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.

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 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Henry Padget freedman November 14, 1866 at Wm Padgets premises on Clouds Creek, Edgefield County, SC gun

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

Henry Parks September 14, 1895 at Parksville, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say That Henry Parks came to his death … by a gun shot wound in the hands of Perrin Wells

Henry Purse September 23, 1838 at Camden, on the corner of Market & York Streets, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say we found upon examination that the Boddy is that of H. W. Purse who came to his death by the discharging fo a gun supposed to be loaded with shot by Franklin Ray. The wound inflicted was mortal, the load having passed into the right breast.

Henry Turner September 24, 1878 at Johnstons, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oath do say that the said Henry Turner came to his death by a pistol or gun shot from the hands of Cato[?] Butler

Henry Woolbright October 26, 1843 at Wm. C. Brown's near Howell's Ferry, Union County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said Henry Woolbright died in consequence of [?] abuse recd from his Father Tom Woolbright & from neglect at Various times by especially from the abuse recd … by certain strokes & blows inflicted by Thomas Woolbright at their own house

Hezekiah Robbins November 5, 1865 at the house of Hezekiah Robbins, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that they are satisfied he came to her death … by a stab from a knife in the left thigh in the hand of Hubbard Cash

Holman Smith May 28, 1855 at the late residence of Holman Smith, Spartanburg County, SC axe and stick

upon their oaths do say [deceased] was wilfully, maliciously, & feloniously murdered at his own residence … by Phillis and John, slaves of the deceased, by beating him with an Axe and a stick … and that Charley, a slave of dec's'd, was accessory to the murder being present and making no effort to prevent the murder

Howel slave at the house of [?] Polk[?], Union County, SC blunt instrument
infant male child infant male child October 28, 1851 at the Reedy River Factory, Greenville County, SC drowning, exposure

upon their oaths do say that the said infant male child was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (or by some means) to the jurors unknown

Isaac Boseley July 5, 1880 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oath aforesaid, do say, that the aforesaid Isaack Boseley came to his death by a gun Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of one Peter Ramage

Isaac Matthias Jones October 14, 1858 at the house of Lewis Jones (Sr) at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say that the deceased I.M. Jones was kill by Thomas Markey, in the Public Square in front of Truman Roots store … by a knife in the hands of the aforesaid Markey

Isaah Golden August 27, 1860 at Silverton Beach iland, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that the deceased Came to his death … by John Williams sen and John Williams Jr that they did feloniously killed the deceased Isaah Golden with a knife

Isham Glover August 10, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do Say that the said Isham Glover came to his death from the effects of a gun Shot wound in the hands of C.H. Anderson

Isham Glover August 9, 1892 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that Isham Glover came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of Parties unknown

J. D. Ouzts December 7, 1891 at Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … that the aforesaid J.D. Ouzts came to his death from a pistol shot wound in the hands of Richard Lundy and that it was willfull murder

J. Edward Sims March 2, 1855 at the house of Doct. James Gages, Union County, SC gun

upon their oathes do say … that the aforesaid N R E Mayer Feloniously did with a Pistol against the Peace & dignity of the state aforesaid near the printing office in unvile shoot & Killed the said J Edward Sims

J. H. Christian July 21, 1856 in the village of Edgefield in Room No 11, in B. J. Ryans Hotel, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased J.[?] H. Christian came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of G.[?] D. Tilman

J. M. Long October 10, 1891 at J. M. Longs, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do Say That he came to his death by a gun Shot wound from the hands of Anthany Carter

Jack slave September 4, 1862 at Mrs. Ann Johnson's residence, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the said Jack did come to his death from a pistol shot inflicted by George T. Smith the overseer of Mrs. Ann Johnson….the act was done by him intentionally for disobeience.

Jacob Horn February 25, 1866 at the hous of Jacob Horns, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there Oaths do say that Jacob Horn came to his death by a Malicious discharge of a Gun or Pistol entering the left Groin from which wound he [?] langushed and languishing died in about half an hour

Jake slave July 24, 1852 at the plantation of Mrs. Amelia Haile near the bridge crossing the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC brick

that the slave Jake came to his death from a blow or blows inflicted on his head by a brick in the hands of Ceily the nurse, a slave property of Charles Haile

James Anders November 28, 1881 at M. B. Ander's, Greenville County, SC gun

he came to his death by the Shooting of some kind of fire arms two holes in his Head and one in the lore part of his Bowels … he was shot by a pistol from the hand of one Bengeman

James B. Brawly November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the sd. J.B. Brawly came to his death by a stab wound from a common packet kinfe inflicted on his left side opposite his navel and about 4 inches from the same by the hand of John Davis

James Bledsoe May 15, 1893 at Dr D.P. Lalsrones[?] Residence, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said James Bledsoe aforesaid came to his death from the effects of Pistol shot wounds at the hands of Capers Thomas

James Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that the said Jas Booth … came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

James Busby June 21, 1860 at J[?]essey L. J[?]eter, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that from wounds on the decsd and the evidence before them they do believe decsd came to his death by the hands of one David E Jeter[?] in the yard of Jessey[?] L Jeter … [?] shooting him with a shot gun

James Duckett November 9, 1859 at James Sutton's, Greenville County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted by a sharp instrument held in the hands of Boy named Abe the property of H. J. Gilreath

James Hembree September 24, 1835 at the house of Jesse Hembree, Anderson County, SC club and knife

do say upon their oaths that the said James Hembree…was killed and murderd by Nancy Black and Samuel Black by striking with a club or stick on the neck and shoulders and stabbing with a knife or dirk through the muscular part of the left thigh

James Keenan February 21, 1865 at Union Court House, Union County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the deceased was killed by a bullet discharged from a pistol in the house of Dr. John P. Thomas … in the Jail of Union District

James M. D'young February 16, 1879 at John J. Moore's, Spartanburg County, SC gun
James M. Rhodes August 27, 1862 at the residence of James M. Rhodes, Spartanburg County, SC leg bone of a horse or cow

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

James Pinson deserter December 5, 1864 at Greenville CH, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … was killed and homicideed by some person or persons (by a gun shot (in the breast on the morng of the 4th inst) to) the jurors unknown

James Ramsey December 12, 1869 at the residence of Andrew Ramsay Sr, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said deceased came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of Wm Murrell Jr loaded with leaden bullets which bullets entered the left side

James Reynolds December 20, 1860 at the residence of James Reynolds, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon there oaths do say that the said James Reynolds came to his death feloniously at the hand of Joseph Samuel … from the affects of a wound inflicted on the head Just above the left ear by a large stick

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

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

Jane slave March 10, 1863 at Anderson Court House, Anderson County, SC disease of lungs and being whipped and chained in a cold corridor

do say that she came to her death on sabath the eighth day of March…at the residence of her master A. A. Morse, of deceased hastened or made premature by the maltreatment of her Master A. A. Morse and his mistress Mrs. C. T. [?] Morse, and more particularly on the part of the latter, and....that the said slave Jain the said A. A. Morse & C. T. Morse, by misfortune, and contrary to their will

Jane Young February 11, 1853 at the late residence of Mrs. Jane D. Young, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Mrs. Jane D. Young came her death by [being] shotint he left breast feloniously, wilfully & maliciously by a gun in the hands of Hiram a negro slave the property of L.W.R. Blair

Jasper Deal January 18, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … the said Jasper Deal came to his death from the effect of a pistol shot wound in the hands of Henry Townsend. The ball entering the head just below the left eyebrow and passing directly through the brain to the back of the head.

Jerry slave June 6, 1857 at the residence of Rev. J.K. Mendenhall on Lyttleton Street within the bounds of the Town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC jug

upon their oaths do say that the said negro boy Jerry came to his death from a blow on the left side of the head … inflicted by a jug in the hands of Bob a slave of Thomas E. Shannon

Jesse Weatherford September 4, 1849 at the plantation of Mrs R Blaylock, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say the said Jesse Weatherford was killed & murdered at the plantation of Mrs Rossita Blaylock … by a negro man named Jo the property of Mrs Rositta Blaylock by the said Jo shooting the said Jesse Weatherford in the left side and arm with a shot gun loaded with powder & leaden shot

Jim slave June 19, 1858 at the plantation of A.H. Boykin, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said negro Jim came to his death … from three wounds inflicted on and across the face by some weapon or instrument to the jury unknown in the hands of Dick a slave of William Sanders

Jim negro boy July 23, 1855 at Wade Holsteens, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say, that the said Jim a negro boy … was there killed by a knife in the hands of Tom a negro boy belonging to James D Watson and as the knife belonged to Philip a negro boy belonging to the estate of A. J. Padget which said boy Philip was in compnay with the said Tom at the time

Jim McKie October 26, 1898 near John starks, Edgefield County, SC gun

do say that Jim McKie came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hands of some unknown parties

Jno. C Swearingin April 24, 1895 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC gun

the said Jno C Swearingin came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of B. L. Jones

Joe negro man, boy March 5, 1865 Greenville County, SC gun

who came to his death from a gun shot wound in the breast at the hands of Midleton Patterson

Joe slave, boy September 13, 1860 at the residence of D. M. Glover, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there Oaths do say the said Joe came to his death … from the effects of a gunshot in the hand of G M Broadwaters the shot taking affect in the left leg and thigh thereby producing his death

Joe Weston January 31, 1895 in Edgefield County, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that the said Joe Weston aforesaid came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hands of parties to us unknown

John Adamson August 23, 1825 Kershaw County, SC gun

do find [that] John Adamson came to his death by a gun shot in the right side before the right rib which shot penetrated the body through the intestines and the shot lodged in the left side of the body … but who discharged the gun … the jurors … cannot report

John Agner December 26, 1883 at Mr. John Agner's, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say we find John Agner Jr came to his death by wounds in his body inflicted by a knife … By a knife in the hands of one of the following named parties. Washington Hamilton James Hamilton or Perry Hamilton.

John Butler October 23, 1850 at the House of Mr Seth Butler, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon their Oaths do say that the said John A. Butler was killed & murdered by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

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