Margaret “Peggy” Garner (1834?–1858)
Margaret Garner, a Kentucky-born enslaved woman, gained national notoriety for killing one child and attempting to kill the rest of her children under duress of being recaptured and returned to her master following her family’s escape to Ohio. According to all accounts, she declared it a humane act to prevent her offspring from suffering the indignities of slavery. She and her controversial deed became immortalized through popular media, most notably in Toni Morrison’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Beloved. Garner lived briefly in Chicot County, Arkansas, prior to her death.
Little is known about her early life. She lived on Maplewood Plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, owned first by John Pollard Gaines, who sold her to his brother, Archibald, in 1849. Just prior to this transaction, she married Robert Garner, an enslaved man who lived on a neighboring plantation. Sources of the period identify her as a “mulatto” and suggest that the older two of her four children were the result of earlier sexual abuse by white men. In January 1856, the Garner family fled their enslavement, traveling to Covington, Kentucky, where they crossed the frozen Ohio River to find refuge with a nearby relative, Joe Kite in Storrs Township, Ohio. Nonetheless, as they attempted to continue their journey, a posse consisting of her owner, his associates, and federal marshals tracked them to Kite’s home and surrounded it. The Garners barricaded themselves inside. The posse stormed the home, and two of them were wounded. Though her husband endeavored to fight them off, they swiftly seized him. When Garner realized their recapture was imminent, she killed her two-year-old daughter by slashing her throat and began bludgeoning the other three with a shovel before the apprehending party restrained her.
Authorities imprisoned the family in Cincinnati, where a protracted, complex legal case ensued in the local federal court regarding their fate. She was never able to testify in the proceedings, but, due to a loophole in the law, she was able to briefly address the court on behalf of her children. While incarcerated, Garner described to reporters her filicide as righteous. Her youngest, an infant daughter, was returned to her care. Her defense attorney, John Jollifee, contested her remand to Archibald Gaines and insisted she be indicted for murder (with the tacit understanding she would be pardoned by the state’s abolitionist governor, Salmon P. Chase). Conversely, the prosecutor contended that the superseding power of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 entitled Gaines to an immediate return of her and the children as his property because he obtained a legal warrant prior to apprehending them. The defense underscored the implication of Garner’s sexual exploitation, which a witness declared apparent in the lighter complexion of her older two children. Though conflicted, the presiding magistrate, Commissioner John L. Pendery, ultimately concurred with the precedent of the federal law.
In February 1856, Gaines forced Garner, her husband, and their baby back to Kentucky, where he arranged their transport aboard a steamboat from Louisville to his brother Benjamin Gaines’s plantation along the Mississippi River in Arkansas in Chicot County near Columbia. For unclear reasons, her two older children did not accompany them. While en route, the boat upon which she was traveling collided with another, at which time Garner either jumped from the boat with her baby or was accidently thrown overboard. The baby was killed. Garner and her husband arrived, probably at the plantation’s river landing, but only remained in Arkansas a matter of months before Benjamin Gaines sold or leased the couple to a New Orleans family as house servants. Garner’s husband disclosed in a post–Civil War interview that Garner died there in 1858 from typhoid fever. Her burial location remains unknown.
Margaret Garner and her trials have inspired acclaimed literary and musical works. Toni Morrison based Sethe, the main character of her novel Beloved, on Garner. Oprah Winfrey later starred in this role and produced Beloved’s 1998 film adaptation. Additionally, Morrison partnered with composer Richard Danielpour to write the opera Margaret Garner, which premiered in 2005.
For additional information:
Boone County Library. “The Margaret Garner Story.” African Americans of the Kentucky Borderlands. https://omekas.bcplhistory.org/s/borderlands/page/GarnerStory (accessed April 12, 2023).
Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad. Cincinnati: Western Tract Society, 1876.
Griffin, Cynthia Wolff. “Margaret Garner: A Cincinnati Story.” Massachusetts Review 32 (Autumn 1991): 417–440.
Kentucky Museum. “Kentucky in the Eyes of Women: Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner.” https://kentucky-museum.org/margaret-garner/ (accessed April 12, 2023).
“Margaret Garner, a Runaway Slave Who Killed Her Own Daughter.” New York Times, January 31, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/margaret-garner-overlooked.html (accessed April 12, 2023).
“A Visit to the Slave Mother Who Killed Her Child.” American Baptist, February 12, 1856.
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