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 1 - 50 of 642
Namesort descending Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
A. infant child January 13, 1832 at the house of John Nelson, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that a certain person unknown did kill and but[?] believe that A was a black woman Slave named [?] the property of John Nelson of said district did kill and homicide the said infant A and the said Jurors upon oaths afforesaid further say that the said person unknown or Palmer at above Said after she had commited the said felony and homicide did flee away

A. G. Douglass May 6, 1889 at A. G. Douglass', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the Said A.G. Douglass came to his death By a gunshot wound in the hands of W. D. Merriman and A. B. Merriman Bill Merriman & James Pegg Being Acessors to the crime

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

Aaron slave December 5, 1852 at A. Bushnells Shop, Edgefield County, SC chisel

upon their oaths do say that said Negro slave Aaron was Feloniously Killed . . .by a stab on the left side of the throat with a chissel about one inch and a half wide, by the hand of some person unknown

Aaron slave December 3, 1851 at the house of Larkin Swearinghim, Edgefield County, SC cow hide

upon their oaths do say, that we believe the said Aaron came to his death by a whipping recd by the hands of Chesley B. Wise with a cow hide, aided by Edmund Kennedy

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

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

Aaron McMahan October 14, 1872 at Eden, Laurens County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Aaron McMahan came to his death by means of a dirk knife in the hands of John Kellett at or near Eden

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[.]

Abe Simmons October 21, 1870 near Samuel Blakeleys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Abe Simmons aforesaid, came to his death at Samuel J Blakeleys in County aforesaid by gun shot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to the jury

Abraham Rabon Senior September 8, 1872 at the residence of Joshua J Long, Horry County, SC shotgun

upon their Oaths do say the ssaid Abraham Rabon sen.r was Killed by being shot with a shot gun by the hands of Joshua J Long at the residence of the said Jashua J Long

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Absalom Causey September 27, 1863 at Reaves Mill Branch, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say; that he came to his death by wounds inflicted with a hickory club on the head and side and hip in the hand of Doctor Miles Gilmore

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

Adeline Agnew May 14, 1871 near the residence of Ephraim R. Cobb, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that. . .the said Adeline Agnew was killed and murdered by a knife in the hands of Shadrack Webster.

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.

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

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

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

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

Albert Jones April 29, 1885 at Pickens Reynolds house, Edgefield County, SC

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

Albert Shaw July 1, 1946 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Albert Shaw received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Oliver Johnson

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"

Albert Williams August 9, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the undersign Jurors agree that Albert Williams came to his death at the hands of Pete Parson in a gun fight

Alfred runaway slave June 16, 1862 At Williamston, Anderson County, SC

do say that within the incorporation of Williamston on the night of the 15th of June. . .that he came to his death by some person or persons unknown to the jurors by hanging by the neck until his body was dead.

Alfred Hollingsworth October 10, 1898 at David Strothers place, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their oaths do say, that Alfred Hollingsworth came to his death by a razor cut in the hands of George Hutcherson

Alice Adkinson October 18, 1898 at Republican Church, Edgefield County, SC

do say that Mrs Alice Atkinson come to her death, from a gun Shot wound, in the hands of Jim McKie & Luther Sullivan & Wash McKie was accesory to the murder

Allan G. Chapman December 31, 1877 at the Residence of Allan G. Chapman, Chesterfield County, SC brick

upon their oaths do Say that Allan G Chapman came to his death from the effects of a Blow from a Brick Bat Received on the back of his head thrown from the hands of Lucius R Hardin

Allen slave September 19, 1843 at Samson Bobo's, Spartanburg County, SC hickory clubs

upon their oaths do say that the said Allen. . . was killed and murdered by some person or persons to the jurors unknown with two hickory clubs

Allen Holmes March 4, 1882 at Oscar Seigler Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that the said Allen Holmes Came to His death by a Gun Shot wound in the hands of Gus Settler

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.

Allen Smith Freedman January 19, 1867 at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there Oath do say. . .he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through the head inflicted by some person or persons unknown

Amaziah Payton colored man of New York July 20, 1866 at the house of Richmond Payton, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the aforesaid Amaziah Payton came to his death. . . from the effects of a wound a little above the left groin, suppose to have been made by a pistol ball?.which ball was shot from a pistol which one Reuben L. Golding then and there had and held

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

Amos M. Williams January 2, 1874 Horry County, SC
Andrew freedman March 13, 1866 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that by a pistol shot on th Pendleton Road . . . fired from a pistol in the hands of a United States Soldier

Andrew slave September 3, 1850 at A.P. Butlers plantation, Edgefield County, SC rail

upon their oaths do say that . . .Andrew came to his death by a lick on the head on the right side inflicted by Ben a slave of A.P. Butler with a half of rail done in the heat of passion while in an affray

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.

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[?]

Andrew Moore August 10, 1889 at Samson Simons', Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Andrew Moore did come to his death by a Knif in the hand of Robert Moore by inflicting a wound with said Knif in the Regions of the heart

Andrew Trapp December 4, 1869 near Trapps Mills, Edgefield County, SC knife

That the deceased came to his death from a Knife in the hands of a colored boy named Sam formerly the property of John Trapp and now living on his premises . . . upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Sam Trapp in manner & form aforesaid Andrew Trapp then and there feloniously did kill

Andy Padgett July 5, 1891 near Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that. . .was deceased stabbed to death With a Knife in the hands of one[?] Rufus Dent

Angie Bell Crawford October 6, 1933 near Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that We the Jury find that Angie Bell Crawford came to her death by Natural Causes.

Ann slave January 2, 1844 at Capt. B. Haile's plantation, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the little girl Ann, a slave the property of B. Haile, came to her death by being burnt intentionally by the nurse, Tamer, a slave of B. Haile.

Ann Kimball September 4, 1895 at China grove church, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by William Kimball

Annie Lowery May 15, 1923 at D.W. Arant Plantation, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Jonnie Lowery came to her death by being Drowned in a Well of water at the hands off Rosa Lowry her mother

Annie Streeter July 12, 1919 at a House in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

find that the said Annie Streeter came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by Alexander Streeter

Annie West March 4, 1871 at the late residence fo Rob't West, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the house in which Mrs. Annie West lived was set on fire by some person or persons unknown & that she perished in the flames

Anthony October 30, 1860 at Dr. McCoys, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Antony came to his death from Shot wounds of a gun in the hands of John P Templeton on the 29th day of Oct

Apling negro man April 5, 1849 in the woods in said district near the Lexington line on a branch of McGier Creek, Edgefield County, SC

do say upon their oaths do say that they believe the decd to be the remains of Ap or Apling . . .and that he came to death by a leaden ball shot from a gun[?] or pistol by the hands of some person or persons unknown

Arch September 4, 1864 at SR Todds plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a gun shot wound, by M.P. Traynham in self defence at SR Todds plantation about one oclock the 3rd Sept Inst AD 1864.

Archibald Nicholson July 26, 1869 at the residence of Archibald Nicholson, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the said deceased came to his death by a blow or lick inflicted on the side of the head, at Mount Croghan in the County aforesaid on the 24h day of July, A.D. 1869 with a Gun in the hands of Jacob Brewer

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