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 301 - 325 of 325
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
William slave November 10, 1856 near Prospect Church near the line of Richland and on the waters of Wayland's Creek, Kershaw County, SC gun

do say that the said negro man William came to his death from a wound in the back caused by a shot gun in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

William male slave, boy March 12, 1857 at Doct Milton [?], Union County, SC blunt instrument

upon there oaths do say that from what testimony they can get they are together with the wounds & bruises found on the body of the boy both on the head & [?] made by one Lewis Jones… came to his death that the said Lewis Jones the said boy William by misfortune & contrary to his will in manner & form afforesaid did Kill & Slay

William negro man, boy, slave February 13, 1849 at R. F. Barretts, Edgefield County, SC knife and whip

Do say upon their Oaths that one Samuel Butler of the District aforesaid not having God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil … with force & arms at his place of residence … made an assault, and … with a certain Kinf & whip ... did inflict ... several wounds and bruses of which wounds & bruises he lingered and died

William Bailey July 19, 1846 at the House of Samuel C Scott, Edgefield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that the said William Bailey was feloniously Killed and Murdered by Thomas Prince at the house of Saml C. Scott … with a pocket Knife

William Brotton October 1, 1820 at the house of Ely Vice, Spartanburg County, SC gun

do say upon thare [sic] oaths … that on the 30th of Sep't 1820 we believe that Zury[?] Vice shot him the s'd. Brotton in the neck under the jaw or in his jaw with a shot gun

William Byers December 30, 1837 at William Z. Ford's blacksmith's shop, Spartanburg County, SC knife

upon the view of the body of William Byers we the jury say that we believe he came to his death by a stab in the abdomen at or near the navel with a large singl bladed knife inflicted by the hand of Nubell Johnson or Manly Johson at the dwelling house of William Z. Ford

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

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

William Gowan December 12, 1880 Spartanburg County, SC blunt instrument
William I. Graham September 13, 1854 at the Camden Hotel kep by William M. Watson in the Town of Camden, Kershaw County, SC 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

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

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

William Martin May 24, 1891 on the premises of W. E. Friday, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Wm Martin came to his death from a pistol shot wound and that Augustus Dearing firered the pistol

William Mauldin September 15, 1867 at Emoree Factory, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say that the said William Mauldin came to his death … from a blow or blows inflicted with a rock or rocks from the hands of John Burgess

William Padgett February 22, 1894 at W.D. Readys plantation, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say, that the said William Padgett aforesaid Came to his death from a gun shot wound in the hands of Tom Rutland

William Samuel April 26, 1891 at Scima[?] Hill Church, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that … the decease William Samuel Came to his death … by a Gun Shot Wound in the hands of Henry Glover in Self defince

William Stone November 1, 1809 at James Arnold's, Spartanburg County, SC pine stick

do say upon their oathsthat James Arnold [with] one pine stick [did] kill and murder against the piece [sic] of this state

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

William Wages March 12, 1863 two and a half miles from the residence of G .E. Doby , Kershaw County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that [they] came to [their] death by wounds received upon his person with buck shot discharged from a gun of some sort in the hands of a person or persons unknown

Willie G. Harris March 25, 1897 at Edgefield CH, Edgefield County, SC gun

We the Jury find that Willie G Harris came to his death by a Gun shot wound in the hands of [?] Wm Thurmond

Willie Toney March 26, 1899 at Edgefield Court House, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths, do Say: … that the aforesaid Willie Toney came to his death by gun shot wounds inflicted by weapons in the hand of Robert Coill[?], Dan Coward, Hill Hoawrd and R. L. Burnett as principals. Milledge Reese and A. J. Corley as accessories.

Willis slave October 5, 1847 at James Burnett's, Spartanburg County, SC rock

upon their oaths do say he came to his death by a wound with a rock in the forehead at the camp meeting at Prospect[?] by the hands of Dave belonging to John Liles of Polk County, N.C.

Willis Asbell December 7, 1877 at Ridge Spring, Edgefield County, SC blunt instrument/sharp instrument

upon their oaths do say … that the aforesaid Willis Asbell came to his death from wounds received in a fracas or fight, with Nathan Fallow Henry Fallow, Robt Fallow Mary Fallow Anna Fallow and a little boy (Prisoner) name William Ellis

Wilson Griffin freedman February 13, 1867 at Luke Rodgers, Edgefield County, SC gun

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Griffin freedman came to his death from a gun or pistole shot wound in the hands of some person or persons to the jurors unknown

Wilson Sosbee June 19, 1845 near G.B. Bishop's, Spartanburg County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths do say that the said Wilson Sosbee came to his death by being shot wilfully with a shot gun by the hands of Joseph Hughes[?]

Woodward June 9, 1879 on the road leading from Dantzler's Bridge on South Tyger River via G. W. Duncan's and R. T. McElvath's to Reidville, Spartanburg County, SC gun and knife

upon their oaths do say that ... the deceased came to her death by gunshot wound in the Breast, and incised wound on the neck, which severed the carotid arteries, windpipe, and other vital organs, and that we believe the said wounds were inflicted by weapons in the hands of John J. Moore

Yancy Hardy December 31, 1877 at Dr. GJ[?] Butlers Plantation, Edgefield County, SC pistol

upon their Oaths do say that the said Yancy Hardy Came to his death from A Pistol Shot wound from a Pistol in the hands of Pierce Winfreed

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