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 51 - 100 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort descending Inquest Finding
Col. John Taylor July 8, 1904 at Miden dolph, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the deceast John Taylor came to his death By measures unknown to the Jury.

Baylis Edwards May 30, 1864 at the residence of Franis Edwards, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that he came to his death by a blow from a [?] on the throat from an unknown hand

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

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

infant male child infant male child March 27, 1879 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid unknown male child came to his death from causes to this jury unknown

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

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

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC
Gus Blocker August 18, 1892 at the plantion of July Blocker, Edgefield County, SC

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

Robert Williams November 4, 1881 at Wilson's Bridge, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Robert Williams came to his death . . . by hanging at the hands of parties unknown to the jury

Azariah Butler August 25, 1876 at the Residence of Azeriah Butler, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Azeriah Butler in the manner and form aforesaid on the Night of the 24 Inst was shot by some Person or Persons unknown by us and Seven Shot Entered the Head arms and body

Howard E. Fields September 24, 1948 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Howard E. Fields received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by_______ in the hands of Lee Freeman & Garland Smith

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

Unknown [?], Fairfield County, SC

JUST A DISCHARGE PAPER

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

Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say, that. . .the said Mary came to her death by being choked, by Joe, a negro man belong to Omey Patterson, who confined to us that he was the murder, and purpetrated said deed on Sunday 16th inst. Showing us where he had Killed her near the above named Plantation

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

Rose negro woman Slave March 14, 1846 at Michael Longs, Edgefield County, SC

Upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Rose being chained in the Meat house of said M. Long, around the neck with a common chain trace with one ened and the Other end of said chain aforesaid to the Joist broke her neck either by design or by accident

nameless newborn boy or male child nameless newborn boy or male child January 12, 1885 at T P Byrds Campbell place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said nameless boy or male child came to his death on the 10th day of January AD 1885 and in Laurens County by strangulation cause by criminal negligence on the part of Kittie F. Malone.

Cris Little November 9, 1884 at Laurens CH S.C., Laurens County, SC

being a lawful Jury of inquest who being charged and sworn to enquire for the State of South Carolina where and by what means said Cris Little came to his death. Said Cris Little came to his death by a pistol shot wound entering in the left side of body from his back, said pistol was in hands of a Police man of the Town of Laurens by the name of Andrew Nelson and so the Jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Andrew Nelson in manner and for aforesaid Cris Little, then and there did Kill, against the peace and dignity of the State aforesaid.

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.

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

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

John James April 13, 1892 at the Traynham place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at his residence in Laurens County on or about 12 oclock on the 18th day of April AD 1892 the said John James came to his death by two gunshot wounds said wounds being made by a Pistol fired by one Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu Sheriff and so the jurors aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Stribbling deputy for B.F. Balleu sheriff in manner and form aforesaid John James then and there did Kill against the peace and dignity of the said State aforesaid.

James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .J. William M. Brown ... then and there [did] inflict three severe blows upon the head of deceased fracturing his skull in two places

Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC

upon there oaths do say that. . .he came to his death by a Gun shot wound . . . in the hands of Job McGee

Thomas Hoiston August 13, 1907 at Bethel, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: By a pistol Shot wound at the hand of Wes McDonald

W. H. H. Richards February 1, 1884 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said W.H.H. Richards came to his death by a pistol shot, received on 23rd July 184, at the hands fo W B Cash

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

infant March 29, 1842 at Tabitha Laird's, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say according to evidence taken before us at this inquest do believe that the Tabitha Laird. . .did destroy her infant child against the peace and dignity of said state have no proof how the infant came to its death

John Goodlett December 28, 1880 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased John H. Goodlett came to his death from a wound on the head how caused the Jury are unable to say

unnamed infant unnamed infant January 21, 1868 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say,--That they find the Said Infant to have dead some two or three weeks--that from the evidence before them they belie vethe Said Infant to be the offstriping of Emma Gallard a colored woman now in the Jail . . . and that they believe that the said Infant came to its death by Violence at the hands of the Said Emma Gaillard

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

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

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

George W. Barker December 27, 1854 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the deceased came to his death by pistol shots, received in an affray between the deceased and Richard N. McMaster, from a pistol fired in the hands of Richard N. McMaster on the night of the 26th.

William slave November 10, 1856 near Prospect Church near the line of Richland and on the waters of Wayland's Creek, Kershaw County, SC

do say that the said negro man William came to his death from a wound in the back caused by a shot gun in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Sindy Brighthop August 21, 1898 on S.W. Gardners place, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Sindy Brighthop came to her death, from a dislocated neck done by th parties in the house

John McKinny September 26, 1894 at W P. Lipfords[?], Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that. . . John Mckenny. . .came to his death by gun shot wound in the hands of Jessie Bostie and Edmon Jones and others unknown

Rose three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say the said Riller Lizzy and Rose were feloniously Killed and Murdered in the negro house of said Philip Brogden on the night of the 1st inst by breaking their sculls with an axe and cutting the throats of Riller & Lizza by the hands of their own Mother named Clarisy the property of said Brogden

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

John Jefferson March 17, 1936 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that John Jefferson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Draarn in the hands of Aiken Jefferson

Haman Miller October 30, 1824 at Blacks Store, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Haman Miller came to his Death by Violence committed on his sides by a number of Blows with the fist of John Prince and a fall... as a consequence of of Said Blows, and that the said John Prince did then and there feloniously Kill and Murder, against the peace and Dignity of this State.

Charles Little June 11, 1934 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: as the result of pistol shot in the hands of W. Lester Russell

Lewis slave March 27, 1865 at or near the residence of [?] Gossett, Spartanburg County, SC

that he came to his from a gun shot wound through the neck passing out at his jaw and the said show was from a gun in the hands of some person unknown

Littleberry Sullivan July 28, 1808 Laurens County, SC
negro negro February 27, 1868 at or near Pacolet Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that Catherine, a black woman living at Col. R.C. Poole's at Pacolet Spring, called by some Berry, did have and was delivered of said child and that she throwed [sic] it in the river ... feloniously drownding said child against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Haup W. Oliver June 9, 1912 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

[No official declaration]

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

Henry Little October 9, 1911 at Henry Little's near Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the Said Henry Little came to his death By goon Shot wounds in the hands of Parties unknown to the Jury

female child, white child female child, white child January 21, 1881 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . . the said unknown female child came to her death from violence at the hands of a party or parties to the Jury unknown

unnamed infant unnamed infant May 18, 1870 at and near Cools Spring, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do Say that the said infant came to its death by the Hands of providence

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