Margaret Garner’s decision to kill her own child to prevent her from being returned to slavery in 1856 made national headlines and although the act was condemned, it highlighted the injustices of slavery and provided ample material for abolitionists to make their case against the inhumane institution of slavery.
Her story, which became one of America’s most publicized fugitive slave trials in pre-Civil War era, has lived on till today, in the form of several theatrical productions, as well as Toni Morrison’s award-winning book and film Beloved.
Born into slavery on June 4, 1834, on Maplewood plantation in Boone Country, Kentucky, Margaret worked as a house slave for a married master, AK. Edward Gaines, and even travelled with him and his family on shopping trips to free territories in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Margaret married Robert Garner in 1849, out of which she had four children by 1856. Several accounts state that her master, Gaines, could have been the father of at least two of her children as he forced her into a relationship with him in an era where black women were rendered unrapeable in the eyes of the law and were made vulnerable to their white slave masters, cites an analysis from the book, Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio by Nikki M. Taylor.
It is to be noted that the 1850s was a period in which the Underground Railroad was at its peak in and around Cincinnati, transporting several slaves to freedom. The Garners jumped on this and decided on a bold plan towards their freedom.
In the winter of Sunday, January 27, 1856, they, along with their children, fled the plantation by crossing on foot the frozen Ohio River from Covington, Ky., to Cincinnati, Ohio. Their first stop was the house of Joseph Kite, a family friend and a black freeman from whom they had already sought protection. Kite had also spoken to Quaker abolitionist, Levi Coffin, then referred to as the president of the Underground Railroad, for help.
The Garners had arrived at Kite’s house on Monday morning, where they had hoped to hide until a guide could transport them to the free North, but this did not materialize as within hours after their arrival, federal marshals stormed into the home with warrants for the Garners.
With determination not to return to slavery, Margaret decided to kill herself and her children for she believed they would be better off dead than to live in bondage. When the marshals found her in a back room, she had killed her two-year-old daughter with a knife and the other children lay on the floor wounded but still alive.
The shocking development resulted in the arrest of the Garners, who were taken into custody in front of a huge and angry crowd that had gathered to condemn the family. In what became one of the longest fugitive slave trials in history, the Garners became defendants but lost the escape case in which they pleaded for freedom.
Some accounts state that during the two-week trial, abolitionist and lawyer, John Jolliffe, provided compelling arguments that Margaret’s trips to free territory in Cincinnati entitled her and her children to freedom but the judge denied the Garners’ plea for freedom and returned them to Gaines.
Margaret had wanted to be tried in Ohio as a free person even if it meant she would receive the death sentence for killing her child, yet authorities refused and tried her in Kentucky as property; thus, she was not charged for the child’s death. She was later charged with the death, but officials could never locate her as Gaines had moved the family from the state and hidden them in several locations.
Other accounts state that as part of efforts to gain freedom for Margaret and her children, Jolliffe convinced officials to arrest Margaret on the charge of murdering her daughter. Joliffe deduced that with a murder trial, Margaret would have another chance for freedom.
“Gaines caught on to Jolliffe’s plan and relocated the Garners to several different plantations before finally selling them to his brother in Arkansas. As a result, federal marshals were not able to serve Margaret with an arrest warrant and she never received a second trial,” Blackpast reports.
Before her death in 1858 from a typhoid epidemic, she had urged her husband to “never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom,” Robert told the Cincinnati Chronicle in an interview in 1870, five years after the U.S. Civil War ended slavery.
As already indicated, Margaret’s story became the subject of various works of art including a painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, called The Modern Medea, the novel Beloved (1987) by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, and the opera, Margaret Garner (2005), composed by Richard Danielpour.
Below is a video of Beloved Theatrical Trailer (1998):