Margaret Garner (called Peggy) was an enslaved African-American woman in pre-Civil War America who was notorious – or celebrated – for killing her own daughter rather than allowing the child to be returned to slavery. She and her family had escaped in January 1856 across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, but were captured by slave catchers. Margaret Garner's defense attorney moved to have her tried for murder in Ohio, in order to get a trial in a free state and to challenge the Fugitive Slave Law as well.
Her story was the inspiration for the novel Beloved (1987) by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (that later was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey), as well as for her libretto for the early 21st century opera Margaret Garner (2005), composed by Richard Danielpour.
Garner, described as a mulatto, was born to Priscilla, a house servant to the Gaines family who lived on a farm called Maplewood in Boone County, Kentucky. She may have been the daughter of the plantation owner John Pollard Gaines himself.
Margaret married one of her fellow slaves, Robert Garner, in 1849. That December, the plantation was sold along with all the slaves to John P. Gaines' younger brother, Archibald K. Gaines. The Garners' first child, Thomas, was born early in 1850.
Three of Margaret's later children (Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla) were described as mulattos; each was born 5 to 7 months after a child born to Archibald K. Gaines and his wife. These light-skinned children were likely the children of A.K. Gaines, the only adult white male at Maplewood. The timing suggests they were each conceived after his wife had become pregnant and was unavailable to him.
In a contemporary account, abolitionist Levi Coffin described Margaret Garner at her arrest as "a mulatto, about five feet high ... she appeared to be about twenty-one or twenty-three years old." She also had an old scar on the left side of her forehead and cheek, which she said had been caused when a "White man struck me." Her two boys were about four and six years old, Mary, two and a half, and Priscilla, an infant.
Escape and trial
On January 28, 1856, Robert and a pregnant Margaret, together with family members, escaped and fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, along with several other slave families. Robert had stolen his master's horses and sleigh along with his gun. 17 people were reported to have been in their party. In the coldest winter in 60 years, the Ohio River had frozen. The group crossed the ice just west of Covington, Kentucky at daybreak, and escaped to Cincinnati, then divided to avoid detection.
Robert and Margaret and their four children, with Robert's father Simon and his wife Mary, made their way to a former slave, Margaret's Uncle Joe Kite, who lived along Mill Creek, below Cincinnati. The other 9 slaves in their party reached safe houses in Cincinnati and eventually escaped via the Underground Railroad to Canada. Kite went to abolitionist Levi Coffin for advice on how to get the group to safety. Coffin agreed to help them escape the city. He told Kite to take the Garner group further west of the city, where many free blacks lived, and wait until night.
Slave catchers and US Marshals found the Garners barricaded inside Kite's house before he returned. They surrounded the property, then stormed the house. Robert Garner fired several shots and wounded at least one deputy marshal. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery. She had wounded her other children, preparing to kill them and herself, when she was subdued by the posse.
The entire group was taken to jail. The subsequent trial lasted for two weeks, after which the judge deliberated another two weeks. It was "the longest and most complicated case of its kind." A typical fugitive slave hearing would have lasted less than a day. The core issue was whether the Garners would be tried as persons, and charged with the murder of their daughter, or tried as property under the Fugitive Slave Law. The defense attorney argued that Ohio's right to protect its citizens should take precedence. The slave catchers and owner argued for the precedence of federal law over the state.
The defense attempted to prove that Margaret had been liberated under a former law covering slaves taken into free states for other work. Her attorney 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 Law took precedence over state murder charges. Over a thousand people turned out each day to watch the proceedings, lining the streets outside the courthouse. Five hundred men were deputized to maintain order in the town.
The presiding judge Pendery ruled that Federal fugitive warrants had supervening authority. Defense attorney John Jolliffe then tried a strategy of arguing that the Fugitive Slave Act violated the guarantee of religious freedom, by compelling citizens to participate in evil by returning slaves. In the end, Pendery rejected this argument.
On the closing day of the trial, the antislavery activist Lucy Stone took the stand to defend her earlier conversations with Margaret (the prosecution had complained.) She spoke about the interracial sexual relationship that underlay part of the case:
Recalling to everyone's memory the faces of Margaret's children, and of A. K. Gaines, Stone told the packed courtroom: "The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her 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 not to do so?"
Margaret Garner’s actions were driven by her master’s abuse and the well known abuse slaves faced nationwide. Women were known to practice infanticide to alleviate the burden of slavery from their children, however in Garner’s case her children faced even more opposition due to her children being born as mulattos. Mulattos were seen as a threat and also seen as a disgrace among the plantation and white families, through the birth of mulatto children it highlights infidelity within the slave owning families. Thus mulattos where seen as a disgrace and a highlight to sin, and often beaten or sold. Garner underwent drastic measures to protect her child not only from the cruelty of the institution of slavery, but from the double threat, due to its mulatto status.
Margaret Garner was not immediately tried for murder, but was forced to return to a slave state along with Robert and their youngest child, a daughter of about 9 months old. When Ohio authorities got an extradition warrant for Garner to try her for murder, they were unable to find her for the arrest. Archibald K. Gaines, her owner, kept moving her between cities in Kentucky. Ohio officials missed finding Margaret in Covington by a few hours, missed getting her again in Frankfort, and finally caught up with her master in Louisville, only to discover that he had put the slaves on a boat headed for his brother's plantation in Arkansas.
The Liberator reported on March 11, 1856, that the steamboat Henry Lewis, on which the Garners were being transported, began to sink after colliding with another boat. Margaret Garner and her baby daughter were thrown overboard during the collision. The baby drowned. It was reported that Margaret was happy that her baby had died and that she tried to drown herself. She and Robert were kept in Arkansas only a short time before being sent to Gaines' family friends in New Orleans as a household servant. The Garners then disappeared from sight.
In 1870 a reporter from The Cincinnati Chronicle found Robert Garner and gathered more about his life. Robert and Margaret Garner had worked in New Orleans, and in 1857 were sold to Judge Dewitt Clinton Bonham for plantation labor at Tennessee Landing, Mississippi. Robert said Margaret had died in 1858 of typhoid fever, in an epidemic in the valley. He said that before she died, Margaret urged him to "never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom."
Garner's life story was the basis of Frances Harper's 1859 poem "Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio". She also inspired Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble's 1867 painting, The Modern Medea; Medea was 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. Learning about Margaret Garner's trial and story, Toni Morrison was inspired to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved (1987).
Years later the Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia commissioned the opera Margaret Garner. Morrison wrote the libretto and music was composed by the Grammy-winning Richard Danielpour. The opera premiered in those three cities in 2005. It set records for opera attendance in Cincinnati. In Detroit, it played to unusually large audiences with a high number of African Americans. It was sold out in Philadelphia. Mezzo soprano Denyce Graves sang Margaret Garner, and baritone Rod Gilfry sang the role of the plantation owner Edward Gaines.
In 2008, documentary filmmaker, Joanne Caputo , winner of the PBS Independent Lens Audience Award for her 2005 “On A Roll: Family, Disability and the American Dream,” self-published “Margaret Garner: Diversity and Depth of Love.”  The non-fiction two-book manuscript includes a memoir, in which Caputo describes her paranormal experiences with Margaret Garner and a claim of being Garner’s reincarnated murdered daughter.
- Steven Weisenburger, "A Historical Margaret Garner", Michigan Opera Theatre, accessed 20 Apr 2009
- Steven Weisenburger, "A Historical Margaret Garner", Michigan Opera Theatre, accessed 20 Apr 2009. "Bertram Wyatt-Brown reminds us, Southern men commonly referred to their pregnant wives' last trimester or so when they were sexually unavailable as "the gander months" because it was supposedly natural, and to some extent informally countenanced, for them to seek intimate "comfort" with unmarried women. With enslaved women, if they owned any."
- McKissack, Patricia C. McKissack, Fredrick (1995). Sojourner Truth ain't I a woman?. Littleton, MA: Sundance Publishers & Distributors. ISBN 0590446916.
- Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad (Cincinnati: Western Tract Society), 1876. ISBN 0-944350-20-8
- "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
- Steven Weisenburger, "A Historical Margaret Garner", Michigan Opera Theatre
|Wikisource has the text of the 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article Garner Case.|