The South Carolina Murder Project

Douglas Eckberg, Sociology and Anthropology, Winthrop University

Research Grant, 2005

Though the American South is known historically to have experienced high rates of homicide, little systematic, quantitative information on southern homicide history is actually available. Most quantitative research on the topic before the twentieth century deals with major cities, mainly in the North, leading to four biases in the picture of U.S. killing: (1) a regional bias, focusing on the belt from northern Illinois to New England; (2) an urban bias; (3) a racial bias, as most African Americans lived in the South in the nineteenth century and those living in the North are likely to have had unique social characteristics; and (4) a social bias, based on the North’s experience of industrialization and immigration versus the South’s agrarian economy, caste-like ethnic relationships, poverty, illiteracy, and lack of infrastructure.

This project addresses these biases by developing a victim-based violence data series for South Carolina, extending from the end of Reconstruction through 1920. The sources of information are county criminal records, primarily in the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, and the daily newspapers of Charleston and Columbia. The data series includes homicides, suicides, and suspicious accidental deaths, including such at-the-time common deaths as accidental child burnings. Because homicide is an assault in which a victim dies, the project has added a component: basic information on all serious assaults (assault and battery with intent to kill, assault with a deadly weapon, aggravated assault, etc.).

An innovation of the project is the use of a digital camera to record jpg images of all important documents: arrest and indictment forms, testimony, coroner’s records, and newspaper accounts. This provides a permanent, portable record of all original sources.

This project addresses these biases by developing a victim-based violence data series for South Carolina, extending from the end of Reconstruction through 1920.

The data series will include machine-readable numerical data (spreadsheets and plain-text files), researcher’s text notes, and the photographic record. It should be useful to both quantitative and qualitative researchers.

This will help fill in the full violence history of the U.S. It will allow tracing of social influences on southern killings in both industrialized and agricultural areas. It will allow examination of a general decrease in southern homicide as the nation entered the twentieth century. Finally, the data will allow examination of the development of the Black-White homicide “gap,” which appears to be substantially a twentieth-century phenomenon.

Early research from this project found no net racial differences in homicide rates in the first years after Reconstruction (rates were about 20 per 100,000 for each racial category), little interracial killing, and documentation that the state archives may lack records on over half the state’s killings. One recent phenomenon that has come to light is a high proportion of Charleston homicides for which formal antemortem (“death-bed”) statements were given. Almost none of those victims would have died with late twentieth-century trauma care, including: treatment for shock, emergency trauma surgery, and prophylactic antibiotics. The high homicide death rate of the time, then, overstates the amount of interpersonal violence, in comparison to the amount today, to an extent that is yet unknown.

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