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.
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.
- Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad (Cincinnati: Western Tract Society), 1876. ISBN 0-944350-20-8: http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/coffin/menu.html
- “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
- A Historical Margaret Garner, Essay by Steven Weisenburger
- Transcript of the Enquirer article and a photo of Satterwhite’s painting
- Slavery and the Tragic Story of Two Families – Gaines and Garner Maplewood Farm, Richwood, Kentucky, essay by Ruth Wade Cox Brunings
- Information about the opera