On January 28, 1856, Margaret Garner was facing recapture and return to slavery when she killed her two-year-old daughter, Mary, and attempted to kill her other three children to prevent them from being re-enslaved.
Margaret, 22, was enslaved on the Archibald K. Gaines farm in Richwood, Kentucky. At the time of the escape, she was pregnant. The group attempting to flee included her 21-year-old husband Robert Garner, his parents, and her four children, ages nine months to six years.
Robert, enslaved on the Marshall farm near the Gaines estate, likely planned the escape. His work as a hired-out laborer, including selling hogs for different slaveholders, made him familiar with both Cincinnati and Covington.
The family fled Kentucky in record cold temperatures, abandoning horses and sleigh in Covington, then crossing the frozen Ohio River on foot. They reached the cabin of Margaret's cousin, Elijah Kite, who sought help from Quaker abolitionist Levi Coffin for the family's safe passage via the Underground Railroad. Instead, a U.S. Marshal's party which included Gaines and Marshall's son surrounded the cabin. Faced with imminent return to slavery, Margaret killed her daughter. The family was apprehended and jailed.
Because Margaret Garner was subject to the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and also liable for murder by the state of Ohio, the trial became the longest fugitive slave case of the antebellum era. Intense drama in the courtroom riveted the nation for almost a month. Insinuations of sexual abuse were never formalized; however, the speech that feminist abolitionist Lucy Stone delivered in court referred to the appearance of Margaret's children as "evidence" of the suspected rapes and Gaines's paternity. Newspaper and census reports describe the youngest children as "mulatto," "bright mulatto," or "almost white."
Steven Weisenburger, in Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South, theorizes that sexual violation may explain Margaret's motivation for running away and infanticide, noting that Margaret's pregnancies occurred after Archibald Gaines arrived in Richwood and were concurrent with his wife's pregnancies. As Weisenburger further notes, Gaines's extreme reaction to seeing the murdered toddler was also telling.
Margaret was never tried for the child's murder. Ironically, a federal judge overruled a state's right to prosecute for murder and upheld the Fugitive Slave Law supporting the treatment of enslaved persons not as humans, but as property‹foreshadowing the Dred Scott decision of 1857. The Garners, including Robert's parents, were remanded to their Kentucky slaveholders and then sold to a plantation in Mississippi where Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858.
Margaret's husband Robert was the lone survivor of the escape attempt and subsequent return to slavery. After serving for the Union in the Civil War, he gave an interview to the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle in 1870, 15 years after fleeing from Kentucky. At that time, he was still caring for his sons, Tom and Sam, now grown. Ten-month-old daughter Cilla drowned when she and Margaret were thrown overboard after their steamboat bound for the slave market in New Orleans collided with another ship. The outcome of Margaret's pregnancy is not known. Robert reported that Margaret's last words were "never to marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom." His death, recorded in 1871, probably resulted from a chest injury sustained while working aboard a ship. The potters' field in Price Hill in Cincinnati is likely his final resting place.
For more than 100 years, the story of Margaret Garner lay dormant until Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, Beloved, attracted artistic, scholarly, and public attention. Inspired by Morrison's book, Oprah Winfrey produced the movie in 1998. According to its creators, the opera also is an adaptation‹not a literal translation‹of the actual history and is meant to symbolize the plight of enslaved women and men beyond the characters of Margaret and Robert Garner.
Margaret Garner's story is important for several reasons. First, it is a story with resonance in our community, as Philadelphia has deep ties to the Underground Railroad. Second, it is a family story: the flight of an intact family makes this an unusual escape story. More than half of runaways on the informal network known as the Underground Railroad were young men, not women and children. Even fewer were whole families escaping as a unit. Furthermore, Robert plays a role not often displayed‹a Black man who not only survived a terrible ordeal, but who attempted to protect, defend, and free children (most of whom were probably not his own). Instead of a solo flight to freedom (with better odds for success), Robert stayed with the family. A third important theme is that of women and violence. Margaret's story symbolizes the plight of women and children under slavery.
The Garner case also symbolizes Black women's determination to resist their enslavement. In a single act of defiance, Margaret destroyed the master's "property," and likely, his progeny. The complex dynamics of slavery in which race, gender, and class play a significant role, help to explain Margaret's infanticide, her resistance to enslavement, and likely, her resolve to escape from sexual exploitation and abuse. If Margaret's story were more widely known, the triumph over her captors and the physical and sexual violence fundamental to the institution of slavery would have to be acknowledged.
Margaret Garner's story riveted the nation in 1856 with daily sensationalized newspaper accounts, armed anti- and pro-slavery forces roaming the streets of Cincinnati, and President Franklin Pierce mobilizing federal troops to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law. Her trial became the subject of intense national debate, addressing crucial issues in constitutional law and posing key questions at the core of the rift in the Union.
However, despite the significance of Garner's case in shaping our nation's history, her story had all but faded from public memory until Beloved‹the novel and the film, and now the opera. Today, nearly 150 years later, Margaret's desperate solution is again making headlines thanks to the vision of the opera's creative team. It is exciting to hope that, fueled by this powerful new artistic expression, this engrossing historical tragedy might reclaim its rightful place in our public consciousness.
Delores M. Walters, Ph.D., is Community Research Specialist at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Assistant Professor in the Sociology, Anthropology, and Philosophy Department & Institute for Freedom Studies at Northern Kentucky University.