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 51 - 100 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Dave Parkman December 16, 1897 at Cheatham place, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that Dave Parkman was killed by a pistol shot in the hands of Solomon Moss

Dorcas Henderson November 11, 1855 at Jackson Henderson's, Spartanburg County, SC alcohol

upon their oaths do say that from the best information that they could gather that they think the child … Dorcas Henderson came to its death on account of having had an excessive portion of spiritous liquor given to it by a free boy of color named Tobe

Edmond Sharpton December 20, 1866 at the House of Mrs J.P. Brewer, Edgefield County, SC gun

he came to his death by a mortal wond with a Pistol in the hands of one John M Stidman

Edmond Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby , Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

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

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

Edna Black August 6, 1878 at Joseph Davenport's, Greenville County, SC claw hammer

upon their oaths do say that the said Edna C Black was killed and homicideed … with a claw hammer in the hands of some person or persons to this jury not [?] known

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

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

Edward Bridges March 19, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC pistol
Eisex Brown February 12, 1869 at John Canty's plantation, Kershaw County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the said Eisex Brown came to his death from two blows upon the head inflicted with a stick in the hands of Friendly Gowdin [?]

Eldred Glover March 2, 1852 at the house of John Doby, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Eldred Glover came to his Death … by a pistol ball passing through the abdomen fired from a pistol in the hand of Dr. Walker Samuel

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

Eleck slave May 30, 1850 at the quarter of A.D. Jones Esq., Kershaw County, SC gun

do say that he came to his death by a shot gun wound inflicted by the hands of Thos. Mickle under justifiable circumstances.

Elijah Reynolds April 11, 1878 at Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do say that the said Elijah Reynolds Came to his death from a Pistol Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of Dick Lundy

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

Elizabeth Mathers April 18, 1851 at Mathers' house, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that they believe Charles Kimball Brewer with a knife or some sharp instrument did feloniously kill the aforesaid Elizabeth Mathers alias Stapleton

Elizer slave June 13, 1845 at the plantation of Mrs S. C. Sims, Union County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say … the death was occasioned by the violent abuse given her by the hands of David R. Henderson the overseer of [??] Sims by beating her with such weapons as was calculated to destroy life

Eugene McCarty May 11, 1861 at Edgefield Court house, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that the said Eugene McCarty the deceased came to his death this day by a wound received from a pistol in the hands of William A Murrell

Eunice Hogan October 26, 1851 at the house of John Briskey, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Eunice Hogan was killed and murdered by some person or persons … unknown

Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden , Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

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

Frank Burnett colored September 15, 1869 at Spartanburg Court House, Spartanburg County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Frank Burnett colored was killed at Spartanburg Courhouse in the rear of Thomson's blacksmith shop … by a pistol or gun shot wound in the heart given by the hand or hands of Henry Jones colored and Moses Young colored

Frank Holson freedman January 9, 1867 at Lee Holson, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that … said Frank Holson freedman came to his death … by a Pistol shot in the hands of William W Hammond

Gabavila Steadman May 15, 1889 at Joseph Stedman's, Spartanburg County, SC blows to head

upon there oaths do say that the said Gabriella Stedman came to her death by blows inflicted on the head by person or persons unknown to the jury

George freedmen October 25, 1865 at John H. Campbell's, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … that the said George was willfully homicideed … received a bullet wound near the reg of the heart and lodged 2 1/2 inchs below the right nipple also a bullet wound in the left shoulder lodging in the body

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

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

George Franklin of color December 4, 1866 at Hush[?] Creek, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … he came to his death by means of a gun shot which entered about five inches below the right nipple & passed out just above the left [?] bone at Thor[?] Callaway's still house

George Grice May 6, 1877 at Doby's Mill, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that George Grice came to his death by a stab wound in the left breast by a knife in the hands of George Philips[?]

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

George Pye December 13, 1857 Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they think he came to his death by wounds inflicted on his person; from the evidence we believe that Gilbert Fleming did feloniously kill the said George Pye against the peace and dignity of the state

George Ross June 29, 1898 at Adoms[?] place, Edgefield County, SC gun

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

George Watkins October 10, 1866 at George Watkins, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that George Watkins came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of Newton Corley

Giles Guess colored February 2, 1882 at the hosue of John Smith, Anderson County, SC gunshot

do say that the deceased was willfully killed by the hand of one Isaac Putnam by shooting deceased with a pistol and that Silas Putnam was accessory to the killing about seven or eight oclock in the afternoon at the house of one John Smith

Green negro boy July 23, 1850 at the house of John Cheatham, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their Oaths do say … that the said boy, Green … did come to his death by the infliction of a wound by the hands of Joseph Haluaker, on Turkey Creek … by a knife

Griff Zimmerman October 9, 1899 at Johnston Township, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do Say: That at the house of Millege Burton on the land of J.T. Strother … Griff Zimmerman was killed by a pistol Shot by the hands of Millege Burton

Gus Blocker August 18, 1892 at the plantion of July Blocker, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that the Said Gus Blocker came to his death by a gun Shot in the hands of one Isiac[?] Blocker

Hammond Frasier November 6, 1897 at Trenton S.C., Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say: That Hammond Frasier come to his death by a gun Shot wound and the Said wound was made by a pistol in the hand of James Hampton

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

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

Harry slave December 25, 1858 at Col Arthur Sinkins[?], Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Harry a slave belonging to Mrs Mary Crooker in an affray at Col Arthur Sinkins … by a knife or sharp pointed instrument in the hands of Elbert a slave belonging to Col Arthur Sinkins

Harry slave May 20, 1863 at Jesse Gomellions, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon there oaths do say that … the said Harry came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side by a knife or some sharp Pointed instrument in the hands of Wilce[?] a slave belonging to James Neal

Harry Anderson December 16, 1882 at Clinton Ward, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that eceased came to his death from gun shot wound … made with a pistol … the shot being fired by one Andrew Harris

Henry male slave July 15, 1858 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC hickory stick

upon their oaths do say that the said male salve, came to his death from a blow upon the left side of the head, from a hickory stick in the hands of a negro slave name Elbert (said to be the property of Evans Permenter[?])

Henry slave July 8, 1856 at the house of Wm M. Hawkins, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said Slave Henry was killed by Jr.[?] a slave of the said Wm M. Hawkins … with a hoe held by the said slave Jr.[?] [?] in self defense

Henry freemen formerly the slave October 30, 1865 at or near Dr. Bery F. Few's, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry was killed and homicideed by some person or persons by the discharge of a gun to the jurors unknown

Henry Blassingham July 10, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … the said Henry Blassingham came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound. The gun ebing in the hands of Frank Nelson. The ball entering the body to the left and a little above the left nipple and ranging[?] upwards

Henry Burt June 21, 1895 at Henry Burts, Edgefield County, SC knife

Upon their oaths do say that Henry Burt came to his death from a knife wound n the hands of Jim Chamberlain

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

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

Henry Mobley December 11, 1899 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths, do Say: That Henry Mobley came to his death … by a pistol shot … fired by the hands of Mark Clark

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