CSI:Dixie, a beautifully conceived and profoundly mournful new digital history site, holds 1,582 digitized coroner’s reports from six counties in 19th-century South Carolina. You can search by keyword, or read lists that organize inquest files by the act that killed the person (homicide; suicide; infanticide; accident; natural causes), clicking through to individual cases that fit that description. Three “Chronicles” tell deeper stories of individual inquests. Historian Stephen Berry, who created the site, offers extensive commentary and context throughout.
County-appointed coroners in the 19th-century South were, Berry writes, “more detective than medical examiner.” They inspected bodies but also interviewed witnesses and experts before ruling on the circumstances of a death, along with a jury (made up, as you might guess, of white men). “They were not interested, in the same way we are, in justice,” Berry writes. “They were interested in something more supple—a satisfactory conclusion.” The documents collected in CSI:Dixie were the results of inquests that tried to resolve each local death in a way that would ensure stability in the community.
The CSI:Dixie cases are drawn from counties in the Piedmont region, where (in the antebellum years) most of the white population was poor and a small number of wealthy white people lived on plantations with large enslaved populations. Before and after the war, most people in these counties lived in poverty. “How do people die in such places?” Berry asks.
They drown because they are not taught to swim. They are beaten to death by underemployed fathers and husbands. They hang themselves in despair or die in suicidal escape attempts. They are malnourished and over-worked and collapse in the field. They die, in short, of the consequences of rural poverty in an exploitative economy.
I asked Berry to recommend a case for me to read, and he pointed me to this 1822 file: an inquest held when an enslaved woman named “Sylvia” died on a plantation owned by a man named John Brown, after being beaten by another man named Gabriel Coats. “There are dozens of cases in CSI:Dixie that are more brutal; I suppose it is the casualness of this one that gets to me,” Berry wrote in an email. “The jury found that in beating her to death Gabriel Coats had only done ‘what most men would have done in such a case and not otherwise.’”
Berry’s transcript of Coats’ testimony is below:
The State vs. Gabiel Coats for killing a Negro woman the property of John Brown. The voluntary confession of Gabriel Coats. He saith that on Tuesday the 14th Instant when he was correcting a negro boy the property of said John Brown that a Negro woman the mother of said boy & the property of said Brown named Sylvia came to him and ordered him to quit whipping the boy. Coats ordered her away, she then rushed between him and the boy. He coats then pushed her aside with his hand, and continued to correct the boy. She rushed in between them again, and Coats says he gave her a stroke over the arm with the switch he was whipping the boy with and ordered her away again. The Negro woman then said to him, “My God, don’t do that again,” and pushed in between him and the boy again. Coats says he struck her over the shoulder again, and ordered the boy to pick up the seed corn that he had spilt, and Sylvia ordered the boy to go to replanting corn, and she would pick up the corn herself. She then began picking up the corn, and in about from 5 to 10 minutes afterwards she fell down and complained that he had hurt her, and continued to complain every time he seen her afterwards until Sunday night the 19th Instant when she died, but he says that he think that she was not injured by the two strokes he gave her.