William Leak October 11, 1812 at Brant Leaks, Laurens County, SC knife

do say upon our oathes that the said William Leak came to his death on the sixteenth day of October one thousand eight hundred and twelve when on his way home from his Fathers House to shoot near the House of Lewis D Yancys he then and there recivd a stab in his left thight with a large Knife by Samuel Yancy of which wound he instantly Deceased and we do further say that the aforesaid Samuel Yancy did notoriously and willfully perpetrate the said murder on the body of the said Decd against the peace of this state.

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

infant January 8, 1815 at the plantation of James Leatherwood, Spartanburg County, SC
Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
John Wilson July 26, 1817 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC stake

do say upon their oaths & affirmations that the said John Wilson decsd. Son John came to his death on the twenty sixth day of July in the year aforesaid by a stroke or strokes with a part of a fence rail or stake on the forehead of the said John above the left Eye and the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths and affirmations aforesaid do say that from the Evidence... before them that a certain John Wilson decsd. son of James then and there with the fence rail or stake aforesaid did Kill and murder against the peace of the said state.

John South September 30, 1818 at Allen Clarks, Laurens County, SC stone

doth say on their oathes - after the Exammination of the body of said John South they found the head of the said John South cut and his mouth mashd. Or broken by a stroke made their on - and from Information the said stroke was made by Richard Manning with a stone which we believe to be the Cause of Death of said John South deceased.

Sam Sinclair slave March 24, 1820 at John Chesnut plantation near Chesnut's Ferry on Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

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

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

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

Infant child of Susanah Finny Infant child of Susanah Finny June 8, 1821 at the House of Mary Holland, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid, say that the aforesaid infant Child the aforesaid Susannah Finny, then and there feloniously Did kill and murder, against the peace of this State.

Harry May 13, 1822 at Alexander Wilkinsons, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths; So the Jurors aforesaid, upon their oaths aforesaid, Say that the aforesaid Negro man Harry (the servant of the said Alexander Wilinson) that he (Harry) came to his death by the means of and with the abuse that he received (on Sunday Last past being the twelth day of this instant (May))from his master Alexander Wilkinson and by his order, and not otherwise...

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

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

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