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 a 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. We will never know precisely how many enslavers murdered their slaves and effortlessly covered it up. But in cases where the murderer was someone other than the enslaver, or where the enslaver failed to cover it up, there usually was 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 enslaved 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 an enslaved man named Dick who became so jealous that he pulled a log from a fire and murdered the man who was staying in the cabin of a woman he wanted to sleep with.

Today, 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.


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 was an interracial liaison. More often it was 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 might be considered extremely late-term abortions. One unnamed mother, for instance, 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 enslavers to believe 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 201 - 250 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Methodsort ascending Inquest Finding
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

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

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

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

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

Lindsay Adams August 2, 1933 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC iron bar

upon their oaths, do say: that Lindsay Adams came to his death by being struck on the head with an Iron bar in the hands of Arthur Adams

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

William Evans July 4, 1894 on the Foley plantation, Laurens County, SC hoe

we the jury find that Wm Evans Died from the Effects of repeated blows on the head, with a hoe, in the hands of a four year old boy, John Stevens, who had been left to nurse it. And we think from his age, that he is not, intelligently responsible to the law for the said act.

George Prisock June 11, 1840 at E. P. Porters, Union County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that the said George Prisock, was Struck one violent blow with a weading[?] hoe on the head which broke his skill, the above blow was Struck by a negro man Slave name James, the property of E. P. Porter

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

Bridgett Etheridge June 26, 1893 at John Etheridges Residence, Edgefield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say. . .that the said Bridgett Etheridge aforesaid came to her death from a blow on her head with a [?] Hoe thereby fracturing the scull bone at the hands of Bill Gasten

Bill King August 9, 1881 at H C Kings Residence, Edgefield County, SC hoe

upon there oaths do say that the said Bill King Came to death from the affects of a wound on the head the wound being inflicted with a Hoe on the hand of Tom Doorn[?]

Dan McMilan October 17, 1936 at Jefferson, Chesterfield County, SC hoe

upon their oaths do say that come by his death struck hoe on head in hands of Luther Miller.

Jarrett February 9, 1809 at the House of James Loughridge, Laurens County, SC hoe

do say upon their oaths that at the House of the aforesd. James Loughridge in the Village aforesaid on the ninth day of the Instant upon view of the body of the said boy saith that the aforesaid Boy on the night of the Eighth Instant died by the hands of James Loughridge aforesaid through Several Strokes from the Edge and corner of an Iron Hoe, and a large stick.

Henry male slave July 15, 1858 at Edgefield C.H., Edgefield County, SC hickory stick

upon their oaths do say that the said male salve, came to his death from a blow upon the left side of the head, from a hickory stick in the hands of a negro slave name Elbert (said to be the property of Evans Permenter[?])

Nance June 21, 1850 at James Youngs, Laurens County, SC hickory stick

upon their oaths do Say that the decead Slave Nancy came to her death at James Youngs by James Young with weapon's unknown to the Jury and So the Jurors aforesaid upon their oaths aforesaid do Say that the aforesaid Slave Nance in manner and form aforesaid James Young then and there feloniously did Kill against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid...

Allen slave September 19, 1843 at Samson Bobo's, Spartanburg County, SC hickory clubs

upon their oaths do say that the said Allen. . . was killed and murdered by some person or persons to the jurors unknown with two hickory clubs

Scipio slave April 1, 1862 at E. J. Youngbloods, Edgefield County, SC hatchet

upon there oaths do say that Scipio came to his death by two blows on the head . . .with a hatchet or some sharp instrument in the hands of some person unknown

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

Nettie Jefferson March 17, 1936 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC frying pan

upon their oaths do say that Nettie Jefferson received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by a frying Pan in the hands of Alonzo Jefferson

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

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

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

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

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

Edna Black August 6, 1878 at Joseph Davenport's, Greenville County, SC claw hammer

upon their oaths do say that the said Edna C Black was killed and homicideed . . . with a claw hammer in the hands of some person or persons to this jury not [?] known

Baze negro slave March 31, 1863 at the D. J. Howls, Edgefield County, SC chop axe

do say upon there oaths that said Baze came to his death. . .by reason of two blows from a chop axe in the hands of Anderson another slave belong to said T.D.J. Howl

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

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

Halloway Thomas June 5, 1940 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC chair

upon their oaths do say that Halloway Thomas received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Being Struck with Chair in the hands of Willie Robinson (alias Jack)

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 Roberts January 15, 1826 at the union meeting house, Fairfield County, SC bullis vine

do say upon their oaths that they believe the said Richard Roberts came to his death by being hung up to the girder in union meeting house by some persons with a Bullis vine by the neck and feet[?] and there kept until he died.

Paul Williams August 23, 1869 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

Allan G. Chapman December 31, 1877 at the Residence of Allan G. Chapman, Chesterfield County, SC brick

upon their oaths do Say that Allan G Chapman came to his death from the effects of a Blow from a Brick Bat Received on the back of his head thrown from the hands of Lucius R Hardin

D. J. "Jim" Hildrith October 21, 1935 at M. T. Crogham, Chesterfield County, SC brick

Upon their oaths do say that J. G. Hildrith received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by Brick Bat in the hands of Otis Home on the 13 day of October 1935, and that from such mortal wound deceased died in Muess SC.

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

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

Can Abrahams child July 28, 1883 at the house of Austin Scott, Greenville County, SC board

upon their oaths do say that said Can Abraham came to his death by the visitation of God

Mary Robertson Fairfield County, SC bed slat
James Walls at the Tevin Pines', Fairfield County, SC baseball bat

upon their Oaths do say the deceased came to his death at Ware's base ball ground, the 5th of Sept 1891 from a blow on the head with a base ball bat in the hands of Charles Young.

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.

George Huggins November 30, 1814 at John Pitts, Laurens County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say. That the deceased George Huggins came to his Death By a Blow struck by Jay Pitts with an axe

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

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

do say upon their oaths that the negro woman named Clarrasan[?] ... 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

Allen S. Barksdale June 23, 1876 at the house of Robert A. Gray, Anderson County, SC axe

do say that Allen S. Barksdale came ot his death by an axe in the hands of Mary A. Gray on the night of 22nd June 1876 in self-defense in her own house and yard with several wounds with a mortal wound inflicted with ^the edge of^ an axe upon the top of the head to length of 3 inches severing in the skull bone.

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

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

Thompson slave April 1, 1863 at Thomas Spencers, Union County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said Thompson was felloniously and maliciously homicideed by some person with an axe by a blow on the head, and the evidence before us justifies us in finding that the boy Henry was at least accessory to the decd

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

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

Augustus W. Burt March 25, 1847 at the Plantation of A.W. Burt, Edgefield County, SC axe

upon their oaths do say that the said A.W. Burt was Killed by his own slave Toll with an axe

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