My Journey from Beloved

Classic Arts Features   My Journey from Beloved
The biographer of Kentucky slave Margaret Garner, whose story is retold by New York City Opera in September, reveals how Toni Morrison's novel inspired a 10-year quest to restore the lost heroine to the annals of American history.

In August 1850 a deputy U.S. marshal worked his way through a neighborhood of farms at Richwood Station, Kentucky, 18 miles south of Cincinnati. In his ledgers he tallied data for what would be the most extensive census in United States history. At Maplewood, the Archibald K. Gaines plantation, this Deputy Patterson recorded in the columns of one ledger the names, ages, sex, and birthplaces of Gaines, his mother, wife, and two children; and he valued Gaines's 297 acres at $29,000. In a second book he tallied Gaines's horses, sheep, cattle, hogs and stored foodstuffs. Finally he recorded Gaines's "Slave Inhabitants" in a third book. There, on page 193, I found Margaret Garner. Not that she was listed by name, for the Census Bureau saw no purpose in such data. She was simply the 17-year-old female mulatto listed in row five, who was neither deaf, dumb, blind, nor lunatic — the only details that suited the Census Bureau's purposes. Row nine listed Margaret's infant son Thomas, recently added to the bounty of Gaines, Boone County's 13th-richest citizen.

We now know the name of Margaret Garner only because six years later, in February 1856, she was the defendant in one of America's most notorious and widely publicized fugitive slave trials: Escaping Maplewood with her family, she was apprehended in Ohio and slew her two-year-old daughter rather than return her children to a life of slavery. For this reason alone, we have enough information on Margaret Garner to know that she was "the 17-year-old female mulatto" in that 1850 ledger.

I first located those 1850 ledger pages, the first public trace of Margaret Garner's existence and her world, in 1991, while spooling through microfilms at the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library. Early in what would be my 10-year research project, this was an electrifying moment. Enslaved persons in America generally were born, toiled and died without leaving identifiable traces in any public record. That is, unless they had done something noteworthy, like running for freedom or committing murder.

My search for Margaret Garner had begun in late 1987, when I first read Beloved, Toni Morrison's just-published novel of slavery and child murder. Shortly afterward I read that Morrison had mentioned to an interviewer that the germ of her stunning novel was the Garner infanticide, an old, apparently obscure northern Kentucky case. Jotting down these scant details, I considered hunting down the facts in order to supplement a reading of Beloved with my American literature students at Kentucky. After all, here we had local history inspiring a work of great national significance.

During the spring of 1988 serendipity gave these plans a further nudge when the University of Kentucky's art museum mounted a first-ever exhibition of works by the Lexington-born painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble. Trained in Europe, he became a mapmaker for the Confederate Army. Still, he disliked slavery, and produced two large genre paintings on the subject, as well as a small canvas depicting Margaret Garner's capture entitled The Modern Medea (1867). That he completed this work 11 years after the Garner infanticide shows that this event had obviously riveted his imagination. For despite the stylized poses of its human figures, Noble's painting concisely represents details from January 1856 newspaper accounts of the murder scene. Standing before Noble's Modern Medea and later culling references from the exhibition catalogue, I began to consider that this history, which catalogue co-author Albert Boime described as long-forgotten, would be compelling stuff for a scholarly article on Beloved and its background. It could all be tightly presented in 20 or so pages, I then believed.

At the time I was working on another book and thought that an article on the Garner case might be a useful diversion. Thus soon after the Noble exhibit I ran down some key texts: a few pages in Samuel May's 1861 polemic, The Fugitive Slave Law and Its Victims; a chapter on Margaret Garner in Cincinnati abolitionist Levi Coffin's 1876 Reminiscences; and a 1953 article by historian Julius Yanuck, who confined his research largely to May, Coffin, and 1856 Cincinnati newspaper stories, telling us nothing about Margaret herself. This was virtually the only scholarly work on the Garner case until 1991, when literary scholar Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her essay "'Margaret Garner': A Cincinnati Story," situated Garner's tale in the wider context of Cincinnati abolitionism. I became more and more motivated to approach the profound enigma of this story: Margaret's world and especially her motive, as Toni Morrison so brilliantly understood.

To crack the mystery of Margaret's motives and those of other key figures — especially her slaveholder, Gaines, and her Quaker abolitionist attorney, John Jolliffe, who championed Margaret's case during her long and shocking fugitive slave trial — meant engaging in what historians and anthropologists call "thick description." This required immersion in the daily and seasonal rounds of people's labor in urban Cincinnati and in Margaret's northern Kentucky agrarian community. One needed to understand people's complex familial, social, and economic relations in a slaveholding regime, including modes of resistance and institutions of repression. What were people's desires and yearnings on either side of the color line?

The project also required expanding the scope of research to include the years before and after Margaret's infanticide and fugitive slave trial. Thus I sifted through decades of newspaper stories treating life in northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, examined pertinent wills and property transfers, pored over the weekly "session books" of Richwood Presbyterian Church (where Margaret was baptized), as well as over the archived papers of local residents. Maplewood's then-owner, an aging, kindly gentleman who had married a Gaines descendant, allowed me to walk his land. Local archivists provided the tools and sources for working up family histories and biographies. Historians led me through an extensive course of readings in slavery studies.

By 1993 my files had burgeoned well beyond what was needed for a tidy scholarly article. Still, I hadn't yet fully grasped that the Garner case had been a signally important one in the run-up to the Civil War, worthy of a full-dress narrative history. Then, over the next two years, several discoveries converged. One was my finding on the newly digitized, publicly searchable Library of Congress database a reference to the family papers of John Pollard Gaines. He had been Margaret's first "owner," until in 1850 he sold Maplewood to his younger brother Archibald and moved his family to Oregon for a posting as second Territorial Governor. When I read those documents in early 1995 in the New York State Library at Albany, the papers, partly charred from a 1913 fire and unexamined since that date, threw open a window on the world of Maplewood plantation. For here were personal letters, bills of sale, and legal documents treating all facets of daily life at Maplewood. Some covered J. P. Gaines's ownership of and trafficking in slaves. Letters written after John's 1850 appointment also included discussions of Archibald's mental instability.

I also realized that in its day the Garner case had been even more widely written about than the more famous Dred Scott case, which had already, by 1995, been the subject of numerous books. But not only was the Garner case the longest fugitive slave trial on record, it was also the most spectacular. The legal process was sensationalized by the child-murder and by implications that Archibald Gaines was the father of Margaret's two-year-old daughter Mary, whose throat Margaret had cut. Here, then, was high courtroom drama, in addition to every legal issue at stake in the Dred Scott case then being argued before the Supreme Court.

I was further surprised to discover that Margaret's fame during the last antebellum years had inspired numerous poems and three full-length fictions. One book published just two months after the Garner trial was essentially an antislavery novelization drawn from newspaper accounts. Another, by her attorney Jolliffe, was composed as a lurid romance clearly intended to recoup losses from his pro bono lawyering, as well as to support his antislavery stance. The third, by a Kentuckian named Henry James (no relation to that other Henry James, then just a teenager), was a biased, proslavery version of Margaret's story. Most startling was the fact that both antislavery tales turned on the premise of the dead child's ghost returning to haunt not the mother, as in Beloved, but her lecherous master. Finally, these texts, with their many factual distortions, force another question: Could Margaret's passage into the domain of myths published to fix her story in public memory have had the contrary effect of practically erasing it — until Beloved led us back to the bloody facts?

Finally I realized that even as these novels were appearing, Margaret's tribulations were continuing. After the trial, when Margaret and her family were remanded to slavery, Archibald Gaines moved them around northern Kentucky in an elaborate shell game designed to shield them from public view and from an Ohio warrant for Margaret's extradition on a murder charge. In April 1856, Gaines sneaked them aboard a steamboat bound down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Yet just 16 hours out of Louisville that boat collided with another and split in half. As it sank, Margaret either jumped or fell overboard (depending on the source) with her surviving girl child, who either intentionally or unintentionally drowned before Margaret was pulled, unwillingly, from the icy waters. Then, having escaped submersion in the frigid river, Margaret seemingly slipped below the surface of public notice; I was only able to learn that after laboring briefly at other Gaines properties in Arkansas and New Orleans, the Garners were sold to Mississippi cotton baron DeWitt Clinton Bonham. At Willow Grove, Margaret, merely another of Bonham's 160 slaves, died in the late summer of 1858, the victim of a typhoid epidemic. We wouldn't even know that much had Margaret's husband Robert not survived his remaining years of slavery and then months of service in a Colored Infantry regiment of Union soldiers to relate this, in 1870, to a Cincinnati journalist.

Unlike the dramatic poems, novels, and opera based on it, the historical tale of Margaret Garner offers no formally satisfying dénouement. There was no triumphal fulfillment of Freedom's promise, no symbolically powerful death scene. Yet it remains a great American story, one worthy to resume its rightful place in public memory.

Steven Weisenburger, author of Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder (Hill & Wang, 1998), holds the Jacob and Frances Mossiker Chair in Humanities at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He specializes in American literary and cultural history, especially the cultural history of race, from 1800 forward.

Today’s Most Popular News: