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 451 - 500 of 642
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Method Inquest Finding
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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterson Blackwill May 22, 1914 in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

on the 22 day of May 1914 find that the deceased came to his death by a gun Shot wound in the heands of J. A. Blackwill and our virdic is a justified homiside this 22 day of May 1914

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

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

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

Perry Rook May 28, 1894 in Clinton, Laurens Co, Laurens County, SC

we the jury find that the deceased Perry Rook came to his death from the effects of a gun shot wound, said gun being in the hands of Dennis Rook.

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

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

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 October 25, 1854 Laurens County, SC
Peter Goddard November 3, 1866 Laurens County, SC

We the undersigned Jurors return the following verdict. That Peter Goadard Freedman came to his death by the means of two Balls shot from a gun in the hands of one Jacob Spoon Freedman on the night of the 20th of Oct 1866 on or near the Bank of Saluda River on Christopher Smith's plantation on Larens side.

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

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

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

Pollock Chewning October 14, 1931 at Cheraw, Chesterfield County, SC

Upon their oaths do say that Luke Smith and Pollock Chewning came to their Deaths by means un known.

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

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

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

Preston Sellers October 26, 1912 at Cheraw, S. C., Chesterfield County, SC pick axe

upon their oaths, do say: that Preston Sellers came to his death by a lick on the Head with a pick handle in the hands of Fred Buckhannon

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

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 knife

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 knife

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 pistol

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 February 18, 1834 at the grave of a female Negroe Slave named Rachel near the house of Benjamin Boulware, Fairfield County, SC

do say upon their oaths that they believe that the said negro Rachel came to her death by a blow or stroke on the head from a violent hand which broke her Scull and also from circumstances rest their suspicion on Thomas D Peay owner of said Rachel.

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 Clansy 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

Reece Chapman July 26, 1948 at Chesterfield, South Carolina, Chesterfield County, SC

VERDICT: The said Reece Chapman came to his death by a 31 Pistol at the hands of Buck Diggs.

Reeves February 23, 1855 Laurens County, SC
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

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

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.

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

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

Riley Hinson February 2, 1934 at Teal's Mill, Chesterfield County, SC shotgun

upon their oaths, do say: We the Jury find that Riley Hinson came to his by gunshot wounds in the hand of J.T. Hanna Sr.

Riley Parker January 15, 1884 at Clifton in Spartanburg, Spartanburg County, SC

upon their oaths do say that at Clifton S.U. on Jan. 14th 1884 that the said dec'd Riley Parker in manner and form aforesaid came to his death by means unknown to us

Riller three negro children October 2, 1846 at the house of Philip Brogden, Edgefield County, SC

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

Rob Watkins December 11, 1927 at Chesterfield, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robt. Watkins came to his death by reason of a gun-shot wound inflicted by Mark Sellers

Robert Davis July 17, 1897 at Garlington, Laurens County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the the aforesaid Robert Davis came to his death from gunshot wounds at the hand of G. F. Young.

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 Harris September 13, 1870 at Laurensville, Washington Ferguson's house, Laurens County, SC pistol

upon their oaths do say that the aforesaid Robert Harris came to his death on this 5th Sept. 1870 at the house of Washington Ferguson, in County and State aforesaid, by a pistol shot from a pistol held in the hands of Jeff Fuller.

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

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 Jefferson July 13, 1932 at the Home of Agnes Smith, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Jefferson came to his death by gun shot wounds in hands of John Henry Smith Justifiable Homicide

Robert L. Elmore at sawmill, Anderson County, SC

death was caused from concussion of the brain caused from some blow or lick.

Robert Melton April 19, 1871 at the residence of Robert Melton, Chesterfield County, SC

upon their oaths, do say: That Robert Melton, the deceased came to his death from two gun shot wounds, one taking affect in the left hip; the other in the region of the stomach, inflicted by some person or persons unknown to this Jury, this taking place at the Residence of the deceased

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

Robert Parks September 27, 1894 at Parkville, Edgefield County, SC lick

upon their oaths do say, that We the jurors find from the evidence that the deceased came to his death by a lick from the hands of Tom Johnson

Robert Templeton May 5, 1837 at Benj Puckett's old place, Laurens County, SC

do say upon their oaths, that said negro man Peter property of John Boyd of said Dist not having God before his eyes but being moved and secuced by the instigation of the devil on the fifth day of May 1837 with force and arms at the late residence of Benj Puckett Decd in the dist aforesaid in and upon the said Robt Templeton then and there being in the peace of God and of the said State, feloniously, voluntarily and of his own malice aforethought, made an assault and that the aforesaid negro man Pete, then and there with a certain Knife which the said negro man Peter held in his right hand and aforesaid Robt Templeton about the lower portion of the breast bone or sternum of the said Robt Templeton then and there violently, feloniously and of his Malice aforethough, struck and pierced, and gave to the said Robt Templeton then and there with the Knife aforesaid, in and upon the aforesaid, in and upon the aforesaid lower portion of the breast bone or sternum of the said Robt Templeton one mortal wound of the breadth of an inch...

Robert Williams November 4, 1881 at Wilson's Bridge, Greenville County, SC

upon their oaths do say that the deceased Robert Williams came to his death . . . by hanging at the hands of parties unknown to the jury

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

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