The moving sacrifice of Margaret Garner


Painting by
Thomas Satterwhite Noble
Date: 
Mon, 1856-01-28

*On this date in 1856, we celebrate the Margaret Garner story. This account is one of the most notorious runaway slave cases in pre-Civil War America.

Ms. Garner, her husband, children and other slaves stole a carriage and fled to Covington, where they ran across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, like thousands of other slaves. They hid overnight in the home of her cousin, a freeman. But the Garners were caught when frantic Slave catchers, armed with guns and carrying warrants, arrived and demanded their "property,” Ms. Garner, her four children and her husband.

Garner made an awful, frantic choice as she cowered with her family in a shack near Cincinnati's Mill Creek on this date in 1856. Gripping a knife, the 23-year-old shouted that she would rather see her children die than be returned to slavery at Maplewood. As the white men burst in, her husband fired several shots, and wounded one of the officers, but was soon overpowered and dragged out of the house. At this moment, Margaret Garner, seeing that their hopes of freedom were in vain, seized a butcher knife that lay on the table and with one stroke cut the throat of her little daughter, whom she probably loved the best.

She then attempted to take the life of the other children and to kill herself, but she was overpowered and hampered before she could complete her desperate work. The whole party was then arrested and lodged in jail. Their trial lasted two weeks, drawing crowds to the courtroom every day. The counsel for the defense brought witnesses to prove that the fugitives had been permitted to visit the city at various times previously. It was claimed that Margaret Garner had been brought here by her owners a number of years before, to act as nurse girl, and according to the law which liberated slaves who were brought into free States by the consent of their masters, she had been free from that time, and her children, all of whom had been born since then following the condition of the mother were likewise free.

The Commissioner decided that a voluntary return to slavery, after a visit to a free State, re- attached the conditions of slavery, and that the fugitives were legally slaves at the time of their escape. But in spite of touching appeals, of eloquent pleadings, the Commissioner remanded the fugitives back to slavery. He said that it was not a question of feeling to be decided by the chance current of his sympathies; the law of Kentucky and the United States made it a question of property. Margaret Garner died of Typhoid Fever in 1858 at Willow Grove.

Reference:
The African American Literature Book Club
55 West 116th Street #195
Harlem, NY 10026