Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Tragic Story of Margaret Garner

Hey Scholars!

I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. Growing up there, I learned that the Queen City has a rich history. As I have made my way through undergrad and then two graduate degrees, I have learned so much about my hometown. During Fall semester of 2013, I was able to share some of this history with my classmates in our Research in Local History class. This post is about Margaret Garner, her ties Cincinnati, and her tragic story.

Margaret Garner was born into slavery on June 4, 1834 on the Maplewood plantation in Boone County, Kentucky to a slave mother and a plantation owner father. Working as a house slave for much of her life, Garner often traveled with her masters and even accompanied them on shopping trips to free territories in Cincinnati. She married Robert Garner in 1849. The couple had four children (this piece of information is conflicting because multiple sources claim they had six).

                                         (Photo courtesy of

During the 1850s, the Underground Railroad was at its height helping slaves to escape enslavement. On Sunday January 27th, 1856, the Garners fled with her husband and children from Kentucky to Cincinnati via the Ohio River. The family made it safely to Cincinnati taking refuge in Joseph Kite’s home. Within a couple of hours, Garner’s master A.K. Gaines, and federal marshals stormed Kite’s home with warrants for the Garners. Margaret decided that she would rather take the lives of her children and herself before being enslaved again. The marshals found her and her children in a back room. Margaret had slit the throat of one of her daughter’s, killing her. The other children were on the floor injured but alive.

She was taken into custody and tried. This trial became known as one of the longest fugitive slave trials in history. The Hamilton County Grand jury indicted both parents on charges of murder. A United States commissioner demanded that the Garners be released from jail and returned to their owner. A federal judge agreed with this order and had a Hamilton County sheriff turn them over to a United States marshal who then returned the Garners back to their owner and back to slavery.

                              (Excerpt from the February 2, 1856 issue of the Anti-Slavery Bugle, detailing the                                             Margaret Garner case. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Host)

Well, the then Governor of Ohio Salmon P. Chase, an abolitionist, disagreed with this decision. He wanted the Garners to stand trial. His reason was because he did not want a precedent to be set that would allow Kentucky slaveholders to come to Ohio and reclaim their runaway slaves. The Garners owner sold them to a slave owner in New Orleans. On March 11, 1856, on the way to New Orleans, the steamboat the family was on named Henry Lewis collided with another causing one of their children to drown. This story was reported by The Liberator, an African American anti-slavery newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison in 1831. 

(Correspondence: excerpt from the indictment papers for Margaret Garner and others. Photo courtesy of Ohio History Host)

In 1858, Robert reported that his wife Margaret Garner died of typhoid fever in Louisiana. It is noted that her last words to him were "never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom." The story of Margaret Garner quickly gained national attention prior to the Civil War. This tragic story changed how people regarded slavery, especially in Ohio. People began to regard slavery as inhumane and deplorable.

                                              (Photo courtesy of

The story of Margaret Garner has been memorialized in many formats:

Literature- Beloved --Toni Morrison
Film- "Beloved" starring Oprah Winfrey
Poetry- Frances Harper "Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio" (1859)
Opera- Toni Morrison (commissioned by the Cincinnati Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, and Opera Company of Philadelphia)
Painting- Thomas Satterwhite Noble "The Modern Medea" 1867 

Sources Consulted:

Joanne Caputo, Margaret Garner
Levi Coffin, Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad
Simeon Fess, ed, Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State
Toni Morrison, Beloved 
Steven Weisenburger, Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

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