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 151 - 200 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
J. D. Ouzts December 7, 1891 at Edgefield, Edgefield County, SC pistol

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

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

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

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.

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

Preston Sellers October 26, 1912 at Cheraw, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC pick axe

upon their oaths, do say: that Preston Sellers came to his death by a lick on the Head with a pick handle in the hands of Fred Buckhannon

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.

Robert Parks September 27, 1894 at Parkville, Edgefield County, SC lick

upon their oaths do say, that We the jurors find from the evidence that the deceased came to his death by a lick from the hands of Tom Johnson

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

Adam slave December 29, 1828 at the house of Jesse Crook, Spartanburg County, SC large stick

do say upon their oaths that on Saturday night 27 of this instant at the [?] house of Maj. J. Crook ... that Lewis slave of Capt. W. H. Dickee did strike said Adam with a large stick on the left side of the forehead

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

Britton McClendon November 11, 1850 near the residence of Henry C. Turner, Edgefield County, SC large hunting knife

upon their oaths do say, that Britton McClendon Came to his death by a wound inflicted by the hands of Felix Hubbard at the house of deceased . . .Said wound was caused by a large Hunting knife

James Hembree September 24, 1835 at the house of Jesse Hembree, Anderson County, SC knife or dirk

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

W. F. Hunter June 1, 1853 at the residence of William Clyburn, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said William Ferdinand Hunter came to his death by wounds inflicted by a knife in the hands of John Love, Junior, in the woods near the residence of William Clyburn, about twelve miles north of Camden, on the road leading to Lancaster, on the thirty-first day of May A.D. 1853

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

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

Green negro boy July 23, 1850 at the house of John Cheatham, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their Oaths do say . . .that the said boy, Green . . . did come to his death by the infliction of a wound by the hands of Joseph Haluaker, on Turkey Creek . . .by a knife

Lankin Suber February 22, 1884 at the Vance Place, Laurens County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Lankin Suber came to his death on the 21st day of February AD 1884 by cuts from a knife in the hands of Frank Jamison and so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths do say That the aforesaid Frank Jamison in manner and form aforesaid Lankin Suber then and there feloniously did Kill against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid.

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.

Patterson slave June 2, 1855 Kershaw County, SC knife

agreed that the deceased came to his death by a wound inflicted with a knife by the hands of Daniel

Adeline Agnew May 14, 1871 near the residence of Ephraim R. Cobb, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that. . .the said Adeline Agnew was killed and murdered by a knife in the hands of Shadrack Webster.

John H. Kelley December 21, 1882 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

Harry slave May 20, 1863 at Jesse Gomellions, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that. . .the said Harry came to his death by a wound inflicted in the left side by a knife or some sharp Pointed instrument in the hands of Wilce[?] a slave belonging to James Neal

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

John Rowland August 22, 1825 at the Presbyterian Church known by the name of the Ebenezer meeting house, Fairfield County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that one John Brown, late of the district aforesaid, on the 4th day of June 1825, did commit a violent assault on the said John Rowland by the infliction of two greivous and dangerous wounds on the body of the said John Rowland John Rowland died, on the 19th instant, then and there feloniously killed and murdered the said John Rowland against the peace of the said state.

Michael Pertell August 2, 1858 at Conwayboro, Horry County, SC knife

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Joseph J. Rollins feloniously did Kill against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

Harry slave December 25, 1858 at Col Arthur Sinkins[?], Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Harry a slave belonging to Mrs Mary Crooker in an affray at Col Arthur Sinkins. . .by a knife or sharp pointed instrument in the hands of Elbert a slave belonging to Col Arthur Sinkins

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

Prince negro boy December 23, 1849 at Thos G. Lamars Mills on little horse creek, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their Oaths do say, by a stab in the breast with a sharp pointed knife, held in the hands of a negro boy named Robert, about nine years old

Bill Reese December 12, 1872 at Pendleton, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that Bill Reese came to his death from a wound inflicted by a knife held in the hands of Sam Minse[?]

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.

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

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

Robert H. Pettigrew December 27, 1872 at James H. Wiles house, Anderson County, SC knife

do say from a wound on his left side between the second and eight ribs penetrating to the. . .by a knife

John Laudrum October 11, 1869 at Dons Steam Mills near Rocky Creek, Edgefield County, SC knife

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

Charles Streater September 13, 1943 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that Charles Streater received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Knife in the hands of Cary Johnson

Prince slave January 15, 1865 at John Seiglers, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon there oaths do say that the boy Prince came to his death by a stab with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of Jef a slave of John Seiglers

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

Nelson Right September 6, 1873 at or near...Darm Creek, Anderson County, SC knife

do say that the said Nelson Right . . . [came] to his death from a wound in left shoulder in . . .knife or some other sharp instrument. The wound was in between the sholder blade and in a downward direction towards the heart?the said wound was inflicted by the hand of Robert Robertson

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

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

Captain slave January 24, 1824 at plantation of Captain John Boykin, Kershaw County, SC knife

do say upon their oaths that they are of opinion that the deceased was killed on the morning fo the 21st January 1824 between daylight and sun rise with a knife being cut upon the chin and stabbed in the upper part of the right breast near the collar bone and so jurors conclude that the deceased was feloniously killed by some person unknown

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

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

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

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

Andy Padgett July 5, 1891 near Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that. . .was deceased stabbed to death With a Knife in the hands of one[?] Rufus Dent

Jacob July 31, 1861 at the residence of Dr. G.B. Pearson, Fairfield County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that Jacob came to his death by wounds inflicted by a knife in the hands of John Murphy, overseer.

George Grice May 6, 1877 at Doby's Mill, Kershaw County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that George Grice came to his death by a stab wound in the left breast by a knife in the hands of George Philips[?]

Andrew Trapp December 4, 1869 near Trapps Mills, Edgefield County, SC knife

That the deceased came to his death from a Knife in the hands of a colored boy named Sam formerly the property of John Trapp and now living on his premises . . . upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Sam Trapp in manner & form aforesaid Andrew Trapp then and there feloniously did kill

Aaron McMahan October 14, 1872 at Eden, Laurens County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Aaron McMahan came to his death by means of a dirk knife in the hands of John Kellett at or near Eden

Henry Burt June 21, 1895 at Henry Burts, Edgefield County, SC knife

Upon their oaths do say that Henry Burt came to his death from a knife wound n the hands of Jim Chamberlain

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

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

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