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 151 - 200 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
John David Twiggs September 15, 1864 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that Doct J D Twiggs came to his death by Pistol shots in the hands of R. J. Butler sen on the Publick Rode

John E. Elsmore November 28, 1869 at the house of John E. Elsmore, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say That he came to his death from the effect of a blow or blows on his head inflicted by the hands of Wm Pickens Elsmore with a Pistol

John E. Paul June 14, 1892 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the deceased John Paul came to his death … from the effects of a gun shot wound in the hand of one Henry Griffin and that Guss Longstreet and Sidney Longstreet were accesors

John G. Gorley July 26, 1866 Anderson County, SC hanging

the said John G. Gorly came to his death…by having been hanged by the nexck until his body was dead, by means of a certain of a certain grass rope fastened to the limb of a certain oak sapling near to the spot where the bones then lay....and that Henry J. Knauff of Pendleton village...and John Baskins and Thompson Oliver...did there and there feloneously hang and murder the said John G. Gorly

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

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

John H. Anderson March 21, 1891 at Tom Anderson place, Edgefield County, SC gun

came to his death by a gun shot Wound in the hands of one Henry Ryan

John H. Kelley on the [?] Road near the city of Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that said ... came to his death from a cut or stab in the left breast with a knife in the hands of Patrick Henry

John Henry King October 29, 1865 in Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say he was Killed by a Pistol shot from the hands of a colord Soldier belonging to the U S Troops now station in Augusta Ga the name of said Soldier not known

John Inlow October 1, 1852 at Hill's Factory, Spartanburg County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that they believe John Broughton did kill him the sd. Inlow … with a stick about five feet long & about 2 1/4 inches in diameter

John Laudrum October 11, 1869 at Dons Steam Mills near Rocky Creek, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument/gun

upon their oaths do say: That he said John Landow[?] came to his death by stabs in the body from a knife in the hands of some person or persons unknown

John M. Tillman May 6, 1860 at Mr J.A Tillmans Steam Mill, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that … J. M. Tillman was shot … with fire arm in the hands of George R Mays the Ball entering the brest neat the Pit of the Stomac Passing through the right side internily come near out under the right arm

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

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

John Moore November 19, 1880 Greenville County, SC blunt instrument
John Peagles November 30, 1846 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said John Peagles came ot his death from a pistol shot fired by the hands of Wm. B. Hamilton

John Pedeu[Peden?] February 11, 1851 at the house of John S. Pedeu[?], Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … came to his death … in consequence of a wound received on the sixth instance from a rifle ball

John Pettigrew January 17, 1843 at the Irish buying ground, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that on the 27th day of last December one Bennett Dozier of Kershaw District did wound with a knife the deceased John Pettigrew of Kershaw District so as to cause his, John Pettigrew's death on Sunday the first day of January

John Pitts June 11, 1842 at Elias Ford's, Kershaw County, SC gun

by their oaths do say that the said John Pitts was willfully and feloniously shot by Elias Ford with a long shotgun loaded with powder & large shot and ball somewhere near the residence of Elias Ford

John Roe September 11, 1868 at William Elliott's, Kershaw County, SC gun shot

upon their oaths do say that John Roe was killed ... by a gun shot on the right side of the back & that the said gun was fired by William Elliott & that he was excusable in firing the said gun at & killing the said Roe

John W. Meeks May 4, 1872 at Brown & Rice's Mill, Anderson County, SC gunshot

do say that….the said John W. Meeks was killed by gun-shot wound, and violent battery with gun on the back of his neck

John Webb March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that the aforesaid John Webb came to his death by Gun Shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hands of Robert Coile[?], Dan Coward Hill Howard, and R L Burnett as principals, Milledge Reece and A.J. Corley as accessories

John Williams August 21, 1898 at S H Nicholson, Edgefield County, SC stick

on their Oaths do say, that the aforesaid John Williams came to his death by a blow with a stick in the hand of Ed Brooks

John Wyatt May 25, 1834 at House of Harry Gant[?], Union County, SC gun

do say upon thare oaths than one Ellis Fowler [?] of said District not having god before his eyes but Being moved and Seduced by the Instirgation of the devil … shoot the [?] and give to the said John Wyatt … one mortal wound of the breast

Johnson Peterson March 9, 1892 at Deny[?] S.C., Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say - that this Jury of inquest believes that the Said Johnson Peterson Came to his death … by a gun Shot wound Said wound being Made as we believe by a pistol in the hands of Pickens Smith

Joseph Burgess boy October 16, 1824 at the premises of Mrs. Hales[?], Union County, SC gun

say upon their oaths the said Joseph Burgess in manner and form came to his death by a stroke or blows withs with a gun across his right ear and the back part of his head. Supposed to have been effected from every circumstance in our view by George McKnight

Joseph Hughes July 25, 1853 at the house of James A. Price, Union County, SC club, stick, or board

upon their oaths do say that James A. Price did … at his own house in the said District with a club, stick or board hit the said Joseph Hughes over the head inflicting three severe wounds in the forehead and bruising the head nearly all over

Joseph Riddle April 10, 1856 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say, that the said Riddle came to his death by a wound or stab with some cutting instrument inflicted just under the left ear by some hand to this jury unknown

Joseph W. Glover September 2, 1844 at Charles Comptys[?] Hotel, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say the he came to his death by the discharge of a pistol in the hands of Lovett Gomillion loaded with [?] Bullets which load of shot entered the said Joseph W Glovers body a little above the nipple on the right side of the breast … said pistol was discharged by said Gomillion in a street fight between himself and said Glover in self defence

Joshua Hammond Jr. September 6, 1849 at a place belonging to John Bauskett[?] on little horse creek, Edgefield County, SC gun and fence rail

upon their oaths do say that the said Joshua Hammond Jr came to his death by Sunday[?] blows inflicted by the hands of John Green Jr & Julius Green with a gun[?] & fence rail and that John Green senior was aiding and abetting at the time at a place on the Hamburg Road belonging to John Baushkett[?] on little horse creek now occupied by Benjamin Davis

Julia Long November 22, 1883 at the residence of David Long, Anderson County, SC shovel

do say that the deceased Julia Long came to her death by natural causes.

Julia Mundy June 17, 1881 at Jas H Banknight, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Julia Mundy Came to her death from a pistol shot and fired by Josh Mundy her husband and made one mortal wound in the Right breast of her

Julius Metskie June 27, 1887 at Valley Falls, Spartanburg County, SC gun shot

upon their oaths do say that Julius Metskie came to his death by a gun shot would inflicted in the head by George S. Turner at Valley Falls

Keal Johnson colourd man October 20, 1866 at J.M. Proctors Residence, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there Oaths do say that he came to his death … by a Pistol shot from the hands of G.J. Smith entering the left side of the mouth and came out at the back side of his head

Lee Ryan September 27, 1877 at the plantation of Abram F Broadwater, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their Oaths do say that the said Lee Ryan came to his death from wounds inflicted upon the head by some Iron Instrument in the hands of Some one to the Jury unknown and that Alice Ryan was an accessory to the Crime

Levi H. McDaniel March 9, 1859 at or near the 17 mile Post on the Scotts Ferry Road, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that … the deceased came to his death by a Pistol shot in the left side near the region of the hearth fired from the hands of one James H. Jones

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

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

Lewis negro man, boy March 14, 1861 at Charles Hammonds Brickyard, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oats do say that the said Lewis did come to his death … By the discharge of a pistol on Sunday the tenth ist in hands of Benja[?] Glanton

Lewis Bartie July 26, 1864 at Mount Zion Church, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that the said Lewis Bartie the deceased came to his death … by a wound received from a Double Barrel shot gun in the hands of James Green

Lewis Green free man of color September 17, 1859 at the Williamston Hotel, Anderson County, SC arsenic

do say that the said Lewis Green came to his death by poisioning with arsnick at the Williamston Hotel…on the night of the seventeenth day of September…the said poison being administered at the said Hotel somewhere about the thirteenth day of September...the medium of a certain sponge cake or pudding by some person or persons unknown

Lewis Moore November 30, 1891 at the plantation of Robert Smith, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that one Lewis Moore … came to his death from wounds in right arm inflicted with pocket knife in the hands of Robert Bauknight (Col)

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

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

Louisa Laudon October 11, 1869 at Dorns Steam Mills near Rocky Creek, Edgefield County, SC knife and gun

upon their oaths do say That Louisa Laudon came to her death by a knife in the hands of some person or persons unknown

Lucious Perry November 8, 1891 at the plantation of Ben Boatwright, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Lucious Perry came to his death by a gun shot wound in the hands of Ben Curry Willfully and that Henry Robertson was aiding and abetting the same

Luther Harris May 26, 1899 at the plantation of George F Towns, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say, that the Said Luther Harris was killed at John Davis' house … by a Gun Shot wound fired by the hands of Hamp Davis.

Luther Sullivan October 26, 1898 near John Stuarts, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Luther Sullivan came to his rom gun shot wounds in the hand of unknown parties

Mack Kirkland colored man October 31, 1868 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Mac Kirkland came to his death on Main Street in the town of Camden ... from wounds in the breast from a pistol fired ... by one William Killz

Mahlon Jones December 25, 1891 at Landrams Farm, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say That Mahlon Jones was … killed by a pistol … shot in the hands of Henry Scott and that Coleman Maroney was accessoror

March slave February 24, 1845 at Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a blow inflicted with some blunt instrument upon the head fracturing the skull for some five or seven inches by some person or persons unknown

Marcus April 12, 1836 at Gibson's Neck on the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC unknown

we find that the negro is Marcus the property of D. A. Brevard but are unable to say whether his death was caused by certain blows inflicted on the head & drowning or by drowning alone

Margaret Simpkins September 21, 1879 on Jas C Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

do say that the said Margaret Simpkins came to her death by a gun Shot wound inflicted with a single Barrel Shot gun in the hands of John Simpkins

Maria negro woman slave April 10, 1825 at Mrs. Williams, Union County, SC fist

do say upon their oathes that from a [?] Given by whiping by the aforesaid Thomas Beleu at his own hous on the 6 Inst with Switches[?] & a blow with his fist which was Given in heat of passion by the Sd Thomas Beleu on the thighs loins belly & breast of Sd negroe Maria but not with the intent to homicide

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