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 251 - 300 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
S. G. W. Dill 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

Sam Howard Freedman August 6, 1866 at L. L. Halls, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

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

Sam Sinclair slave March 24, 1820 at John Chesnut plantation near Chesnut's Ferry on Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC beating

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro man slave the property of John Chesnut son of James Chesnut Esquire was violantly [sic] Murdered

Sam Williams May 30, 1876 in the streets of Pendleton, Anderson County, SC sharp instrument
Samuel A. Geer January 15, 1866 at David Geer's House, Anderson County, SC blunt object

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.

Samuel M. McJunkin Capt June 1, 1815 Union County, SC sharp instrument
Samuel Posey October 21, 1860 at P. B. McDaniels, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oath do say that the said Sam Posey came to his death by a Pistol shots in the hand of Henry Williams … four balls taken affect

Sarah Hardy free girl of color October 4, 1865 at William Page's, Union County, SC gun

We the Jurors can [?] deceasd came to her death by gun shot wound inflicted by some person unknown

Sarah Langley October 27, 1803 Kershaw County, SC unknown

do say upon their oaths after due examination of witnesses and of the body of Sarah Langley deceas'd we find now certain proof that she was murdered

Sax slave, boy March 11, 1865 at UnionVille, Union County, SC hanging

do say that the boy Sax was taken out of goal by an armed force unknown to the [?] and hanged

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

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

slave slave July 23, 1820 Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths [that] the said Henry [Schrock] fired at him [unknown African American] with an intention of shooting him in the legs but by chance seventeen low mold shot took him in the body of which wound he instantly died.

Stanmore B. Chappell January 19, 1867 at S.B. Chappells Residence, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon there oaths do say … he came to his death by means of a Pistol shot through head done in and affray with B.F. Payne

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

Summer slave November 7, 1864 at the plantation of Burwell Boykin, Kershaw County, SC blunt instrument

do say that the san Summer a slave came to his deth [sic] by blow or blows inflicted over his left temple and over the nasal bone, which caused inflamation of the brain … the blow or blows supposed to have been inflicted by Monroe, a slave the property of T.L. Boykin

Susan Medlock April 7, 1894 at Johnston, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the said Susan Medlock aforesaid, Came to her death by injuries inflicted upon her by the hands of Boston Jones Jr

Sylvia slave May 21, 1822 at John Brown plantation, Kershaw County, SC large switch

do say upon their oaths that the said Negro woman Sylvia came to her death by two strokes which she received with a large switch, one across her arm and the other over her breast and shoulder from the hand of Gabiel Coats on the 14th Instant which seems to have been done without intention to kill or maim ... and what most men would have done in such a case and not otherwise

Tamar Clark November 9, 1871 at Henry L. Hunter's resident at Liberty Hill, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that ... Tamar Clark came to her death from gun shot wounds, the said gun having been fired from the hands of Henry L. Hunter and having inflicted between ninety and one hundred wounds on the right breast, right shoulder and right fore arm ... with squirrel shot

Tandy Holmes September 21, 1894 at or on Dr. W.C. Prescotts Plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, We find that Tandy Holmes, came to his death by a blow on the head, with a gun in the hands of T.K. McKenny and that the said McKenny struck said blow in self defense and was justifiable in so doing

Teague Tillman October 2, 1899 at the plantation of Thos. H. Ramsford, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their Oaths do Say: That Teague Tillman came to his death … by pistol in the hands of Will Perminter

Thomas Booth August 23, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do Say that the said Thos Booths … came to his death by pistol Shots from the hands of parties unknown

Thomas Clark September 14, 1811 at plantation on Little Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC stick

do say upon their oaths that the said Thomas Clark came to his death by a blow received with a stick above his left temple struck by the hand of Stephen Carter of which he died in about four hours afterward

Thomas Glover August 2, 1893 at Bill Werk[?] Residence, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … Thomas Glover came to his death from Gun shot wounds in his left breast in the region of the hear … by Ed Williams alias Werk

Thomas Linder November 2, 1842 at Spartanburgh Court House, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon there [sic] oaths do say that the said T.Linder came to his death by a stab from a common pocket knife inflicted on his left breast about two inches from his left nipple by the hand of John Davis

Thomas O'Donald September 13, 1869 at Dr. John E. Padgetts, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say That the said Thomas O'Donald came to his death … from Pistol shot wounds … having been inflicted by some person or persons to the Jurors unknown

Thomas Phearby September 1, 1882 on the Mill's Gap Road, Spartanburg County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that said Thomas Phearby ... came to his death from Pistol show wound in the back of his head received from a pistol in the hand of John H. Foster

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

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

Thomas W. Harrison November 23, 1860 At Pendleton , Anderson County, SC pistol

do say that the deceased was killed by a pistol shot, fired by Francisco Tapapso[?], at Pendelton.

Thomas Waters April 7, 1866 on the plantation of Daniel McCaskill on Lynches Creek, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say ... they do believe that the said Thomas Waters was killed ... by a gun shot in the head & that the said gun was in the hands of Elias McLandon

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

Timothy Spann April 24, 1812 two miles below Camden, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that they believe that said Timothy Spann came to his death in consequence of a wound received by a shot in a duel with a certain ---- Lowell

Tom negro slave December 18, 1858 at Chlo Watsons, Edgefield County, SC sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Jim in manner and form aforesaid, Tom then and there feloniously did kill

Tom slave July 10, 1824 at the plantation of Mr. Wm. W. Lang, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say upon their oaths that William R. Young … did by shooting with buckshot kill the said negro man named Tom and we the jury aforesaid find that the said William R. Young was justifiable in shooting and killing the said negro man Tom

two negro children two negro children June 4, 1824 at Ellis Palmers, Union County, SC suffocation

do say upon their oaths that a negro woman named Sunaka Another of said children property of said Ellis Palmer did … choake the said children with a glove

Van Hendrix February 14, 1877 at John Garmany's, Greenville County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Van B Hendrix came to his death from a gun shot wound made in his right breast[?] from a gun then and there fired from the hands of Herbert Garmany

Viny Davis June 1, 1872 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC poison

upon their oaths do say that the deceased came to her death by foul means at the hands of parties unknown to the jurors

W. Brooker Toney August 12, 1878 at E. C. House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that W.B. Toney came to his death by Pistol Shots from the Hands of James Booth Benjamin Booth & Marion Booth

W. C. Benson October 25, 1889 at the police station in Spartanburg City, Spartanburg County, SC thrown from train

upon their oaths do say that the decased came to his death by a supposed fall from a trestle ... said fall causing concussion of the brain

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

Wallace E. Bland July 4, 1880 at Edgefield C. House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said W E. Bland came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the hands of A. A. Elisby [Clisby?]

Warren slave July 13, 1859 at Camden at the residence of John Workman, Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that Warren … came to his death from Lock jaw produced by a gun shot wound in the inner side of the right thigh discharged by John Workman and from his own impudence & exposure afterward

Warren Kirkland November 16, 1858 at Benjamin Bartons, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Warren Kirkland did come to his death by means unknown

Watson Jackson June 5, 1880 at Jackson Grove Church, Spartanburg County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that at his mother's house of the plantation of Mr. A. Smith ... Watson Jackson came to his death by Malarial Fever

Wesley male slave, child October 5, 1857 at the residence of Sophia A Tilman, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument

upon their oaths do say that they believe that the said male slave Wesley came to his death by blows given by Joe a slave the Property of F Oconner

Wesley Murrell colored January 6, 1869 at Col. W. J. Reynolds plantation, Kershaw County, SC spade

upon their oaths do say that said Wesley Murrell came to his death by [?] spade inflicted by the hands of Morris[?] Corbert[?]

Whit Terry J.K. Corleys Place, Edgefield County, SC gun

the said Whit Terry came to his death upon the plantation of J.K. Corley … from a gun shot wound inflicted by some one of the searching party, to the jury unknown inflicted in self defense

white infant child, boy white infant child, boy March 24, 1858 at John Thomas Boat Landing, Union County, SC

the infant Came to it Death by it being Killed and throwed in the River

Will slave November 18, 1854 at William Nevitt's, Anderson County, SC fence 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

Will Collens October 20, 1894 at Gaines SC, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that the said Will Collens came to his death by gun shot wound by the hands of Jack Harrison

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