“Floyd, you must be a damned rascal.”

by Lisa Y. Henderson

State v. James N. Floyd, 51 NC 392 (1859).

James N. Floyd was indicted for the murder of Richard Martin, a free man of color, in Gaston County, and the case was removed to Mecklenburg County.

David McCullough testified that he went to Martin’s blacksmith shop about dusk on the evening of 17 December, 1858.  A few minutes later, Floyd came to the shop and remained talking with him and Martin in an apparently friendly manner.  The three men drank a dram of liquor each, and Floyd told Martin that he wanted something to eat.  Martin pointed to a piece of meat hanging up in the shop, told the prisoner to cut some of the meat, and handed him a knife.  Floyd cut off a piece of the meat and broiled on the coals of shop hearth. Martin took two biscuits from a box and gave one to McCullough and one to Floyd.  About a half hour later, Martin asked Floyd for his knife.  Floyd claimed that he did not have it, and Martin replied that he had given it to him to cut the meat, and Floyd had not returned it.  Floyd denied again that he had the knife, and the two quarreled angrily for half an hour.  Martin said, “Floyd, you must be a damned rascal, for you have got my knife and won’t give it to me.” Nothing  more was said for about five minutes, when Martin remarked, “damn the knife, I don’t care anything for it, no how.”  Another five minutes passed, then five minutes more.  McCullough got into his buggy, and Floyd on his horse and, when they got 50-75 yards away, Martin came out of his shop and said, “in a mild, friendly tone,” “I’ll give McCullough a dram, but I won’t give Floyd any.”  McCullough reigned up his horse and stopped, and Floyd turned his horse across the road.  Martin handed McCullough a small glass bottle, from which he took a drink and handed it back to him.  Martin then went up to Floyd and extended the bottle towards him.  Floyd immediately got off his horse, and, without a word, the two began to fight.  McCullough tried to reach them, but when he was about ten steps from them, he saw Martin fall on his back.  In a few minutes, he was dead.  Floyd rested with his hands on a fence for a few minutes, then rode off.  This took place about 10 o’clock on a bright moon-lit night.

Martin’s body was found about one hour after he died.  He had six wounds, three on the top of the right shoulder “from which blood was running next morning;” another on the right side extending into the stomach; a deep fifth one on the outside of the thigh; and a sixth a little to the right of the center of his body, ranging from the right to left, passing through the lungs and nearly through his body.  A large bowie knife belonging to Floyd was found near Martin’s body, covered with blood nearly up to the hilt.

Witness Costner stated that, “about two hours by the sun,” he saw Floyd at Neagle’s store, about half a mile from Martin two’s blacksmith shop. As Costner started for home, Floyd told him not to leave because that he (Floyd) might need friends that evening.  A short time later, Floyd repeated the same comment as he pulled out a bowie knife.  (The knife proved to be the one found at the scene of the homicide.) Costner asked Floyd if he would sell the knife, he said no, he expected to have a use for it that evening. He also said he had bought it in Yorkville for ten dollars.

Floyd’s nephew, who lived with him in York district, South Carolina, testified that on the morning after the homicide, he saw a wound on Floyd’s forehead, near the eyebrow, about an inch and a half long, and two or three wounds on the top of his head. In addition, Floyd’s right thumb was either broken or disjointed.

Other witnesses swore that there was a lot of blood at the murder scene, and a stone weighing almost three pounds was found about five feet from Martin’s body.  There was blood and hair and something like skin on it.  The bowie knife was also found, and its blade had two gaps in it, which were not there when Costner and Neagle saw it.

The Gaston County sheriff testified that he asked Floyd how he got the wound over his eye, and Floyd said, “I reckon I did it with my own knife; or I did it with my own knife; they say I had a fight with Dick Martin and killed him, but I know nothing about that.”

Floyd’s counsel offered testimony to prove Martin’s temper and disposition for violence, but the Court ruled to exclude it, and they filed exceptions.

The Court explained to the jury the difference between murder, manslaughter, and excusable homicide and charged, that if Martin had assaulted Floyd, with a stone, bottle, or in any other way, or had attempted to pull him from his horse, and they immediately got into a mutual combat, and during the fight Floyd killed Martin, he could not be convicted of murder, but only manslaughter only. However, “the law would excuse no one for killing another, unless there was an absolute necessity for so doing to save his own life from destruction, or to prevent great bodily harm.”  So, if the jury found that Martin had not assaulted Floyd before Floyd stabbed him to death, then Floyd was guilty of murder, even if Martin had used “offensive language” toward Floyd in the shop and as he approached him with the bottle.  Floyd’s counsel excepted to these instructions.

The jury found the defendant guilty of murder. Floyd appealed, and the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court had erred by barring evidence of Martin’s reputation. “It is error in a Judge, in a trial for murder, to make a hypothesis omitting the leading fact which goes to the exculpation of the accused. It seems that when it is necessary for the accused to account for the fact that he began a sudden mutual affray with the use of a deadly weapon, in order to repel the inference of malice arising from that fact, he may show that his adversary was a powerful, violent and dangerous man.”