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 101 - 150 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Clara Bell colored child June 23, 1868 at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: . . . the elder Child was conscious before it died and did say that a black man, and others say that she (the child) said that it was a yellow man that set fire to the house which burnt her & the other child to death hence we find that the Children were burnt to death but unknown by whom, and if it shall appear that the deceased were wilfully killed by another

Clara Burress February 25, 1878 at the house of Caty Burress on the plantation of Dr. A. G. Cook, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that she Clara Burriss came to her death by a pistol ball fired in the hands of William Pringle Cook fired at Caty Burress . . .do say William Pringle Cook did kill.

Claud Thompson December 4, 1932 [no location given], Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Claud Thompson came to his Death by Gun Shot Wound in the hands of C. L. Newman

Claude McKenzie February 1, 1935 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oath do say that Claude McKenzie received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot Gun done willfully . . . in the hands of Gillespie McKenzie

Clem Davis August 31, 1894 Near Barksdale station of the Greenville and Laurens RR, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Clem Davis came to his Death by Gun shot wounds at the hands of Parties to us unknown.

Clement D. Wallace November 28, 1867 at Gopher Hill, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say: that the said Clement D Wallace was disabled or killed with some instrument unknown or by the burning of his dwelling house

Cleveland Smith December 13, 1934 at McBee, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that Cleveland Smith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Coleman Smothers on the 12 day of December 1934, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Chesterfield County on 12-12-34.

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.

Cole white infant November 18, 1827 near the house of William Cole, Union County, SC
Coleman slave September 30, 1849 at the house of A.M. Smith, Spartanburg County, SC large stick

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the deceased child Coleman was filfully murdered on the 29th September 1847 in the woods with a large stick about 4 feet long by divers[?] blows being inflicted on its head & body by some person or persons unknown

Council Tucker January 16, 1938 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Council Tucker received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol shot in the hands Louis Wright

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.

D. J. "Jim" Hildrith October 21, 1935 at M. T. Crogham, Chesterfield County, SC brick

Upon their oaths do say that J. G. Hildrith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Brick Bat in the hands of Otis Home on the 13 day of October 1935, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Muess SC.

D. M. Pettit December 19, 1899 at G.J. Redfern, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: we the jurors find that D M Pettit came to his death by a wound on left side of his head causing fracture of the skull and depression on the brans in some manner unknown to the jury

Dan McMilan October 17, 1936 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that come by his death struck hoe on head in hands of Luther Miller.

Daniel slave, boy May 27, 1862 at John H. Fair, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

upon there oaths do say that Daniel came to his death by a wound in the hipp receive at Edgefield Court House in B. C. Bryant store from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Bryant

Daniel Lindsey November 6, 1888 at Gaffney City, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that Daniel Lindsey came to his death ... by a pistol shot in the hands of John Petty

Dave Gillam August 25, 1892 at the house of Cal Smiths, Edgefield County, SC

the Said Dave Gillam Came to his death from a gun Shot wound inflicted by the hands of Eliott Johnson

Dave Parkman December 16, 1897 at Cheatham place, Edgefield County, SC pistol

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

David Cornelius Boan January 18, 1943 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that David Cornelius Boan received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Hiram Mareen Linton

David Deason December 4, 1934 at Pageland, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that David Deason received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Pistol in the hands of Bruce Roue on the 2nd day of December 1934, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Charlotte Sanitarium on December 3rd 1934.

David Primus July 5, 1943 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that David Primus received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Shot gun in the hands of Ernest (Peter) Howard

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

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

Dorothy Mae Bowman August 3, 1948 at Cheraw, S.C., Chesterfield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say thatDorothy Mae Bowman received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by knife

Dr. E. C. Shell November 5, 1868 at Henry Shell's, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that they do believe from the evidence given that from the evidence given that Jess Woody, Rich Dial, Nathan Crews, Bill Bryson, Samuel Allison Sr., Daniel Allison Jr., Harry Shell Jr. and Mar Williams either as principals or accessories did willfully and feloniously kill and Murder Dr. E.C. Shell by a shot gun or musket shot on the second day of Nov 1868 near the residence of his father H R Shell against the peace and dignity of the State afore said.

Eddie Sellers November 2, 1899 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say The deceased came to his death from a Pistol shot round in the hands of parties unknown to the Jury

Edgar Kelly December 27, 1913 at Colan Herdon's, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Edgar Kelley came to his death by Knife wounds in the hand of Neal Hendrix

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

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

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

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

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Edmund Brown came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side of his neck, by the dischard of a Shot Gun, held in the hands of Carson Warren

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

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

Edom slave November 7, 1832 Spartanburg County, SC whip

do say upon their oaths that. . .the said Edom did come to his death by the [?] Gabriel Cannon[?] striking him on the head with the but [sic] of a whip

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

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

Edward Bridges March 19, 1881 Spartanburg County, SC
Edward Faircloth March 2, 1855 at the house of Edward T. Richs, Horry County, SC ax

upon their Oaths do say that at a negro House on the primises of the residence of Edward T. Ricks. Was struck one mortal blow with the edge of an ax, inflicting a wound six inches long and throuhg to his hollow on his left brest by the hands of one Tilson a slave belong to James F. Clark of North Carolina

Eisex Brown February 12, 1869 at John Canty's plantation, Kershaw County, SC stick

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

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

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

Eldridge Brown August 5, 1837 in Camden, Kershaw County, SC pistol

do say upon their oath that the said Eldridge Brown came to his death by a ball or balls shot from a pistol by Mr. F. S. Bronson in a encounter with that gentleman

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

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

Eli Thompkins September 5, 1860 at Conwayboro near the residence of Samuel Bell, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Eli Thompkins came to his death by a wound inflicted from a knife in the hands of William P. Hughes

Elias Earl January 22, 1867 at Boyds Mills, Laurens County, SC

uppon theire oaths do say. That he came to his death by being shot on Sunday night last by some person or persons unknown to us, further than the statement of deceased that he was shot by Brown, against the peace & dignity of the state afforesaid

Elick Youngblood child March 21, 1881 at S[?] R Warren, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oathes do say that the said Elick Youngblood come to his death near S R Warren water gin on Polys[?] Branch ... from Exposure Caused by the wilfull Neglect and cruel treatment of Eliza Hunt[?]

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

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

Elizabeth Bowing May 30, 1831 at the residence of Mrs. Ann Bowing, Kershaw County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Elizabeth Bowing came to her death by abuse inflicted on her by the hand of Priscilla Robertson

Elizabeth M. Skipper June 5, 1857 at the House of Abraham B. Skipper, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That the said Elizabeth M. Skipper, was killed and murdered by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

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

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

Elizabeth South June 23, 1839 at the dwelling House of William South, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths that some person unknown with certainty not having God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the twenty second day of June in the year Eighteen hundred and thirty nine with a murderous weapon in the District afforesaid in and upon the person of the said Elizabeth South then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State feloniously voluntarily and of his own malice aforethought made an asalt [sic] - and that the afforesaid persown [sic] unknown with certainty. Then and there inflict a number of wounds on the person of said Elizabeth South then and there on her throat crosswise one of them passing through to the neck bone of which mortal wounds the afforesaid Elizabeth South did then and there in a short time die...

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

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

Enoch Stevens August 2, 1859 at Stephens Mill, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Enoch Stevens came to his dith by the wound received from James Huggins and Samuel Taylor one wound on the head the skull bone broke, one wound on the leg and the bone ruptured then and there feloniously did kill the said Stevens

Ephram Neetles February 1, 1890 at the residence of Ephram Neetles, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say. That the said Ephram Neettles came to his death by a shot from a Pistol in the hands of Rich Davenport - and George Henderson and Hugh Henderson being acceessories.

Get in touch

  • Department of History
    220 LeConte Hall, Baldwin Street
    University of Georgia
    Athens, GA 30602-1602
  • 706-542-2053
  • admin@ehistory.org

eHistory was founded at the University of Georgia in 2011 by historians Claudio Saunt and Stephen Berry

Learn More about eHistory

Supporters

+ American Council of Learned Societies
+ DigiLab, Willson Center for Humanities and Arts, University of Georgia