Margaret Garner was a slave, murderer, and loving mother, whose love was so great for her children that she would rather see them die than go back to a life of slavery. The trial that proceeded afterwards gained national attention and was a focus point for many abolitionists and the anti-slavery movement. To fully understand what motivated her to commit such a monstrous act, it is necessary to examine the conditions of servitude that she and many millions like her were serving.
Margaret Garner was born into slavery on June, 4 1834 at Maplewood plantation in Boone County, Kentucky (Nichols). During this time period, the antebellum south, slaves were either classified as black or mulatto. Margaret’s mother Priscilla was counted as black as well as Priscilla’s husband Duke, but Margaret was deemed a mulatto (Weisenburger). This can let us reasonably conclude that she was likely the illegitimate daughter of John Gaines or one of his brothers.
In 1849 John Gaines was appointed Governor of Oregon (a position first turned down by Abraham Lincoln) and then sold his plantation to his brother Archibald Gaines. Archibald was known to have a temper and was described as unpredictable and violent (Brunings). Letters of correspondence between the Gaines brothers also show that he was having trouble managing the slaves, often considering selling them. There is also a strong possibility that Archibald took Margaret as his concubine. With the exception of her first pregnancy all her births followed Mrs. Gaines within a five to seven month time frame. It was common for southern gentlemen to call the last trimester of a women’s pregnancy the “gander months” and for them to seek sexual comfort outside of marriage, often with single women or their slaves (Weisenburger).
It is therefore easy to see why Margaret, her husband, and family decided to flee. In addition to being a victim of sexual abuse she was also living in a constant fear of being sold away as was her husband who was often hired away to work on other plantations. It was not uncommon to separate families by selling slaves, whether they were husbands, wives or children. As Toni Morrison wrote in her novel Beloved “Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let alone loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, brought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen, or seized.”
Margaret had some cousins who were free in Cincinnati and In January 1856 they were presented with an excellent opportunity to escape. The Ohio River had frozen over from the coldest winter in sixty years. In addition to having free black family, Margaret’s husband Robert had traveled to Cincinnati driving up hogs and even visited the Kites, Margaret’s uncle’s family, during Thanksgiving in 1855 (Weisenburger). On January 27th, a total party of seventeen escaped sometime during Sunday night, Sunday being the slaves’ day off. They stole two horses and a sled and Robert also pocketed a six-shooter, an indication that they intended to live freely or die trying.
Crossing the frozen Ohio was risky, sometimes the sleighs, being so heavy would make the ice collapse. Yet they made it and the party then divided up to avoid detection. Margaret, Robert, their children and Robert’s parents fled to Cincinnati to stay with the Kites. However this proved to be a fatal move. As fate would have it (Robert blamed their discovery on the Kites turning them in) the slave-catchers followed by Archibald Gaines surrounded the Kites Cabin and burst in. Robert fired his stolen pistol several times severely wounding one deputy. When the rest entered and subdued him they discovered the horror that awaited them. Margaret picked up a butcher knife and had slit her two-year old daughter Mary’s, throat. She had also wounded her other children and was preparing to kill herself but the posse subdued her.
It is interesting here to note that Archibald Gaines wept grievously over the body of Mary Garner. So much that he refused to turn the body over to the Cincinnati coroner (Weisenburger). In fact Levi Coffin remarked “The murdered child was almost white, a little girl of rare beauty.” This would reaffirm the argument that Archibald fathered at least one if not most of Margaret’s children. Like Medea who killed her children after Jason left her for another woman, Margaret killed her daughter as Archibald thwarted her escape (Brunings). This raises the question that Margaret may have killed her child purely to spite her master. However this does not seem likely as it was a frequent statement by her and her attorneys that she would rather kill herself and children than have them returned to slavery. If it were the case that she killed them out of hatred towards her master or their whiteness the press coverage probably would not have been as dramatic nor would she have received so much abolitionist support.
During her two-week trial there were large demonstrations numbering almost two thousand people (Cincinnati’s population was about ninety thousand) and the city almost erupted in a full-scale gun battle between partisans favoring and condemning slavery. Famous abolitionists such as Lucy Stone and Levi Coffin were present. The trial even attracted the attention of the Hutchinson Family, an anti-slavery musical family who was in Cincinnati at the time and played a concert for the benefit of the slaves.
The two lawyers defending the slaves were Joliffe and Getchel and the two representing the claimants were Wall and Tinnel who came from Covington, Kentucky (Coffin). The main objective for the lawyers defending Margaret was to have her indicted for murder in Ohio so she could be tried in a free state. A likely pardon from the governor, who was an abolitionist, was expected if that be the case.
It was claimed that Margaret Garner had been brought here by her owners a number of years before, to act as nurse girl, and according to the law which liberated slaves who were brought into free States by the consent of their masters, she had been free from that time, and her children, all of whom had been born since then, following the condition of the mother, were likewise free (Coffin). However the Commissioner decided that since she voluntarily returned to slavery after her visit to a free state re-instated the bondage of slavery and she had no claim as a free person.
During the final arguments Joliffe declared that the 1850 fugitive slave law was unconstitutional and his client was evidence of that fact. In his own words recorded by Levi Coffin he stated, “The Constitution expressly declared that Congress should pass no law prescribing any form of religion or preventing the free exercise thereof. If Congress could not pass any law requiring you to worship God, still less could they pass one requiring you to carry fuel to hell.” Abolitionist Lucy Stone was also in the courtroom and had entered after Gaines’ lawyer had complained that she had encouraged Margaret to kill herself and her children rather than go back to slavery. To this she requested time to defend her statements and many people stayed after the court adjourned to hear her. She stated “The faded faces of the negro children tell too plainly to what degradation female slaves must submit. Rather than give her little daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right to do so?” (Coffin). These words drew applause from the audience and afterwards it seemed that there was hope that Margaret Garner and her companions would be indicted for murder.
However the path was not yet paved and the commissioner ruled that they must be returned to their master in Kentucky. He stated that it was not a question of current sympathies but that the law of the United States and Kentucky made it a matter of property. Gaines promised to safe-keep Margaret if she was to be requisitioned (Coffin). A promise he did not keep. Ironically it was the southerners who were advocating the supremacy of the federal government over state law and the northerners who were vying for a states’ rights position.
When the Courts finally moved to have Margaret extradited to Ohio from Kentucky it was all too late. Gaines moved her around from one place to another. They missed a chance to arrest Margaret at the Covington jailhouse by a matter of hours. There they were told that Gaines had taken her to rejoin the Garner family to Frankfort, seventy miles distant; but at Frankfort they found he had just departed with the Garners for Louisville, another sixty miles away. When the Ohio deputies and attorneys caught up with Gaines in Louisville, he had already packed the family aboard the Henry Lewis, which was making its way down the Ohio River to Gaines Landing, Arkansas where Archibald relocated the entire family to work for his brother Benjamin (Weisenburger).
Fate would give Margaret one more opportunity at death and on March 11 the Henry Lewis collided with another steamboat throwing Margaret and her infant child over board. A member of the crew, a black cook, reportedly rescued Margaret and it was said that she was happy that her infant had died less return to slavery. Another report indicates that Margaret intentionally threw herself and her child overboard. Which one is correct, we may never know.
Margaret’s stay at Benjamin Gaines’ plantation was brief. By April she and her family were hired out to work as household servants in New Orleans. They were then sold to Dewitt Clinton Bonham, a Mississippian cotton plantation owner. He had a large plantation with over one-hundred and fifty slaves. Margaret was freed from slavery in the late-summer of 1858, by way of death. She was a victim of a typhoid epidemic that swept the Mississippi basin. In 1870 Robert told a reporter that her last words were “never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom.”
Brunings, Ruth. “Tragedy of Two Families.” Northern Kentucky Heritage Fall 2004.
Morrison, Toni. Beloved. N.p.: n.p., 1987.
Coffin, Levi. “Margaret Garner.” Levi Coffin Reminiscences of Levi Coffin.
University of North Carolina. 28 Apr. 2009
Nichols, Casey. “Margaret Garner Incident.” Blackpast.org. 26 Nov. 2007. 28 Apr.
Weisenburger, Steven. “A Historical Margaret Garner.” Detroit Opera House. 28