Margaret Garner: the mystery behind the murder

The story that is about to be laid out to you is one of murder, deception, love lost, and family. It’s a story about slavery, but it’s not just a slave story nor is it just an African-American story. It’s an American story.

It’s the story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African-American woman in pre-Civil War America, residing in Northern Kentucky, who was notorious — or celebrated — for killing her own daughter rather than allowing the child to be returned to slavery. She and her family escaped their plantation in January 1856 across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, but were apprehended before they could completely secure their own freedom.

Margaret’s story is the inspiration for the Nobel Prize winning novel Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison, which was adapted into a film of the same name starring Oprah Winfrey in 1998, as well as a libretto for the opera Margaret Garner in 2005.

In Beloved, Morrison shows the grief the main character, Sethe, endures living in a post-Civil War Cincinnati, two decades after she made the ultimate sacrifice of killing her daughter rather than see her returned in to slavery. Those familiar with the book know that Sethe’s story is a dark one, where she is haunted by the daughter she killed.

Before diving into Beloved’s true story, one that is set in Cincinnati in the mid-1800s, here’s a quick look at what it was like to live in this area during slavery.

During the nineteenth century, Cincinnati was a hub of sorts thanks to the Ohio River, which provided the perfect place to meet the needs of settlers and budding entrepreneurs traveling westward.

In addition, during this time, abolitionists concentrated their efforts in Cincinnati because it was located directly across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a slaveholding state, mostly due to the economic prowess and wealth of opportunity that the city held, which made it a major migration path for escaped slaves.

There are many instances that Cincinnati abolitionists like Levi Coffin and Lyman Beecher wrote in support of freeing the slaves, secretly advocating for several locations in the area to be stops on the Underground Railroad.

Best known as the inspiration for Beloved’s main character Sethe, Margaret’s real life was almost as turbulent. The Margaret Garner Incident of 1856, as many newspapers called Margaret’s infanticide, culminated in one of the nation’s most groundbreaking fugitive slave trials of the pre-Civil War era.

Margaret was born into slavery on June 4, 1834 on the Maplewood Plantation in Boone County, Kentucky. There, she worked as a house slave for much of her life and often traveled with her masters to Cincinnati.

Early in life, Margaret married Robert Garner who was enslaved on a neighboring plantation. With her husband, she bore a child and then three additional children who were speculated to be fathered by her master, Archibald K. Gaines.

On a snowy evening, the Garners decided to take advantage of the known frozen Ohio River to escape enslavement. On Sunday January 27, 1856, Margaret, pregnant with her 5th child, set out for their first stop on their route to freedom, along with her husband, her husband’s parents, and her four children, to a relative’s home in Cincinnati.

The Garners made it safely the house the next morning, but within hours, the Garners’ master, accompanied by federal marshals, discovered their whereabouts and attempted to recapture them, citing The Fugitive Slave Act. of 1850, which permitted the seizure and return of runaway slaves who escaped from one state and fled into another.

Upon attempted recapture, Margaret decided to make the ultimate sacrifice and take the lives of herself and her children. She only managed to kill her two-year-old daughter before she was apprehended.

The painting “The Modern Medea” by Thomas Noble-Satterwhite, is the most famous depiction of this horrific event.

Margaret’s actions made national news. The fact that Margaret sacrificed her beloved child rather than see her ushered back into slavery was not the only thing that gripped the nation’s attention. But it was also the charge that Margaret was going to receive. Would she be charged with murder? Or would she be charged with disobeying The Fugitive Slave Act?

Margaret’s trial lasted almost a month, the longest of its time. Her defense attorney, John Jolliffe, argued for the charge of murder because then Margaret could be tried in a free state and thus be considered a person rather than a slave. Also, Jolliffe cited that Margaret’s earlier trips to Cincinnati with her masters entitled her and her children to freedom.

One notable Ohioan, Governor Salmon P. Chase, was gunning for a murder charge as well. Later, Chase went on to be a United States Senator, the United States Secretary of the Treasury, and a Chief Justice of the United States.

Chase was a strong abolitionist and, many times, defended escaped slaves. One example was when he argued against the constitutionality of the future Fugitive Slave Act before the U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. Van Zandt (1847), where a Kentucky slave owner looked for compensation from an Ohio abolitionist for the cost of recovering escaped slaves.

Despite Margaret’s defense’s compelling arguments, the Garners were found guilty of crimes against The Fugitive Slave Act and returned to their plantations in Kentucky.

Governor Chase wrote to Kentucky’s governor pleading for Margaret’s immediately return to Ohio so that she could stand trial for murder.

But Chase’s pleas were sent too late. Once warrants arrived at Maplewood to summons Margaret back to Ohio, her master already sold her ‘down river,’ thereby avoiding his slave being taken from him to stand trial in Ohio.

Speculation of Margaret’s reasoning behind her infanticide and ultimate demise following her sentencing lives in books like Driven toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio by local Cincinnati author Nikki M. Taylor and in Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South by Steven Weisenburger.

There are some stories whose very nature is concealed in silence. No one wants to tell those types of stories and no one wants to hear them either. The story of Margaret Garner should not continue to be one of those stories.

For more information about Margaret Garner, visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, this page on the Cincinnati Museum Center's website, or the historical marker on the corner of Main and Sixth streets in Covington.

Signup for Email Alerts