CSI:Dixie: A Grim Archive of Slavery’s Violence

CSI:Dixie: A Grim Archive of Slavery’s Violence

Screenshot 2016-03-07 at 10.06.52 AMOn March 14, 1846, Abraham Jones, a coroner in Edgefield County, South Carolina, filed a report concerning the death of a female slave named Rose. According to the coroner, five days earlier a man named Robert Moore visited the home of Michael Long, a slaveholder who claimed Rose as his property. Long led Robert Moore to his meat house, where Moore saw Rose’s limp body, chained around the neck with her hands bound. Explaining that Rose’s death was “something there very strange,” Long nonetheless admitted that he had tied up the woman, secured the chain around her neck with a padlock, suspended her in the meat house, and returned ninety minutes later to find her dead. Abraham Jones marked Rose’s death a homicide in his coroner’s report, although Moore’s crime likely would remain unpunished. Jones recorded other such deaths over the years, leaving a grim archive of slavery’s violence. This shocking and tragic story and other forensic accounts can be accessed via the new digital history archive, CSI:Dixie.

Rose’s story is one of almost fifteen hundred coroners’ reports from nineteenth century South Carolina accessible via CSI:Dixie. This brand new site is the work of historian Stephen Berry, who began the project after stumbling upon these records and realizing their historical value and emotional potency. Jones’s report strikes the reader with not just the egregiousness of Rose’s murder, but the cold composure with which her attacker Michael Long justified his actions. The evidence in these cases is detailed, the responses are lyrically written, and the website’s format is accessible and user-friendly. This site seamlessly unites digital history with emotional history, using its layout to tell poignant and sorrowful stories. The records catalogued on the site are a testament to how digital history can help users explore the emotional worlds of periods and people in the past. Reading the coroners’ reports on CSI: Dixie one is struck by the emotional detachment that sustained American slavery. This reader was left with a feeling of empathy for those who survived the institution and those who recorded its human costs.

Image of The State vs. the Dead Body of Rose Archival Records, CSI:Dixie, eHistory, 2014.

When you arrive at CSI:Dixie, notice the images from nineteenth century burial places that first appear. These images are emotional themselves, imparting feelings of fear, loneliness, and loss. Contemporary pictures help to connect twenty-first century audiences with nineteenth century stories. At the top of the screen, the directory takes its names from different Biblical books, Genesis, Exodus, Revelation, to name a few. Berry carefully described why he chose these titles to organize his project, and his reasoning is fascinating. More importantly, these titles evoke religious reactions, another tool via which the site connects its audience to nineteenth century sensibilities. But the visceral reactions the archive generates are more a product of the stories themselves. The layout provides the atmosphere through which the audience can react to Rose’s murder, and the inner-workings of slaveholding culture in antebellum South Carolina.

Digital history is likely to provoke vigorous debate as historians continue to map the field. Connecting with an audience should remain an important part of that ongoing conversation. CSI:Dixie is a terrific example of how big data, record keeping, and the monotonous work of archiving can be communicated to the public with respect, empathy, and sentiment.

Rose’s murder opens a window through which users can view the nineteenth century South. Berry uncovered hundreds of stories, meticulously recorded by antebellum coroners. Abraham Jones, who ruled Rose’s death as a homicide—despite laws protecting Michael Long from the charge–continued to work for Edgefield County for at least another two decades, filing reports concerning deaths caused by murder, accident, and neglect. Three years after Rose’s murder crossed his desk, Jones recorded the details of another homicide victim, Michael Long, shot through the head with a double barrel shot gun, perhaps by “a negro man Kitts,” an associate of Long’s slave, Ellis. CSI:Dixie offers users an insider’s view of the violence of slavery, in which masters killed slaves with impunity and sometimes slaves struck back.

Blake McGready

Blake is a graduate student at Villanova University and is interested in early American history and public history. In addition to his coursework and assistantship, he works as a tour guide for the Encampment Store at Valley Forge National Historical Park in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.

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