In nineteenth-century death investigation, medical certainty took a back seat to social considerations. At the county level, where most Americans lived their lives, the job of the sheriff, coroner, and other magistrates was not to enforce the law but to “keep the peace”—the local understanding of the accepted social order.
In July 1824 an enslaved man named Edward escaped his enslaver, Alexander Matheson, owner of the general store on Camden, South Carolina’s Courthouse Square. Edward fled south, making it as far as Stateburg before being recaptured and placed in the custody of one John Geno, who was charged with carrying him back to Camden via the Charleston Road. With two locks, a length of chain, and a bit of rope bought from the Stateburg general store, Geno lashed Edward’s hands and chained him by the neck to the side of his horse and buggy. The distance they needed to cover was twenty-one miles, about a day’s travel in the summer heat.
Halfway through the trip, Edward began to tire. The morning was scorching, and his hands and feet were cramping. Geno said Edward was just being obstinate, and so he hit him with his whip, giving, by his account, “but very few cuts and such as did no injury.”
By two in the afternoon, the two men were three-quarters of the way to Camden when they stopped at a sluggish creek to rest and get a drink. The chain around Edward’s neck was so tight, however, he could not swallow and instead staggered and fell over a log. Just at that moment the two men were overtaken by a stranger. Geno assured the man that Edward was shamming, and told Edward if he did not get up he would be dragged the rest of the way to town.
The stranger left, but two miles south of town, he was overtaken by Geno, now traveling alone. “What happened to the prisoner?” the stranger asked. Geno was vague: “He got to be so sullen [I] could do nothing with him. [I gave] him about twenty lashes at the log” and left him there.
Edward’s death was horrific. All evidence suggests Geno made good on his threat to drag him to death. “The jury found the body in one place,” the coroner noted dryly, “the head in another, the underjaw in another & his clothes scattered everywhere [with] evidence apparent on the skeleton of his having received violence.”
At the inquest, the jurors decided that only an animal could have done this much damage, and they clung to this notion even after the physician testified that “the severance of the head from the body would require great violence, more than would be probably exercised by hogs or dogs.” Most of the jurors shrugged their shoulders and signed their names to their finding: “[the men assembled] do on their oaths say that they are of the opinion that the fellow Edward has come to his death by causes unknown to them.”
One juror refused to sign, however. “How many murderers [must] be suffered to prowl in a community unpunished and unmolested?” asked an exasperated John Boykin Jr. To Boykin it was perfectly clear that Geno had “carried his threats into execution”; he had dragged Edward so long and so hard by the neck that the man had been decapitated and left for the animals. Boykin was a Camden lawyer, and his father was a South Carolina state legislator; he was absolutely loyal to the slave regime. But was there really no limit to the depravities that a white man could visit upon the Black body? “It is murder,” Boykin told his fellow jurors, and it was ridiculous to call it anything else.
I wish that Boykin’s stance was typical. In the more than two thousand cases I’ve examined from South Carolina, his is the only “minority report” I’ve seen. More typical is a case in which all twelve members of a jury find that an enslaved woman had died of apoplexy after her daughter testified that her master had hit her mother with a shovel.
How do we make these perpetrators answer for their crimes? The key has always been data.
Take the case of an enslaved man named Ellick. On May 29, 1850, Ellick had been hired out to Thomas Mickle and stood seeding and hoeing in his field. Ellick had already worked a long hot day when Mickle approached on horseback to tell him that he would have to replant and re-hoe everything he had done. When Ellick protested that that would take all night, Mickle dismounted and threatened to flog him if he didn’t return to his work. Ellick did so, but when Mickle rode off, Ellick suggested that it would probably be better for Mickle to hire somebody new to finish up. At this Mickle reared around and prepared to flog Ellick for his insolence.
This basic pattern of escalation—the uneven clash of wills between the well-armed and the defenseless—replayed itself thousands of times across the antebellum South. Human beings have an enormous capacity for mental endurance, but for whatever reason, on this day Ellick snapped. Some combination of circumstances—some brewing for years, others existing only in the moment—made it impossible for him to stand down. When Mickle moved to strike, Ellick said he wouldn’t allow it. Mickle then pulled a gun, to which Ellick responded, “Shoot.” At this, Mickle discharged a load of squirrel shot into Ellick’s leg, but Ellick remained unfazed.
“You see you have shot me,” Ellick said, but “I don’t care for your gun.” Mickle then turned to report Ellick to his mistress (and presumably to get reinforcements or, one hopes, a doctor), but he hadn’t gone far when he turned to see Ellick coming on the run. Mickle unloaded both barrels into Ellick’s stomach. He was found by the jury to have acted in self-defense.
Or take the case of an enslaved man named Peter. On June 15, 1838, Peter managed to wrest the stick he was being beaten with out of his overseer’s hand and gave the man half a dozen good licks before he was subdued. Infuriated that he could not force Peter to submit to the lash, the overseer crushed Peter’s head with a stone. In a similar case in May 1844, two overseers were so exasperated by an altercation with an enslaved man named Randal that they took turns lashing and resting until they had delivered more than four hundred blows. After his wounds were washed with salt to intensify the pain, Randal told them to go ahead and wash him with salt again—then he vomited and died.
We know about these cases because they generated a legal record. Whatever the wishes of inquest juries who came back with cause of death “unknown,” they set legal wheels in motion, and there is no statute of limitation on murder. The enslaved man Peter was stoned to death by Caleb Watkins. The enslaved man Randal was beaten to death by Alfred L. Hughes and Sebourn Randolph. All these men are dead. True justice may never be done, but justice never sleeps, and there is a final justice in naming names.
Our problem is that we cannot know how many masters, overseers, drivers, and random whites killed in the breech of the Old South’s “quasi law” against murder. The documentary record is too fragmented. We know only that the coroner was legally obligated to investigate every case. In her WPA interview, Mittie Freeman remembered the coroner as “that fellow that comes running fast when somebody gets killed.” The coroner is mentioned in many of the most famous slave narratives, including those by Henry Box Brown and William Wells Brown. 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 the baby to wake the household. “I will not say that this murder most foul produced no sensation,” Douglass later wrote. “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.” Douglass was right about the coroner’s office: there actually was a subtle game of community standards going on. Standing over the body of an enslaved person and surveying the grim damage, a coroner’s jury was often perfectly comfortable recommending that a white be indicted and the enslaved be allowed to testify. The jury nullification came later, in the courtroom, when the mangled corpse was not actually present and the murderer was let off. By then the perpetrators had been held up to public scrutiny. Their judgment and decency had been questioned publicly and legally—but they hadn’t been held to any real account.
And this is the point: the essence of any counting system is its accountability; the essence of any “dis-counting” system is its corruptibility. In the antebellum South, the coroner acted as the bureaucratic pinch point in a death-investigation process so deeply and purposely flawed that we have to squint to ascertain what was actually going on. The office functioned to screen slaveholders from any real accountability while also giving them the power to police their own and punish poor whites.
In ways few historians have appreciated, the coroner’s office remained the bureaucratic front line during Reconstruction. In Eric Foner’s magisterial Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, the word coroner appears exactly zero times. The coroner’s office is not meaningfully mentioned in Leon Litwack’s Been in the Storm So Long, Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet, David Blight’s Race and Reunion, Gregory Downs’s After Appomattox, or virtually any other landmark study of the South in the aftermath of the Civil War. And yet on July 9, 1876, the morning after a white mob sacked his town, Prince Rivers, the Black mayor of Hamburg, South Carolina, stood over the bodies of his slain citizens and convened a coroner’s inquest. Because that is what you do the day after a massacre: You collect data. You name names. In the West, the inquest has always been the first link in the chain of justice because the official pronouncement of death sets all legal wheels in motion. In becoming “the Black Prince” and “the Power of Aiken County,” Rivers had achieved something almost as precious as his freedom; he had achieved bureaucratic control. The inquest over, Rivers bundled together the pages of testimony and issued arrest warrants for eighty-seven white men, including Mathew Butler, future South Carolina senator, and Ben Tilman, future South Carolina governor. Notice of Rivers’ inquest reverberated in newspapers throughout the North and was reprinted in the New York Times.
For all this fanfare, however, the judicial process went no further because there were no Black or bureaucratic allies further up the chain. In the wake of the Hamburg Massacre, South Carolina’s Republican governor begged the federal government for aid, but President Ulysses S. Grant was noncommittal. “Now it will be a hundred years,” Rivers told his son Joshua. Just as an electrical circuit resists current to a greater or lesser degree (Ohm’s law), a bureaucracy impedes or accelerates progress at every pinch point in the process.
The Freedmen’s Bureau papers, and especially the documents filed under “Murders and Outrages,” paint a vivid portrait of federal agents astounded to discover that the Southern soldiers they had faced at Shiloh were as nothing compared to the Southern bureaucrats they faced in the aftermath. “The civil authorities are reported as not having taken any action in the matter,” reported a bureau worker on the murder of freedman Ephraim McCallum by a white mob in Darlington. Such language was echoed in reports from across the state: “This case was laid before the civil authorities without effect”…“report of action not received”…“referred to civil authorities & not as yet heard from.” In resisting occupation, guerrilla movements often exploit the bureaucratic bottlenecks in an enemy’s process, and the county coroner’s office had always been a place where state and federal law was adapted and interpreted to suit local circumstances.
In his 2021 book The Record of Murders and Outrages, William A. Blair makes the case that the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts as a documentary body should be taken as seriously as its attempt to regulate labor contracts, open hospitals and schools, and distribute rations. Blair is the first scholar to take the full measure (complete with tables) of the bureau’s attempt to document and deploy hard information about the reality of the violence that was visited upon Black communities in the wake of emancipation. As bureau workers and their legislative allies in Congress helplessly bore witness to racial injustice in the South, they instinctively and without training did what their abolitionist forebears had done before and what human rights workers now say is the first step in any truth and reconciliation campaign: They made a list. They named names. They aggregated evidence. They hoped this information would have value in their own time and hoped to convince Americans that Reconstruction was not anarchic, expensive, or doomed but a unique opportunity, lacking only a commitment from the federal government to provide enough resources (when they could have made a difference) to maintaining law and order on the ground. Ultimately, we know, the bureau’s attempt to marshal information did not work, did not matter, became embroiled in politics, and was denied as “fake news.”
As Blair subtly shows, however, a well-kept death record is timeless because the data can always be put to living work. Bureau workers, helpless in their present, created an archive for the future and sent it to us, like a message in a bottle, across the century. Truth may be denied or ignored, but as long as it’s recorded, all murder will out.
From Count the Dead: Coroners, Quants, and the Birth of Death as We Know It by Stephen Berry. Copyright © 2022 by Stephen Berry. Published by the University of North Carolina Press.