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 401 - 450 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
Luke Smith October 14, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: We the coroners Jury in the case of L. Smith find that L. Smith came to his death by Gunshot wounds of Gun in the hands of Paul Cuffin

Lula Smith child June 22, 1894 at James A Satcher's Plantation, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Lula Smith aforesaid came to her death, by a cause unknown

Luther Harris May 26, 1899 at the plantation of George F Towns, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do Say, that the Said Luther Harris was killed at John Davis' house . . . by a Gun Shot wound fired by the hands of Hamp Davis.

Luther Sullivan October 26, 1898 near John Stuarts, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that Luther Sullivan came to his death from gun shot wounds in the hand of unknown parties

Lydia McKay September 2, 1869 at Burches Spring branch near the residence of Mr. B. T. Ellerbe in Steerpeu township, Chesterfield County, SC stick

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid [????] Emanuell Cash did confess before the Jury and say That he did strike diseased after striking her several blows with sticks and a Lightwood knot and the jury aforesaid on this oath do say that the aforesaid Emanual Cash in manner and form aforesaid Lydia McKey then and there feloniously did kill

Mack Byrd July 20, 1885 at Duncans Creek Colored Baptist Church, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Mack Byrd came to his death on the 19th day of July AD 1885 in Laurens County near to Duncans Creek Colored Church by a pistol shot in the hand, of Alfred Dean alias Alfred Harley.

Mack Kirkland colored man October 31, 1868 at Camden, Camden, S.C., Kershaw County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the said Mac Kirkland came to his death on Main Street in the town of Camden ... from wounds in the breast from a pistol fired ... by one William Killz

Mahlon Jones December 25, 1891 at Landrams Farm, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Mahlon Jones was . . .killed by a pistol. . .shot in the hands of Henry Scott and that Coleman Maroney was accessoror

male baby male baby May 24, 1891 at the Saluda River, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say that. . .he was feloniously murdered and thrown in the Salud River at the hands of his own Mother or at the hands of Some one known to her

Male Child Male Child January 30, 1809 at David Cowens, Laurens County, SC

do believe upon their oathes that. . . by some means unknown to the Jurors and so these Jurors upon their oathes aforesaid Doth say the Jurors also believe that Jane Cowan was accessory to the sd. Murder. . .

March slave February 24, 1845 at Chesnut's Ferry, Kershaw County, SC

upon their oaths do say that he came to his death by a blow inflicted with some blunt instrument upon the head fracturing the skull for some five or seven inches by some person or persons unknown

Marcus April 12, 1836 at Gibson's Neck on the Wateree River, Kershaw County, SC

we find that the negro is Marcus the property of D. A. Brevard but are unable to say whether his death was caused by certain blows inflicted on the head & drowning or by drowning alone

Margaret Simpkins September 21, 1879 on Jas C Brooks Plantation, Edgefield County, SC shotgun

do say that the said Margaret Simpkins came to her death by a gun Shot wound inflicted with a single Barrel Shot gun in the hands of John Simpkins

Maria negro woman slave April 10, 1825 at Mrs. Williams, Union County, SC whip

do say upon their oathes that from a [?] Given by whiping by the aforesaid Thomas Beleu at his own hous on the 6 Inst with Switches[?] & a blow with his fist which was Given in heat of passion by the Sd Thomas Beleu on the thighs loins belly & breast of Sd negroe Maria but not with the intent to homicide

Maria Stephens April 9, 1833 at Robt. F Stephens, Laurens County, SC

being charged and sworn to enquire for the State, when, where, how and after what manner the said Maria Stephens came to her death, by the frequent abuses of Exposure, and Beating, Robert F Stephens, in her debilitated State. . . aforesaid say that the aforesaid Robt F Stephens in manner aforesaid the aforesaid Maria Stephens came to her ed, this we believe from Testimony & Visible Marks left on the corps.

Marten Lowery January 20, 1913 at Liza Lowery's, Chesterfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths, do say: That the said Mart Lowery came to his death from a pistol shot wound in the hand of Henry McKinzy

Martha Armstrong March 30, 1840 at the house of Archibald Armstrong, Fairfield County, SC

The following jurors on the inquest are of the opinion that Mrs Martha Armstrong came to his death by violence inflicted as they believe by Mr Armstrong the husband of the deceased

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

Mary Slave May 17, 1847 at the Plantation of A. Perrin, Edgefield County, SC

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 Belton at the Sylvia Brice Place, Fairfield County, SC

upon their Oaths do say, That she came to her death from causes unknown to the Jurors.

Mary Grace Aldrich infant child August 11, 1856 at Graniteville, Edgefield County, SC

upon their oaths do say. . .that said child came to her death at the time and place aforesaid by having large portions of laudaunum administered by a servant girl the nurse of the name of Clarissa. . .with felonious intent

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

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 Jane Dunbar April 21, 1913 at Cutarrh, Chesterfield County, SC ax

upon their oaths, do say: That she came to her death from the blow of an axe inflicted by Isadore Dunbar

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

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

Mary Robertson Fairfield County, SC bed slat
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 stick

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

Meredith Griffin February 15, 1889 at F D Hunters, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say That Turner Jones did discharge the contents of a shot gun in the body of Meridith Griffin thereby killing him about 8 Oclock on the Evening of the 14 Feb 1889. And the jurors aforesaid upon their Oaths do say the killing was done in self defence.

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

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 shotgun

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

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

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

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

Monroe Nathan June 5, 1889 at Allen Dials, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said Monroe Nathan came to his death by gun shot wounds by a Pistol in the hands of Constable Jno D Watts he acting in self defence on the 5th day of June 1889.

Mose Lowery March 16, 1940 at Chesterfield, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC pocket knife

upon their oaths do say that Mose Lowery received in Chesterfield County a mortal wound by pocket knife in the hands of unknown hands

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

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 May 19, 1882 on the Plantation of W G McDavid, Edgefield County, SC

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

Mrs. Mary E. Parker January 9, 1933 at Patrick, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: Mary E. Parker came to her death from gunshot wounds in the hands of Clyde Parker

Mrs. Sue Rushing January 29, 1912 at C. P. Rushings, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: that the said Mrs Sue Rushing come to her death By Pistol shot wounds in the hands of C. P. Rushing

Murian Walker December 17, 1872 at or near Highland house, Laurens County, SC rock

upon their oaths aforesaid do say that the aforesaid Murian Walker in manner and form aforesaid Nelson Barksdale then and there feloniously did kill agains the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid.

nameless newborn boy or male child nameless newborn boy or male child January 12, 1885 at T P Byrds Campbell place, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the said nameless boy or male child came to his death on the 10th day of January AD 1885 and in Laurens County by strangulation cause by criminal negligence on the part of Kittie F. Malone.

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

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...

Nancy Suggs September 15, 1863 at Seth Belleme's . . .and continued by adjournment and taken at M.r J. J. Worthams, Horry County, SC

upon their oaths do say that she came to her death by Arsenic and that the same was administered by Arthur Suggs at his own residence

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

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 negro February 27, 1868 at or near Pacolet Springs, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say ... that Catherine, a black woman living at Col. R.C. Poole's at Pacolet Spring, called by some Berry, did have and was delivered of said child and that she throwed [sic] it in the river ... feloniously drownding said child against the peace and dignity of the same state aforesaid

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

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

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.

Nelson Davis at Blythewood, Fairfield County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say, that the deceased came to his death. . .the 6th day of April 1893 from a pistol shot wound at the hands of William Gilchrist, and that twelve of the jurors say justifiable homicide and two against. The last tow signing being against justifiable homicide.

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