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 Datesort descending Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

Stephen Stalmaker August 30, 1850 at J.M.C. Freeland's, Edgefield County, SC plank

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to his death by blow inflicted on the side of his head with a piece of plank four feet long five & a half inches wide & one inch thick used as the [?] of a door which had fractured the right parietal[?] & Temporal bones by the hands of Thomas Parker

Andrew slave September 3, 1850 at A.P. Butlers plantation, Edgefield County, SC rail

upon their oaths do say that . . .Andrew came to his death by a lick on the head on the right side inflicted by Ben a slave of A.P. Butler with a half of rail done in the heat of passion while in an affray

Barbara Milam September 25, 1850 at T R Milams, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that She came to her Death by violence inflicted upon her person and by burning, the bruises having been first inflicted. They find the bruises & cuts upon and about the head and face inflicted with an axe or other heavy weapon - from the circumstances they conclude the blows to have been inflicted by the negro woman Eliot, the property of Milam the husband of Deceased.

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

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

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

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

R. J. Lester March 19, 1851 at Camden, Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death from a ball shot from a pistol in the hands of Samuel I. Love and that Samuel Wilson Love was accessory to the act

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

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

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

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

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

negro woman slave negro woman slave July 12, 1851 at Jackson Pattison's, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . . are inclined to the belief that there might have been violence inflicted which might have caused death upon the head or throat. Those parts being in so [?] a state of decomposition that it was impossible to determine whether there had been injuries inflicted on those parts or not.

infant child infant child July 21, 1851 at the residence of Mrs. Elizabeth Campbell, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that . . . said infant cause to its death by misfortune or accident either in the act of being born or short time after its birth

Eunice Hogan October 26, 1851 at the house of John Briskey, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Eunice Hogan was killed and murdered by some person or persons . . .unknown

infant male child infant male child October 28, 1851 at the Reedy River Factory, Greenville County, SC

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

Aaron slave December 3, 1851 at the house of Larkin Swearinghim, Edgefield County, SC cow hide

upon their oaths do say, that we believe the said Aaron came to his death by a whipping recd by the hands of Chesley B. Wise with a cow hide, aided by Edmund Kennedy

Jack December 30, 1851 at Big Bay, Horry County, SC stomped

upon their Oaths do say, that when and where they Know not, nor by what instrument the deceast was Kild, But that the said Jack was feloniously by Beeting, that the said Jack was Killed and murdered by some person or persons by some means to the Jurors unknown

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron slave December 5, 1852 at A. Bushnells Shop, Edgefield County, SC chisel

upon their oaths do say that said Negro slave Aaron was Feloniously Killed . . .by a stab on the left side of the throat with a chissel about one inch and a half wide, by the hand of some person unknown

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

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

Henry Heavener March 5, 1853 at Thomas Lynch's, Spartanburg County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that to the satisfaction of the jury he came to his death by violence. . .by some person or persons to the jurors unknown, by, the jurors suppose, an axe

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

John Rhodes July 13, 1853 at Feathery Bay, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Although it appears that the said John Rhodes has been missing ever since the day before Fall Court 1852, yet there is no proof to them that the said John Rhodes has ever been murdered

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

John Nickle October 30, 1853 at the House of David Owens, Laurens County, SC whip

upon their oaths do say That after having the body of the Decd. John Nickle exposed & after examining the body & all the circumstances that the sd. John Nickle came to his death from a severe whipping inflicted upon the body of the sd. Decd. On the 24th of October Inst (Monday) about 3 or oclk in the afternoon by William Hazle of the state & District aforesaid and that the said whipping as proven by witnesses examined & as exhibited upon the body as exposed to the undersigned, was inflicted... willfully by the sd. William Hazel against the peace the humanity & dignity of the same State aforesd. This Inquest concur in the opinion that as before stated that as the sd. Decd. John Nickle was but a youth - he being about six years of age - his health at the time of the infliction of the whipping as before state being feeble, & suffering with disease are of opinion that the diseased health of the boy & the whipping as a secondary cause...

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

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

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

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

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

Peter October 25, 1854 Laurens County, SC
Will slave November 18, 1854 at William Nevitt's, Anderson County, SC rail

do say that the said deceased came to his death?from wounds inflicted on the 6th day of said month with the end of a rail in the hands of Robert C. Nevitt that Robert C. Nevitt the said slave [unkown word] misfortune and in self defense & contrary to his will in manner & form aforesaid did kill & slay

George W. Barker December 27, 1854 at Winnsboro, Fairfield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That the deceased came to his death by pistol shots, received in an affray between the deceased and Richard N. McMaster, from a pistol fired in the hands of Richard N. McMaster on the night of the 26th.

Reeves February 23, 1855 Laurens County, SC
J. Edward Sims March 2, 1855 at the house of Doct. James Gages, Union County, SC pistol

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

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

Holman Smith May 28, 1855 at the late residence of Holman Smith, Spartanburg County, SC ax

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

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

Infant child of Ellen, enslaved by Robert Workman Infant child of Ellen, enslaved by Robert Workman July 6, 1855 at a grave yard near Odells Mill, Laurens County, SC

upon their Oaths do say that the said Infant came to its death by violence by the hand of some person unknown against the peace and dignity of the same State aforesaid and that the negro woman that Doct J.J. Boozer was sent for to see is an Idiot.

George slave July 19, 1855 near Pine Tree Creek, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said negro child George, from the evidence adduced before the Jury came to his death by the hands of one Jackson Bradley aided and abetted by one William Adkins on the Saturday night before the said Jackson Bradley was committed to Jail

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

Fanny slave November 4, 1855 at the plantation of Edward A. Salmond about four miles from Camden, Kershaw County, SC

do say that that the Negro woman came to her death by a fit of apoplexy on the morning of the fourth day of November 1855 in her own house.

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

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

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

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

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

Jim April 26, 1856 on the Public Road leading from Conwayboro, to Bull Creek Ferry, Horry County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, that the said slave Jim Came to his death from the effect of Gun shot wounds--discharged from a Gun in the hands of J.s W. Holiday, his (the said Slave imployer) said slave at the time being in a state of insubordiation, and we the Jurors, do say that the aforesaid Jo.s W. Holiday did in self defence and contrary to his will, Kill and slave the said boy Jim

Thomas Styson June 22, 1856 at R. M. Fullers, Edgefield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a wound inflicted on the Right Side of the head with a hoe in hands of the boy Clem; slave of R M Fuller

Henry slave July 8, 1856 at the house of Wm M. Hawkins, Greenville County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that the said Slave Henry was killed by Jr.[?] a slave of the said Wm M. Hawkins . . . with a hoe held by the said slave Jr.[?] [?] in self defense

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

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

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