In 1827, a slave named Ambrose escaped from his owner Berryman Burger. Like most runaways, Ambrose did not make the dangerous trek north but remained in the area, a practice called ‘lying out.’ In most cases, such slaves kept a low profile, living off the land or from scraps gleaned from friends and compatriots in the quarter. Ambrose, however, took a different path, waging guerrilla war against slavery and local slaveholders. Over the course of more than a year he broke into barns, slaughtered hogs and poultry, pillaged smokehouses, burned outbuildings, destroyed cotton, and generally behaved like a local Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and returning to his fellow slaves. Within months, Ambrose had induced other runaways to join him, and he was regarded by local planters as a “desperate character ... capable of any act of villainy” who should be killed on sight.

Early in the morning of September 24, 1828, a local white man, Kirkland Harmon, surprised Ambrose in his camp and gunned him down as he rose. Ambrose winced as the buckshot “enter[ed] his back loins & hips,” and he bled out on the ground. His one-man rebellion was effectively over. Without the coroner’s inquest convened over his body, however, we would know nothing of his rebellion; the record of his death is the only record we have of his life. How many Ambroses were there? It is hard to know. To its credit, Ambrose’s band picked up his mantle and continued to operate in the area as a plague to local planters.

I was not surprised to learn that such local resistance was quashed and that slaves like Ambrose were routinely murdered. I was surprised to learn how often the coroner responded. In her WPA interview, the former slave Mittie Freeman remembered the coroner as “that fellow that comes running fast when somebody gets killed,” and the coroner is mentioned in quite a few of the most famous slave narratives, including those by Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown. The coroner was often the only magistrate mentioned because he was the only ‘outside’ law the slaves ever saw. We will never know precisely how many enslavers murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But in cases where the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, or where the enslaver failed to cover it up, there usually was an investigation, at the very least because property had been destroyed, and someone expected compensation.

“Laws ... against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder.”

Reflecting on the South he was forced to flee because of his Unionism, John Aughey noted: “Of course the laws which exist in every state against the murder or torturing of slaves are about as well observed as might be laws enacted by wolves against sheep-murder.” But in the coroners’ inquest there was actually a subtle game of community standards going on. Standing over the body of a slave and surveying the grim damage, a coroner’s jury was often perfectly comfortable recommending that a white be indicted. And at coroner’s inquests slaves were allowed to testify. The actual jury nullification came later, in the courtroom, when the mangled body was not actually present and the murderer was let off. But by then he had been held up to public scrutiny; his judgment and decency had been questioned publicly and legally. It is less than justice, but it is not nothing, a fact which slaves themselves recognized. When the coroner came a-runnin’, many slaves thought he might bring justice with him from some far off, saner place. And in his own Narrative, Frederick Douglass tells the story of an unnamed slave girl whose mistress “pounded in her skull” with a piece of firewood because she allowed a baby to cry uncontrollably and wake the household. “I will not say that this murder most foul produced no sensation. It did produce a sensation. A warrant was issued for the arrest of Mrs. Hicks, but incredible to tell, for some reason or other, that warrant was never served, and she not only escaped condign punishment, but the pain and mortification as well of being arraigned before a court of justice.” It is hard to believe that for all he’d seen of the institution of slavery, Douglass still thought it capable of any justice at all.

What does not make it into many of the slave narratives, including Douglass’s, is the violence that existed within the slave community. Enslavement does not magically transform all who endure it into savvy, self-sustaining freedom-fighters. If we are going to grant the enslaved their full humanity we must grant that, like any other group of people, they occasionally fought, fornicated, and got into petty disputes that sometimes took a murderous turn. To be sure, as historian Steven Hahn has noted, the slave quarter produced one of the most radical and transformative politics ever seen in America, a politics that produced Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass and finally brought down a $3.5 billion dollar interest. But in coroners reports we get a glimpse of the violence that existed within the slave community that we knew had to be there. Thus did the enslaved of the Haile plantation turn their children over to Tamer, the enslaved nurse, on their way out to the fields, little knowing that she liked to punish the children by tying them too close to a fire, a practice that was only discovered when she finally cooked one of them to death. Or take the case of an enslaved man named Dick who became so jealous that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the man who was staying in the cabin of a woman he wanted to sleep with.

Today, the typical homicide in the United States involves one man shooting another, and this is equally true in the CSI:Dixie database. Comparatively speaking, the CSI:D sample has a higher percentage of male victims and a lower percentage of gun use. Today firearms are used in 68% of American homicides; in the CSI:D sample guns are used 52% of the time. Today 77% of homicide victims are male; in the CSI:D sample 88% are male (and virtually all of the perpetrators are men). Put bluntly, in the nineteenth century south, violent death was a more exclusively male province, and Death had more faces.

Interestingly, though, in the CSI:D database virtually none of the gun-related homicides are related to robbery. Most are the product of the highly combustible combination of anger and alcohol. The last words of J. Edward Sims were typical: “Shoot you damed cowardly son of a Bitch.” Or take this poignant exchange:

Tom Rutland (firing): “I will kill you, you son of a bitch.”

William Padgett (bleeding): “You have already.”

In the strange alchemy of the male brain, friends became mortal enemies in an instant, often over trivialities. “How in the hell did you Gap up My ax?” Gus Settler demanded to know of Allen Holmes in March 1882. I hardly know what a gapped-up axe looks like, but I do know that returning a borrowed tool in less than satisfactory condition is no grounds for murder. Settler disagreed and shot Holmes dead.


Life in the Faulknerian world of CSI:D was especially cheap for children. Catherine Berry, a domestic in the R. C. Poole household, was told that she would be terminated if she was indeed pregnant. In an awful feat of endurance, she continued with her chores until, doubled over with pain, she snuck away to give birth in the potato shed. Reeling from the loss of blood, she still managed to strangle the baby and fling it into the Pacolet River, where it washed up at the feet of some fishermen. When Peggy Bedenbaugh felt her first contractions, she went out to a corner of the yard, gave birth in a hole, and covered the baby over with dirt. Luly Collins threw her baby down a well. Nancy Owens swept hers under a brush pile. All had denied for months that they were in the “family way”; all had killed the evidence; all were indicted for murder.

Or take the case of Jane Arnold. On September 7, 1857, Brazeal Cox and his wife found sixteen-year-old Jane Arnold stretched out on the ground with a baby beside her, bleeding from its umbilical cord. When Arnold became aware of the couple she called out to Mrs. Cox, who wrapped the dying infant in Arnold’s apron and took it into the Arnold home. Mrs. Cox then returned and asked the girl why she hadn’t given birth indoors. Because her daddy was “doging” her, she said, and had cast her from the house. “She seemed to be grieving,” Cox told the coroner in a model of understatement, “but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

“She seemed to be grieving, but [I] don’t know what for, whether on the part of her dead child or the abuse of her father.”

Three years later, at four in the morning, a shivering Jane Arnold knocked at the door of a neighboring farm. She was cold and unkempt, but she couldn’t make up her mind to stay. Instead she returned to the abandoned schoolhouse where she had taken her latest baby, born in the middle of the road, to die of exposure.

The coroners’ office reveals a world where men force women into sex and women pay the price for it, in embarrassing pregnancies, social stigma, and the occasionally desperate attempt to cover up the evidence. In 1829 a fire in Thomas Welsh’s smoke-house revealed a small cubby in which a full term child had been secreted in a jar of lime. It is impossible to know whether this was an infanticide or a child who had been stillborn. Regardless the mother was covering up something. Occasionally that something was an interracial liaison. More often it was simply a pregnancy out-of-wedlock. Many of the cases reveal that the women had been trying for some time to induce an abortion. ‘Home remedies’ for pregnancy mentioned in the CSI:D sample include savin powder mixed with turpentine, red bark bay tea, and the ashes of dried corn cobs. In this sense some of the infanticides might be considered extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother, for instance, gave birth to a stillborn child who bore unmistakable marks of abuse en utero. M. Lipscomb was found doubled over a fence having apparently bled out in a botched, self-induced abortion.

Almost sadder is the number of women who were held to account for the ‘murder’ of infants who had most likely died of crib death or SIDS. Often sent back to the cotton field within days of giving birth, enslaved mothers were understandably exhausted, and they often slept with their infants so they could breast feed in a haze and go back to sleep. When they occasionally awoke to dead babies, they were unfortunately as susceptible as their doctors and enslavers to believe that they had smothered their children in their sleep, a phenomenon which only enhanced their reputation as uncaring and unnatural mothers.

NEXT: Suicide


Murder Cases Tried in South Carolina, 1887-1900

Year Number of Homicides Tried Not Guilty Verdicts Guilty Verdicts Cases Dismissed or Continued Percentage Found Guilty
1887 79 54 11 14 13.9%
1888 117 61 36 20 30.1%
1889 120 69 30 21 25.0%
1890 incomplete returns - - - -
1891 151 76 46 29 30.0%
1892 incomplete returns - - - -
1893 incomplete returns - - - -
1894 incomplete returns - - - -
1895 210 112 67 31 31.9%
1896 201 110 67 24 33.3%
1897 215 120 64 31 29.7%
1898 248 105 96 47 44.0%
1899 205 83 97 35 47.3%
1900 224 127 71 26 31.7%

Credit: John Hammond Moore, Carnival of Blood: Dueling, Lynching, and Murder in South Carolina, 1880-1920 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 130-131, taken from Reports and Resolutions of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina

Homicide Inquests

Displaying 501 - 550 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

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

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

Rufus Springs April 20, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Rufus H Springs came to his death . . . from a gun shot wound in the hands of a party[?] to this jury unknown

Rufus Yarbrough March 17, 1872 at the residence of John Davis Esqr., Spartanburg County, SC pole axe

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions the said deceased came to his death at the place where found, viz. in front of corn crib on the premises of John Davis Esqr., caused by a blow on the neck severing the jugular vein and windpipe with a pole axe in the hands of some unknown person

S. B. C. Lowney March 5, 1873 Fairfield County, SC
S. G. W. Dill June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

S. P. Martin Fairfield County, SC

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

Sam Dehays October 23, 1870 at Thernus quarter, Laurens County, SC

upon the oaths do say that the said Sam Dehay came to his death on the road between Duncans creek & Clinton on the 22d Oct 1870 by a gunshot from parties unknown to the jury

Sam Howard Freedman August 6, 1866 at L. L. Halls, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that Sam Howard Freedman Came to his death. . .by a stab with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of John Daniel Freedman

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[.]

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

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave the property of John Chesnut son of James Chesnut Esquire was violantly [sic] Murdered

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC
Samuel A. Geer January 15, 1866 at David Geer's House, Anderson County, SC metallic instrument

do say that the said S. A. Geer was killed by blows over the head producing five separate fractures of the skull, near the residence of David Geer. . .by some metalic instrument in the hands of some person or persons unknown.

Samuel D. Owings November 12, 1869 Laurens County, SC pistol
Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC
Samuel Posey October 21, 1860 at P. B. McDaniels, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oath do say that the said Sam Posey came to his death by a Pistol shots in the hand of Henry Williams. . .four balls taken affect

Sarah Hardy free girl of color October 4, 1865 at William Page's, Union County, SC

We the Jurors can [?] deceasd came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by some person unknown

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

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.

Sarah Watson January 31, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sarah Watson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Buckshot from Shotgun in the hands of Jas. Stacks

Sax slave, boy March 11, 1865 at UnionVille, Union County, SC

do say that the boy Sax was taken out of goal by an armed force unknown to the [?] and hanged

Scipio slave April 1, 1862 at E. J. Youngbloods, Edgefield County, SC hatchet

upon there oaths do say that Scipio came to his death by two blows on the head . . .with a hatchet or some sharp instrument in the hands of some person unknown

Seabrook Leak March 24, 1870 at Tumbling Shoals, Laurens County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say that the said Seabrook Leak came to his Death on the twenty third day of March 1870 Near Tumbling Shoals Laurens County by a Pistol Shot wound from hands of Pinkney Wilson

Seymore Crawford January 9, 1933 at Mt. Croghan, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths, do say: That Seymore Crawford came to his death by Gun Shot wounds at the hands of Luther Kelley did wastfully and feloniously did kill, against the peace and dignity of the aforesaid state.

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

slave slave July 23, 1820 Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths [that] the said Henry [Schrock] fired at him [unknown African American] with an intention of shooting him in the legs but by chance seventeen low mold shot took him in the body of which wound he instantly died.

Spencer Simpson November 25, 1896 at Clinton, Laurens County, SC

We the Jury of inquest. . . find that Spencer Simpson died in Laurens County on 21st Day of Nov AD 1896 - from the Effects of a gunshot wound from the hands of Jno. Miller, and so we all agree.

Squire October 24, 1865 at the plantation of Saml. Todd, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do Say that these two negroes came to there death by being shot by some person or persons unknown to us, from the evidence we think one of them is the boy Squire

Stanmore B. Chappell January 19, 1867 at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon there oaths do say. . .he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through head done in and affray with B.F. Payne

Stephen December 6, 1833 at Ephraim Morgan's house, Fairfield County, SC

do believe that the s'd boy Stephen came to his death by a gunshot wound, inflicted by Ephraim Morgan: and that in accordance with the testimony adduced, we believe that the s'd boy was killed by the sd. Ephraim Morgan in self defence.

Stephen Stalmaker August 30, 1850 at J.M.C. Freeland's, Edgefield County, SC plank

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by blow inflicted on the side of his head with a piece of plank four feet long five & a half inches wide & one inch thick used as the [?] of a door which had fractured the right parietal[?] & Temporal bones by the hands of Thomas Parker

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

Susan Medlock April 7, 1894 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Susan Medlock aforesaid, Came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by the hands of Boston Jones Jr

Sylvester Streater August 18, 1947 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Sylvester Streater received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 Pistol in the hands of Thelma Williams Streater

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

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro woman Sylvia came to her death by two strokes which she received with a large switch, one across her arm and the other over her breast and shoulder from the hand of Gabiel Coats on the 14th Instant which seems to have been done without intention to kill or maim ... and what most men would have done in such a case and not otherwise

Tamar Clark November 9, 1871 at Henry L. Hunter's resident at Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that ... Tamar Clark came to her death from gun shot wounds, the said gun having been fired from the hands of Henry L. Hunter and having inflicted between ninety and one hundred wounds on the right breast, right shoulder and right fore arm ... with squirrel shot

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

Teague Tillman October 2, 1899 at the plantation of Thos. H. Ramsford, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do Say: That Teague Tillman came to his death . . . by pistol in the hands of Will Perminter

Thelma Wallace Gainey May 30, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Thelma Wallace Gainey received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol in the hands of Henry Tiner

Thomas Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do Say that the said Thos Booths. . .came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

Thomas Clark September 14, 1811 at plantation on Little Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Clark came to his death by a blow received with a stick above his left temple struck by the hand of Stephen Carter of which he died in about four hours afterward

Thomas Glover August 2, 1893 at Bill Werk[?] Residence, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .Thomas Glover came to his death from Gun shot wounds in his left breast in the region of the hear. . .by Ed Williams alias Werk

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

Thomas Linder November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC pocket knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the said T.Linder came to his death by a stab from a common pocket knife inflicted on his left breast about two inches from his left nipple by the hand of John Davis

Thomas O'Donald September 13, 1869 at Dr. John E. Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say That the said Thomas O'Donald came to his death . . .from Pistol shot wounds. . .having been inflicted by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

Thomas Phearby September 1, 1882 on the Mill's Gap Road, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that said Thomas Phearby ... came to his death from Pistol show wound in the back of his head received from a pistol in the hand of John H. Foster

Thomas Smith January 16, 1838 at George Born's[?], Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that after examining the Body of the sd. Smith they believe that he came to his death by a wound in the throat which appears to have been done by the hand of some person with a knife

Thomas Styson June 22, 1856 at R. M. Fullers, Edgefield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted on the Right Side of the head with a hoe in hands of the boy Clem; slave of R M Fuller

Thomas W. Harrison November 23, 1860 At Pendleton, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the deceased was killed by a pistol shot, fired by Francisco Tapapso[?], at Pendelton.

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