She could not imagine being free, not in this world nor the next. But when her husband suggested they escape together she immediately approved—-as if, deep within her, another Margaret had always been waiting for that very moment. . . .




Margaret Garner was twenty-five years old and had four children, all living, with Margaret and her husband, Robert Garner. She was reported to have had big tough hands, always in contact with the soil, and big round eyes that never strayed beyond the limits of the plantation. Instead, her eyes had been fixed upon the great many enslaves, on the vast expanse of the land being cultivated, on the large herds of cattle, pigs, fruit trees, green oaks, good old poplars, pine trees, and silver birches spreading across the patch of Kentucky Margaret called home. Home—where the blood-sucking parasitism of slavers held her and her family and enslaves in bondage. The fruits of their labor leeched by masters and mistresses who grew fat and rich off the free labor of an enslaved people.


She never knew her mother, and the old folks on the plantation who said they had, described her with uncertainty. She was, they said, a tall woman of mixed Black-Indian parentage, or maybe she was that flat-chested woman who arrived around 1821, or ’22, or perhaps ’23, with the bunch from Montgomery? In any case, what’s sure was that she was big and fat the day she arrived, more than fat, that’s true, and that she died just after giving birth to a little thing, who was named, God knows why, Margaret.


What’s also sure, almost sure, was that she was buried in the little yellow woods over yonder hill, just after the great square of corn. . . .unless, unless it was at the bottom of the valley, deep down, over there, on that nice patch of red earth, where the sweet potatoes and the roots grew? Nowadays, people were buried much higher, in the woods, on the hills. . . .


Margaret never had any great dreams, and she humbly confined her desires to the possible; to do the impossible was simply unimaginable to her. So she never thought of running away, because in her mind her fate had already been settled once and for all. It seemed to her that it was all written down somewhere, although she did not know where.


One way or another, most enslaves believed in a better life after death. But, in truth, even that thought was simply too much for Margaret’s imagination. In truth, she believed only in the kingdom of this world right here, i the thin net of time that had been cast over the plantation and over the small pine woods past yonder hill.


She could not imagine being free, not in this world nor the next. The simple idea of crossing the borders of the plantation made her heart skip beat, But when her husband Robert suggested they escape together, she immediately approved—as if, deep within her, another Margaret had aways been waiting for that very moment to resurface!. . . .


One inter night in 1856, seventeen enslaves huddled in a horsedrawn sled pulled by two beautiful horses from the master’s stables. The adults were silent and even the small children kept quiet.They did not stir, hidden under piles of rags and blankets. The horses sank slowly into the snow crackling with ice.


They left their horses behind near the Ohio River and crossed the frozen water on foot.To be less conspicuous, the party then separated. Nine of them eventually reached Canada. But the other group—which consisted of an old enslave named Simon, his wife Mary, their son Robert, his wife Margaret Garner, and their four children—-made their way to the house of a former enslave named Kite, Margaret’s cousin, a free black, whose house was located above Mill Creek, in the lower part of Cincinnati. From here Kite was to take them through a few stops on the Underground Railroad, from which they were to reach another stop, then yet another, all the way up to Canada.


A few hours after their arrival, Kite’s home was surrounded by the enslaves pursuers—white policemen and militia, masters enraged at having been roused by such impudence in the middle of the night.  The runaways had barricaded the doors and windows and were ready to fight. They swore to die rather than to return to their former lives. Transfigured, Margaret declared hat she would kill her children and herself rather than be a slave again.


Shots were fired and soon the assailants rushed into the little wooden house. Suddenly,Margaret grabbed a knife and killed her oldest child, an eight-year-old girl. She was about to kill another when she was apprehended and taken to county jail.



File:Margaret Garner.jpg
Artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea was based on Margaret Garner’s story.



The trial, which lasted two months,  attracted crowds from Cincinnati and the surrounding area. People came from all over to see this young mulatto woman, about five feet tall, with a scar on the left side of her forehead. She also had an old scar on the left side of her cheek, which she said had been caused when a “White man struck me”—-mementos of her master’s hard hand, just as three of her children were mementos of her master’s licentiousness brutality. In court, Margaret was openly pleased about the death of her child:  “I killed one and would like to kill the three others, rather see them again reduced to slavery.” Then, with the same enthusiasm, she asked to be judged for murder:  “I would walk to the gallows singing, yes, rather than go back and be a slave.” But the case became complicated by a conflict between federal authorities working to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and state officials wishing to try Margaret Garner for murder (in the hope of saving her life, in essence to return her to slaver, and prolong her suffering).


The defense attempted to prove that Margaret had been liberated under a former law covering slaves were taken into free states for other work. Her attorney actually proposed that she be charged with murder so that the case would be tried in a free state (understanding that the governor would later pardon her). The prosecuting attorney argued that the federal fugitive slave laws took precedence over state murder charges. Over a thousand people turned out each day to watch the proceedings, lining the streets outside the courthouse, and 500 men were deputized to maintain order in the town.


Margaret was not immediately tried for murder, but was forced to return to a slave state along with Robert and her youngest child, a daughter aged about nine months. Ohio authorities got an extradition warrant for Margaret to try her for murder, but failed to find her as her owner, A. K. Gaines, kept moving her between cities in Kentucky. Ohio officials missed getting Margaret in Covington by a few hours, missed getting her again in Frankfort and finally found her master in Louisville, only to discover that he had put them on a boat for his brother’s plantation in Arkansas.
Governor Salmon P. Chase of Ohio requested the return of Margaret to Ohio, but her slave master, ignoring the request, put her on the steamer Henry Lewis bound for Louisville, Kentucky.
In the middle of the river, the ships’ boiler burst and the Lewis began to sink. Chained by twos in the stern of the boat, the enslaves begged for their chains to be taken off. Margaret had the youngest of her children, a little girl of about one year old, on her arm. Her two boys had already been sold in Kentucky. The Cincinnati Commercial reported that “by the shock of the ship that came to the assistance of the Lewis (as one story goes) she was thrown into the river with her child. . . .A black man, the cook on the Lewis, sprang into the river and saved Margaret, who it is said, displayed frantic joy when told her child had drowned, and said she would never reach alive Gaines’ Landing, in Arkansas, the pint to which she was shipped—this indicating her intention to drown herself. . . .Another report is that, as soon as she had the opportunity, she threw her child into the river and jumped after it. . . .and that it was drowned, while she was saved by the prompt energy of the cook.”
The boat that came to the rescue of the Lewis was called The Hungarian. It took Margaret down South, to Arkansas, where she was sold for a ridiculous sum, in some slave market hammered by the sun.
She was kept in Arkansas only a short time before being sent to family friends in New Orleans as a household servant. The Cincinnati Chronicle reported in 1870 that Robert and Margaret Garner worked in New Orleans and were eventually sold to Judge Bonham for plantation labor at Tennessee Landing.
In this same article, Robert reported that Margaret Garner died in 1858 of typhoid fever.
Soon after her death, Robert Garner was reported to have immediately cried out:  “Thank You, God, she has escaped at last!”
Margaret Garner’s life story was the basis of the inspiration for the novel Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved and of Frances Harper’s 1859 poem “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio.” It was also the subject of an opera, called Margaret Garner, with a libretto written by Morrison and music composed by the Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour. Commissioned by Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia, the opera premiered in 2005. It set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati. In Detroit, it played to large audiences with an a high number of  Black Americans. Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves sang Margaret Garner, and baritone Rod Gilfry sang the role of the plantation owner, Edward Gaines.
Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea, was also inspired by the Margaret Garner tragedy. (Medea is a woman in Greek mythology who killed her own children.) The painting, owned by Cincinnati manufacturer Procter and Gamble Corporation, was presented as a gift to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where it remains on permanent display.
“In Praise Of Black Women: Black Heroines of the Slavery Era,” by Simone Schwarz-Bart.
  • “Stampede of Slaves: A Tale of Horror” The Cincinnati Enquirer, January 29, 1856.
  • Weisenburger, Steven. Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child Murder from the Old South (New York: Hill and Wang), 1998. ISBN 0-8090-6953-9
External Links:
by Steven Weisenburger (Paperback – Sep 1, 1999)
3.8 out of 5 stars (4)
The Toni Morrison Encyclopedia by Elizabeth Ann Beaulieu (Hardcover – Jan 30, 2003)


Beloved by Toni Morrison (Paperback – Jun 8, 2004)
3.7 out of 5 stars (90)


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  2. Pingback: Beautiful, also, are the souls of Black sisters « African Blood Siblings


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