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 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.


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 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 51 - 100 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Sarah Sweat February 4, 1871 at the dwelling house of Sarah Sweat, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oath, do say: that Sarah Sweat came to her death on the 4th of February 1871, by the visitation of Providence.

Archie Woods February 8, 1937 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Archie Woods received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol Shot in the hands of Marion Johnson

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

negro woman negro woman January 11, 1867 at David Mill, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said unknwon person came to her death by some means unknown to the jury

Ben October 10, 1865 at Abram Putnams, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the freedman came to his death from a Gun shot wound in the head and the cutting of his throat with some sharp instrument, by persons unknown to the jurors

Peter White March 11, 1898 at Jacob White upon the Plantation Silvester Chipley, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say that Peter White came to his Death by Gun Shot wound in the hands of Henry Calhoun

Infant Brown September 26, 1932 near Angelus, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid, do say, that the aforesaid Infant Brown We, the Jury of Inquest find, according to evidence produced, that the infant came to its death by Neelie Brown, its Mother.

March slave February 24, 1845 at Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a blow inflicted with some blunt instrument upon the head fracturing the skull for some five or seven inches by some person or persons unknown

John Henry King October 29, 1865 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say he was Killed by a Pistol shot from the hands of a colord Soldier belonging to the U S Troops now station in Augusta Ga the name of said Soldier not known

Cane Garlington March 19, 1877 at C M Kellets Plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths Do say that the afforesaid Cane Garling in the manner and form aforesaid was shot in the head on the Right sid [sic] & coming out on the back Part of the Head & Braken the scull [sic] by sum [sic] Person un known to us

Wade Burnside December 7, 1893 at Wade Burnside's residence, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. We do find that deceased Wade Burnside came to his death from a pistol wound, at his house in Waterloo the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Wade Burnside in manner and form aforesaid Semore Anderson then and there feloniously did kill against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

Lilie May Dove November 29, 1943 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Flossie Sellers received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 22 Caliber rifle in the hands of Lillie Mae Dove

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. . .

Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
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[.]

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

black child black child July 31, 1849 at Morton's old place, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Harriot and Amy and Jenny did then and there feloniously cause the death of the said chile contrary to the peace and dignity of the state.

Charles Williams July 5, 1885 Laurens County, SC

We find that the deceased Charley Williams, whose dead body is before us, came to his death from Gunshot wounds at the hands of Parties to the jury unknown on the night of July 4th 1885.

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

Abram November 15, 1826 Fairfield County, SC
Will Coe September 17, 1914 at Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

The verdic of the Jury was that McCoy was Justifiable Homcid

John Adamson August 23, 1825 Kershaw County, SC

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

John David Twiggs September 15, 1864 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Doct J D Twiggs came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of R. J. Butler sen on the Publick Rode

William Bailey July 19, 1846 at the House of Samuel C Scott, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said William Bailey was feloniously Killed and Murdered by Thomas Prince at the house of Saml C. Scott . . .with a pocket Knife

Gabriel Rabon October 9, 1862 at Turf Camp Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say he came to death by wounds inflicted by shot penetrating the heart by some means to the Jurors unknown . . . But according to evidence we believe that Johnathan J Carroll did kill the said Gabrell Rabon

Harriet M. Melton April 18, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Mrs Harriet M. Melton came to her death by a gunshot wound inflicted form the hands of some person or persons unknown to this Jury

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

William Samuel April 26, 1891 at Scima[?] Hill Church, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .the decease William Samuel Came to his death ... by a Gun Shot Wound in the hands of Henry Glover in Self defince

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[?]

Mary Lipscomb May 3, 1889 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Mary Lipscomb died of apoplexy

Martha Armstrong March 30, 1840 at the house of Archibald Armstrong, Fairfield County, SC

The following jurors on the inquest are of the opinion that Mrs Martha Armstrong came to his death by violence inflicted as they believe by Mr Armstrong the husband of the deceased

Rufus Harling September 16, 1897 at Clarks Hill, Edgefield County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say. That the Said Rufus Harling Came to his death by a gun Shot wound. . . inflicted by a Shot gun in the hands of Parties unknown

William Gathings August 16, 1932 at Pageland Township, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: William Gathings came to his death by Pistol Shot wounds in the hands of Guy Watts

James Thomas colored July 20, 1869 at Liberty Hill County, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that James Thomas came to his death by a gun shot wound in the stomach . . .from a gun in the hands of some person or person unknown

Freedwoman Freedwoman October 23, 1867 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC

do say that the said infant came to its death by strangulation by the hands of its mother Clary Williams, a freed woman in the town of Anderson . . .immediately after its birth

Willis Lodd July 25, 1877 at Loutens [?] cross roads, Laurens County, SC

upon their oath do say that the said Willis Lodd came to his death by a pistol shot fired from the hands of one Butler Putman

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

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

Perry Rook May 28, 1894 in Clinton, Laurens Co, Laurens County, SC

we the jury find that the deceased Perry Rook came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound, said gun being in the hands of Dennis Rook.

Charley Ryan May 9, 1892 at T. H. Ramsford Plantion, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said Charlie Ryan Came to his death by the hands of Sam Nobles and it was wilful Murder

Tom negro slave December 18, 1858 at Chlo Watsons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Jim in manner and form aforesaid, Tom then and there feloniously did kill

Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson Infant enslaved by W.B. Henderson January 14, 1865 at W.B. Hendersons, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they beloeve the Infant slave above mentioned came to its death by violence inflicted by the hands of some unknown person by thrusting a common sewing needle through the scalp into the brain. . .Either by the hand of the Mother, or The Slave Girl Lucy, The property of W.B. Henderson.

Levi H. McDaniel March 9, 1859 at or near the 17 mile Post on the Scotts Ferry Road, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .the deceased came to his death by a Pistol shot in the left side near the region of the heart fired from the hands of one James H. Jones

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

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

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.

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the san Summer a slave came to his deth [sic] by blow or blows inflicted over his left temple and over the nasal bone, which caused inflamation of the brain. . .the blow or blows supposed to have been inflicted by Monroe, a slave the property of T.L. Boykin

George Fowler November 4, 1885 at Mrs S E Dunlop plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the said George Fowler came to his death on Mrs S E Dunlops place in Laurens County at about 7 oclock PM the 6th day of November AD 1885 by a pistol shot in the hands of Ira Hughes.

Tandy Holmes September 21, 1894 at or on Dr. W.C. Prescotts Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, We find that Tandy Holmes, came to his death by a blow on the head, with a gun in the hands of T.K. McKenny and that the said McKenny struck said blow in self defense and was justifiable in so doing

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

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

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

Robert J. Butler September 15, 1864 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that Robert J Butler sen[?] came to his death by gun shot wound inflicted by Doct J D Twiggs

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