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 601 - 642 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
William male slave, boy March 12, 1857 at Doct Milton [?], Union County, SC

upon there oaths do say that from what testimony they can get they are together with the wounds & bruises found on the body of the boy both on the head & [?] made by one Lewis Jones . . .came to his death that the said Lewis Jones the said boy William by misfortune & contrary to his will in manner & form afforesaid did Kill & Slay

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

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC

do say upon thare [sic] oaths . . .that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

William Byers December 30, 1837 at William Z. Ford's blacksmith's shop, Spartanburg County, SC large knife

upon the view of the body of William Byers we the jury say that we believe he came to his death by a stab in the abdomen at or near the navel with a large singl bladed knife inflicted by the hand of Nubell Johnson or Manly Johson at the dwelling house of William Z. Ford

William C. Driggers August 1, 1934 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: That W. T. Driggers came to his death by an acute heart attack caused by knife wounds in the hands of Raymond Driggers

William Cloud July 8, 1851 at the Spaun[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the said deceased was killed by a pistol shot in the bar room of H.R. Spaun, by the hands of Philip Goode

William Clyburn September 15, 1948 at Pageland, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that William Clyburn received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by 38 S&W Pistol in the hands of Mr. Ike Plyler. . . The Jury recommends that I. K. Plyler be not held responsible -- justifiable Homicide

William Coker June 23, 1876 at Mrs. Sutter Tolbert, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That the said William Coker came to his death by som cuse or causes unknown to the jurors

William Dillard November 28, 1833 at Pleasant Hill Church, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their othas do Say. That Said William Dillard came to his death by a rock or brick thrown at him by James Dillard in Self defence.

William Evans July 4, 1894 on the Foley plantation, Laurens County, SC hoe

we the jury find that Wm Evans Died from the Effects of repeated blows on the head, with a hoe, in the hands of a four year old boy, John Stevens, who had been left to nurse it. And we think from his age, that he is not, intelligently responsible to the law for the said act.

William Flemming October 20, 1870 at Laurens Court House, Laurens County, SC

upon making view and inquests that the said William Fleming came to his death by gun shot would from guns that were in the hands of some person or persons 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

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC
William I. Graham September 13, 1854 at the Camden Hotel kep by William M. Watson in the Town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC bowie knife

upon their oaths do say that the said William I. Graham came to his death from a wound in the left breast inflicted by a bowie knife in the hands of John Lee Dixon

William Leak October 11, 1812 at Brant Leaks, Laurens County, SC knife

do say upon our oathes that the said William Leak came to his death on the sixteenth day of October one thousand eight hundred and twelve when on his way home from his Fathers House to shoot near the House of Lewis D Yancys he then and there recivd a stab in his left thight with a large Knife by Samuel Yancy of which wound he instantly Deceased and we do further say that the aforesaid Samuel Yancy did notoriously and willfully perpetrate the said murder on the body of the said Decd against the peace of this state.

William M. Tredaway March 27, 1851 at the house of William M Tredaway at Beach Island, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death from a gun shot fired at him by William Wilson

William Martin May 24, 1891 on the premises of W. E. Friday, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Wm Martin came to his death from a pistol shot wound and that Augustus Dearing firered the pistol

William Mauldin September 15, 1867 at Emoree Factory, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said William Mauldin came to his death. . .from a blow or blows inflicted with a rock or rocks from the hands of John Burgess

William Milligan June 7, 1852 at Conway borough, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that we believe he came to his death by wounds inflicted in the throat, and in the Stomach by a Knife in the hands of Absalom Causey

William Owens May 28, 1859 at Wm Owens, Laurens County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that Wm Owens came to his death by blows inflicted upon his face neck and head with a large stick in the hands of Thomas Owens on the evening of the 18th day of May 1859

William Padgett February 22, 1894 at W.D. Readys plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that the said William Padgett aforesaid Came to his death from a gun shot wound in the hands of Tom Rutland

William Rosborough at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that that the said William Rosborough was willfully, unlawfully and maliciously killed by a gun shot wound and that he was willfully killed and murdered[.]

William Roster June 9, 1891 on the plantation of Go Y Young, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said Wm Roster alias Berges came to his death From a blow received by a rock thrown from the hands of Rafe Dickson this the 9th day of June 1891.

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

William Stone November 1, 1809 at James Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC pine stick

do say upon their oathsthat James Arnold [with] one pine stick [did] kill and murder against the piece [sic] of this state

William Thurmond February 14, 1856 at Edgefield Court House, Planters[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC chair

upon their oaths do say, that he the deceased was Killed, by a blow with a chair, in the hands of William P Jones ... inflicted on the head

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

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

William Wallace at Beau's, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say: That the said William Wallace came to his death from a pistol shot fired in the hands of Jule[?] Tole[?]

Willie Adair May 25, 1875 at D.A. Glenns, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say, that Willie Adair, was killed and murdered at the house of Charley Adairs on the plantation of D.A. Glenns by blows with a large hammer, in left temple, mashing in the skull badly, after the blows, by hanging with a split to a ladder, also by blows with stick, all by the hands of Rachel Fowlers, the nurse of Wille...

Willie G. Harris March 25, 1897 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC

We the Jury find that Willie G Harris came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of [?] Wm Thurmond

Willie Hampton February 17, 1944 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that Willie Hampton received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Knife wound in the hands of Willie Mae Hampton

Willie Toney March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do Say: . . . that the aforesaid Willie Toney came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hand of Robert Coill[?], Dan Coward, Hill Hoawrd and R. L. Burnett as principals. Milledge Reese and A. J. Corley as accessories.

Willis slave October 5, 1847 at James Burnett's, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by a wound with a rock in the forehead at the camp meeting at Prospect[?] by the hands of Dave belonging to John Liles of Polk County, N.C.

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that the aforesaid Willis Asbell came to his death from wounds received in a fracas or fight, with Nathan Fallow Henry Fallow, Robt Fallow Mary Fallow Anna Fallow and a little boy (Prisoner) name William Ellis

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

Willis Rabon September 4, 1849 at William Rabon Sen.r, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that Abram Rabon Jun'r of the State and District aforesaid did feloneously with a Kinfe stab and Kill the said Willis Rabon and further saith that Abraham Rabon Sen.r and Duke Rabon were Accessories to the same

Wilson Griffin freedman February 13, 1867 at Luke Rodgers, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Griffin freedman came to his death from a gun or pistole shot wound in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Wilson Sosbee June 19, 1845 near G.B. Bishop's, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Sosbee came to his death by being shot wilfully with a shot gun by the hands of Joseph Hughes[?]

Woodward June 9, 1879 on the road leading from Dantzler's Bridge on South Tyger River via G. W. Duncan's and R. T. McElvath's to Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that ... the deceased came to her death by gunshot wound in the Breast, and incised wound on the neck, which severed the carotid arteries, windpipe, and other vital organs, and that we believe the said wounds were inflicted by weapons in the hands of John J. Moore

Yancy Hardy December 31, 1877 at Dr. GJ[?] Butlers Plantation, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that the said Yancy Hardy Came to his death from A Pistol Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of Pierce Winfreed

Young Fuller October 21, 1870 at W.J. Copelands plantation, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that Young Fuller, the deceased aforesaid, came to his death at his house near W.J. Copelands, in County aforesaid, on the 20th October AD 1870, from gunshot wounds from guns in the hands of some person or persons unknown to this jury.

Young Fuller May 3, 1854 at Mary McCrackins, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by Three wounds Inflicted on his head with an ax by the hand of Mary McCrackin Either being mortal

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