The Story of a Fugitive Mother Who Killed to Protect Her Child from Slavery
In 1987, Ohio-born writer Toni Morrison published Beloved. The famous novel tells the story of former slave Sethe and her daughter living in post-Civil War Cincinnati. Those familiar with the book know that Sethe’s history is a dark one, in which she kills her own daughter and tries to kill her other three children when a group of men find her in Cincinnati and attempt to take her back to Sweet Home, the plantation in Kentucky from which she had recently escaped. But did you know that this part of the story is based on events that actually happened?
In 1856, Margaret Garner, her family and several other fugitive slaves crossed the frozen Ohio River into Cincinnati. They had planned to use the Underground Railroad to escape to Canada, but before they were able to leave the city, the family was found by slave catchers and U.S. Marshals at the home of Margaret’s uncle, former slave Joe Kite. “In the house were found four adults…and four children…the oldest near six years and the youngest a babe of about nine months,” the Cincinnati Gazette reported. “One of these, however, was lying on the floor dying, its head cut almost entirely off. There was also a gash about four inches long in the throat of the eldest, and a wound on the head of the other boy.” The youngest child’s head was bruised as well. “When [the officers] questioned the boys about their wounds they said the folks threw them down and tried to kill them,” the story continues (as reprinted in the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle, February 2, 1856, p. 3, col. 2).
The Cincinnati Slave Case, as it is sometimes called, was reported upon by newspapers all over the United States, but the coverage was particularly strong in Ohio newspapers. Some were horrified by what had transpired, but others regarded Margaret as a heroine. “Robert and Margaret fought bravely and desperately to protect themselves, their parents and their children in their right liberty…” reported the Salem Anti-Slavery Bugle on December 27, 1856 (p. 2, col. 4). “Such a deed excited universal horror and much sympathy. Some trembled as they reflected upon what must have been the sufferings of a woman, who would rather take the lives of her children with her own hands than that they should live to go back to that condition in which she had passed all her days.”
The fugitive slave hearing that followed was the longest of this era, lasting almost a month, as the judge deliberated over whether the Garners were to be tried as persons and charged with murder or tried as property under the Fugitive Slave Law. Her defense attorneys argued for the former option. If charged with murder, Margaret Garner could be tried in a free state and later be pardoned for her crime. Ultimately, the judge ruled that the Federal law—the Fugitive Slave Act— took precedence over the state law, and Margaret was returned to a slave-holding state with two of her children. Later, Ohio authorities obtained a warrant to arrest her for murder, but were never able to find her as her master kept moving her from city to city. She died in 1858.
The Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library contains original documents related to this case, including copies of the indictment for her arrest for murder that describe her crime and correspondence from Hamilton County’s prosecuting attorney, Joseph Cox, to Governor Salmon P. Chase describing some of the “circumstances of peculiar importance attending this case.” Click here to view these documents on Ohio Memory.
You can learn even more about Margaret Garner and other fugitive slave cases on Chronicling America. Search by her name or combine it with the words fugitive slave or cincinnati slave case. Limit your search to papers published in 1856 to read about the events of her capture and trial as it was happening. View the Fugitive Slave Cases Subject Guide on the Ohio Digital Newspaper Portal for more search tips and to learn about other fugitive slave cases.
by Jenni Salamon, Project Coordinator, NDNP-OH