Margaret Garner was born on the plantation of John Pollard Gaines in Boone County, Kentucky to a slave named Priscilla. She married another slave from a nearby plantation, Robert Garner. In 1849 John P. Gaines sold his plantation, including the slaves, to his brother Archibald Gaines.
In January of 1856, Margaret and her husband decided to flee along with their four children, his parents and a number of other slaves. Their path was to Covington, across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, and then on to Canada. At Cincinnati, the fugitive slaves split up for fear of being captured. Some of the party did make it to Canada. The Garners, however, did not.
At Cincinnati, they went to the home of relatives of Margaret’s for assistance in getting further north. Margaret’s relatives had earlier obtained their release from slavery from their masters. While at the home, Archibald Gaines and U.S. Marshalls surrounded the cabin to capture the fugitive slaves. While Robert was trying to defend them with a pistol, Margaret not wanting to return to slavery, slit the throat of her two-year old daughter, Mary, then stabbed her other children and herself. While her daughter died immediately, Margaret and her other children were only wounded. The entire family were taken into custody and imprisoned.
Article from the Cincinnati Gazette, January 29, 1856
Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum Center
A long trial ensued, in fact it has been called “longest” fugitive slave case. Because of the sensationalism of the case it was followed almost daily in the newspapers. Margaret hoped to be tried on charges of murder in a free state. That way she would be treated as a free person and her children would be considered free as well. The decision after two weeks was that this was not a murder case but a fugitive slave case. She and her family were viewed as “property.” The family was returned to slavery.
They departed on the steamboat Henry Lewis for a Gaines plantation in New Orleans. Following a collision with another steamboat, Margaret and her infant daughter Cilla were thrown overboard. Margaret was saved but the child drowned. While it has been said that following her rescue Margaret expressed joy that her daughter drowned rather than be returned to slavery and there were those who even speculated she assisted in the drowning of her infant daughter, her husband in a interview after her death said she never tried again to harm her children, but that she had often express that it would be “better for them to be put out of the world than live in slavery.” Margaret herself died in slavery in Mississippi in 1858 of typhoid fever.
Her story is the basis for the 1987 novel, Beloved, by Toni Morrison and the subsequent opera Margaret Garner based on that novel. The City of Covington has sponsored an historical marker at Sixth and Main Streets noting this is where she began her journey across the frozen Ohio River.
To learn more about Margaret Garner, consult the following
Interview of Robert Garner in the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle, March 11, 1870
General 071.771 fC574chd Request slip
"George S. Bennett United States Marshall . . ." Broadside
Broadsides Cincinnati Slavery folio
While this broadside does not mention Margaret Garner by name, she is the woman alluded to, in the final sentences of the broadside. Produced by a Cincinnatian using the pseudonym Justice, it describes the barring of the African American population in Cincinnati from the courtroom proceedings of the Margaret Garner case. The Cincinnati Gazette of January 31, 1856 confirms “No Colored persons were admitted within the courtroom” and notes that there was a commotion outside the courthouse resulting in the arrest of several African Americans.
Text of broadside: "George S. Bennett United States Marshall. Let the public mark this man…..the ruffian crowd who have deserted their proper duty as city policemen, to aid him in his degrading work of slave catching, stand ready to insult and maltreat native taxpayers, who desire to enter the court room, as is their right. …We hope you will not fill the measure of your shame by permitting a woman to be dragged to that slavery she dreads worse than death….Justice, Cincinnati, O. February 1st, 1856."
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Sources Used for Biographical Sketch:
Weisenburger, Steven. Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-murder from the Old South, General 326 W427, Cincinnati History Library and Archives,
Cincinnati Museum Center.
Cincinnati Enquirer, March 11, 1856, Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum
Cincinnati Daily Chronicle, March 11, 1870, General 071.771 fC574chd, Cincinnati History Library and Archives, Cincinnati Museum