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 201 - 250 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC suffocation

Upon their oaths do say, that … the said Mary came to her death by being choked, by Joe, a negro man belong to Omey Patterson, who confined to us that he was the murder, and purpetrated said deed on Sunday 16th inst. Showing us where he had Killed her near the above named Plantation

Mary slave October 31, 1838 at the house of Saml L Martin, Union County, SC ax

do say upon their oaths that the negro woman named Clarisy … not having God before her Eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigations of the Devil … with force and arms … and upon the said Mary then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State, feloniously voluntarily and of his own malice ... did then and there with a certain axe did then and there violently feloniously and with malice aforethough struck and pierced[?] and gave to the said Mary with the said axe in and upon the forehead of the said Mary one mortal wound

Mary Hicks May 10, 1881 at the residence of Widow Lucy Clements, Spartanburg County, SC gun and knife

upon their oaths do say that ... Mrs. Mary Hicks came to her death by a gun shot and a knife or some sharp tool in the hands of one B. Whitney Hicks, her husband

Mary Lipscomb May 3, 1889 at Cowpens, Spartanburg County, SC beating

upon their oaths do say that the said Mary Lipscomb died of apoplexy

Mary Randall October 19, 1857 at the Residence of John Randall, Edgefield County, SC razor

upon their Oaths do say, that the said Mart Randall came to her death from a large cut or gash across the throat made by a Razor in the hand of her husband John Randall

Mastin Comer January 6, 1862 at Mastin Comer's, Union County, SC knife

upon their oaths do say … that the deceased came to his death by a wound inflicted in the forepart of the head by seaborn[?] woolbright with a knife

Matilda H. Posey February 26, 1849 at the house of Martin Posey, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their Oaths do say, she came to her death, by violence inflicted on her person … by a stick or some deadly instrument in the hands of a negro man name App, or Appling belonging to, or owned by Martin Posey

Micajah Hilliard November 28, 1829 in the house of Joseph Ward, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say upon their oaths that he came to his death by an affray with Joseph Ward & John Ballard at the residence of Joseph Ward on the 27th Inst.

Michael Long April 17, 1849 at the house of Michael Long, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do say, that Michael Long was shot with a double barrel shot gun in the forehead … by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

Milledge Denny colored child June 23, 1868 at Rev. H.T. Baitleys, Edgefield County, SC fire

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

Moses Slave April 10, 1844 at Clayton Webb's Plantation...near the Spring Branch, Anderson County, SC gun

do say that Moses died…we are of the opinion that Sd Moses came to his death by a wound that we have seen below the back bone of the rightshoulder inclining to the right nipple rather downward made by a leaden ball or buck shot shot out of a double barrell gun...by Clayton Webb the owner of Moses

Moses Blalock on the Plantation of W G McDavid, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that Moses Blalock Death was Caused by a Gun Shot Wound the gun was in the hands of Mose Lackhart and in our opinion it is wilful Murder

Namro negro man August 11, 1844 at the house of Rob King Esqr, Edgefield County, SC club or stick

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid namro a negro man was murdered near the house of R. Kenny Esqr … by Tim the property of L. Gomillion with a club or stick

Ned Dozier September 27, 1893 at MJ Holsteins, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … the said Ned Dozier aforesaid came to his death from the effects of a gun or a pistol shot wonds at the hands of Fred singleton

negro woman negro woman January 11, 1867 at David Mill, Greenville County, SC torture

upon their oaths do say that the said unknwon person came to her death by some means unknown to the jury

negro woman negro woman March 26, 1840 at John Garrotts, Union County, SC

upon their oaths do say that … they believe she the said negro woman come to her death by drinking too great a quantity of water which they believe caused inward pain and perhaps spasm

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

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.

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

Nelson Smith freedman, boy October 4, 1866 at Andrew Warts, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that Nelson Smith freedman came to his death from being shot with some kind of fire arms in the hands of two persons from the way he was shot by persons unknown

Nestor Ellison freedman June 5, 1868 at the house of S.G.W. Dill, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the above named S.G.W. Dill and Nestor Eillison ... about half an hour after dark on the evening of the 4th day of June 1868 came to their deaths from gun shot wounds in the hands of some parties to the jury unknown

Newton Cox October 30, 1875 at Robert Thomson's, Greenville County, SC sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say Newton Cox … came to his death … from a blow struck on his head [?] an axe in the hands of one Charlie Sulivan at the house of one Joycy Batson

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

Paul Williams Kershaw County, SC brick

upon their oaths do say that the said Paul Williams came to his death from a blow inflicted with a brick upon the right side of the stomach ... the said brick having been thrown at the deceased by Robert Nixon

Perry Cox October 30, 1880 at Mrs. Ellen Goldsmiths Place, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Perry Cox here lying dead in our view came to his death … from gun or pistol shots from the hands of unknown parties

Peter slave March 31, 1848 at or near Calum Foster's[?], Spartanburg County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by the hands of C. Alexander being shot with a rifle ball through the head

Peter negro man June 16, 1838 at a Mr. Azariah[?] Abneys, Edgefield County, SC stick or stomping

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Peter came to his death by blows he received on his head either with a stick or by Stomping in a combat which accured between him and Mr.[?] Caleb Watkins (the overseer)

Peter White March 11, 1898 at Jacob White upon the Plantation Silvester Chipley, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths, do say that Peter White came to his Death by Gun Shot wound in the hands of Henry Calhoun

Pink Williams October 6, 1898 at or near Mr E.F. Pickles residence, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths, do Say that Pink Williams came to his death by Gun Shot wounds in the hands of Lawyer[?] Holoway[?]

Poole Croft colored man September 9, 1880 at Barksdale Church, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Poole Croft came to his death … by means of a pistol in the hands of Jefferson D. Gilreath by misfortune and contrary[?] [?] will in manner and found aforesaid did kill & slay

Presley Wise July 11, 1891 at D W. Padgetts plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Presley Wise came to his death by gun Shot wound in the hands of an unknown person

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

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

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

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

Prophet Burt freedman December 29, 1866 at E.N. Troys, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon there oath do say that the said Prophet Burt freedman came to his death by two stabs or cuts one on the side of his head the other on the back of his neck with a knife or some sharp pointed instrument in the hands of some person unknown

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

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

Rachel slave November 2, 1838 at the House of Samuel L Martin, Union County, SC ax

do say oppon their oaths that wone negro woman name Clarisy propperty of Samuel Martin not having got Before his Eyes Being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil … with force and arms … with a sertain ax did then and there vilently and feloniously with malice of forethough strike and pierce and give to the said Rachel with the said ax in and uppon the front as well as the Back part of the head two mortal wounds

Randal negro man May 9, 1844 at Grancis Bettis's plantation on Horns Creek, Edgefield County, SC cow skin

upon their oaths do say, that the said negro Randal came to his death by wounds and bruises inflicted on him on yesterday the eighth instant … with a cow skin by Alfred L. Hughes and Sebourn Randolph … the said Alfred L. Hughes and Sebourn Randolph, the said negro, Randal, by misfortune and contrary to their will ... did kill and slay

Reuben Dodson November 7, 1880 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that … the said Reuben Dodson came to his by a visitation of God

Reuben Parker August 22, 1830 at house of Edwerd Sherman, Anderson County, SC chair

do say upon their oaths, that in their opinion are that the death of Sd Parker was brought about and occationed [sic] by Edward Sherman who struck Sd Parker with a chair on the left side of the head….and further that Robert Sherman struck Sd deceased in the forehead with a little wheel...but on the whole we are of the opinion that the wound in the forehead was not of itself alone mortal.

Richard Lundy December 7, 1891 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say … that the aforesaid came to his death from gun & pistol shot wound and also 1 cut in neck in the hands of unnown parties

Richmond slave March 3, 1857 at V[?] Elbert Blands residence at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do say, by a wound in the head inflicted in the left temple, coming out in the left side of the forehead in Mr J.[?] H. Goodes black Smiths Shop … by a pistol shot by the hands of Joseph Williams

Riller 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

Robert H. Holliday January 20, 1874 at Calhoun, Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that…Robert Holliday was wounded by a pistol shot, inflicted by a pistol in the hands of John Henry Vermillion; of which wound said Robert Holliday did die…John Henry Vermillion then and there maliciously did kill.

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

Robert J. Butler September 15, 1864 at Hamburg, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say that Robert J Butler sen[?] came to his death by gun shot wound inflicted by Doct J D Twiggs

Robert Neid free man of Colour August 26, 1847 at Vaudun[?] Factory, Edgefield County, SC dirk knife

upon their oaths do say that the said Robert Neid Came to his death by a wound inflicted by one Zack Williams with a dirk Knife

Rolen Hutcheson January 3, 1803 at the dwelling house of William Davis, Spartanburg County, SC shovel

upon their oaths … say that the aforesaid Wm. Davis … did with a large wooden shovel strike the sd. Rolen Hutcheson on the head which did brake the skull

Rose negro woman Slave March 14, 1846 at Michael Longs, Edgefield County, SC chain

Upon their Oaths do say that the aforesaid Rose being chained in the Meat house of said M. Long, around the neck with a common chain trace with one ened and the Other end of said chain aforesaid to the Joist broke her neck either by design or by accident

Rufus Harling September 16, 1897 at Clarks Hill, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do Say. That the Said Rufus Harling Came to his death by a gun Shot wound … inflicted by a Shot gun in the hands of Parties unknown

Rufus Springs April 20, 1878 at Greenville, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Rufus H Springs came to his death … from a gun shot wound in the hands of a party[?] to this jury unknown

Rufus Yarbrough March 17, 1872 at the residence of John Davis Esqr., Spartanburg County, SC pole axe

upon their oaths do say that in their opinions the said deceased came to his death at the place where found, viz. in front of corn crib on the premises of John Davis Esqr., caused by a blow on the neck severing the jugular vein and windpipe with a pole axe in the hands of some unknown person

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