Boone County Kentucky Historical Society

Margaret Garner - Boone County Slave

Margaret Garner


By Ruth Wade Cox Brunings, 2012

Margaret Garner was born enslaved in Boone County, Kentucky. In January 1856 she made a dramatic escape for freedom. She fled Kentucky with her husband, Robert, their four children and Robert's parents, Simon and Mary. Robert and his family escaped on his owner's horse-drawn sled to Covington and then walked across the frozen Ohio River. They were among a total of seventeen slaves who became fugitives that Sunday night. The Garners were pursued and captured by their owners and U S Marshals at the home of Margaret's freed cousin, Elijah Kite, near Mill Creek in Cincinnati. The other nine slaves found safe houses and were successful in their escape.

Resolving to kill her children rather than see them returned to slavery, Margaret seized a butcher knife, killed her two and half year old daughter Mary and injured the two boys. Mary's head was almost severed from her body. Robert fought bravely and inflicted a gun shot wound on a member of the posse before they were overpowered.

The Garners were imprisoned and stood trial in Cincinnati. The prolonged trial received national press coverage, and the attention of renown abolitionists, the President of the United States and the Governors of both Ohio and Kentucky. The National Guard had to be called out to respond to demonstrations in the streets. There was a judicial dispute between the federal court and the state court over which trial to hold first. The federal court took precedence and the Garners were tried as fugitive slaves. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was upheld by the judge and the slaves were remanded back to their owners. Before Margaret was requisitioned by Governor Chase to return to Ohio to stand trial for the capital crime of murder of her daughter, the Garners were "sold down the river". Both the Cincinnati federal judge and the Ohio governor were opposed to slavery but were sworn to follow the law. Levi Coffin's plan was to have Margaret convicted of murder so she could remain in Ohio and then later be pardoned by Governor Chase. Lucy Stone had a plan to buy the slaves and money was raised for this purpose.

Margaret's baby daughter Sylla drowned in a steamboat collision during the trip south. The Garners were sent to one of the Gaines brothers, LeGrand Gaines, a cotton broker in New Orleans, and later sold to a plantation at Tennessee Landing in Mississippi where Margaret died of typhoid fever in 1858. Robert joined the Union Army and returned to Cincinnati a free man after the Civil War where he died of consumption in 1872. The two sons remained on a small farm in Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Newspaper accounts during the trial described the Garners as well fed, well clothed, well mannered and intelligent. They prayed and sang hymns while imprisoned. The children were described as happy and playful. Margaret's affect in court was described as detached or depressed. At the age of twenty two Margaret had four children and was pregnant. Letters from visiting Gaines relatives described Margaret as having a violent temper and frequently fighting with Nellie, the cook. This cousin said as a child she liked Margaret but was afraid of Nellie.

Margaret joined Richwood Presbyterian Church in March of 1855, where 115 of the members were slaves. Margaret evidenced the depth of her religious convictions by joining the church and later by rejoicing that her two daughters were in heaven when they died. Margaret would have known that murder was morally and legally wrong as well as church discipline for transgressors and criminal justice for offenders.

Presbyterians led the anti-slavery movement in Kentucky, joined by Methodists and Baptists. Presbyterians believed slavery was morally wrong but could only be ended by the government. Therefore, they saw that the role of the church was to change the hearts of men so men would change the law. All were members of the Presbyterian Church - slave owners, slaves, non-slave owners and freed slaves. The Presbyterian Church was committed to world-wide missionary work which included Africans and African Americans. Slaves were members of the Presbyterian Church and seen as equal before God.

Margaret stated in court that old Mrs. Gaines was her owner. This is supported by Gaines family letters. Mrs. Gaines moved from the Gaines farm in Walton to the Maplewood farm following the death of her husband, Abner Gaines, in 1839 and the marriage of her youngest daughter, Mildred, in 1841. She brought slaves with her. Margaret was referred to in letters as Mrs. Gaines's house girl and "pet". Margaret testified that she traveled to Cincinnati at the age of seven with John and his family so she was apparently living at Maplewood at that time. Margaret's mother, Drusylla called Sylla, and her father, Duke, were living at Maplewood also and Drusylla was a member of Richwood Church.

John Pollard Gaines sold Maplewood to a younger brother, Archibald, in November 1849 as he was leaving Kentucky to become Governor of the Territory of Oregon. Archibald's first wife, Margaret, died in January 1849 and he married her sister, Elizabeth, in Kenton County in April 1850. Elizabeth and her two bachelor brothers moved to Maplewood and Elizabeth raised her sister's children with her own. John's house burned in 1850 and was rebuilt by Archibald, during which time there were white construction men working at Maplewood.

When John left Kentucky for Oregon, Margaret requested that he take her with him. John said when he left Kentucky he left slavery behind him. Margaret requested, unsuccessfully, during the trail that John be sent for to testify in her behalf. During the time Archibald lived at Maplewood there was correspondence between the Gaines brothers about the possibility of selling all of the Maplewood slaves as they were becoming "unruly". Hannah, a Maplewood slave, was cited by the Elders at Richwood Church for behavior and language "unbefitting her profession". Hannah repented.

Margaret and Robert, who lived on the nearby Marshall farm, were married in 1849. Prior to their marriage, Robert had been hired out to Covington twice for limited periods of time, in the fall of 1848 to William Timberlake and in 1847 to Mrs. Poor. His father, Simon, not Robert, was sold to George Anderson in Clark County and bought back by James Marshall in April 1855. James Marshall, a widower and in poor health, evidently had financial problems which had necessitated the hiring out of Robert and the sale of Simon. A neighbor at the 1856 trial stated "Marshall's slaves generally went where they wanted in the neighborhood." Another witness at the trial testified that he recognized Robert as the man he saw in Cincinnati "by his complexion". There was a 24 year old male mulatto slave listed on the September 1850 census at the Marshall farm. The newspapers reported that Robert was 26 years old in January 1856. His death certificate recorded his age as 43 in April 1871.

Margaret was listed on the 1850 census as a mulatto. The newspapers described Margaret and the two daughters as mulattos. The first son, Thomas, was listed on the 1850 census as black. The second son, Samuel, was listed on the 1870 census as black.

Speculation about the paternity of Margaret's mulatto daughters have sparked multiple theories about her reason for becoming a fugitive - from sexual abuse to termination of an adulterous relationship. What is known is the genetic possibility of mulatto parents having both black and mulatto children. Margaret and Robert were never separated, they fled as a family and were sold as a family.

During the winter of 1856 almost two hundred slaves from Northern Kentucky fled and became fugitives. Nine of the fifteen Maplewood slaves were in this total number, including Margaret and her four children on January 27 and four others four days later. Why? There was opportunity - the Ohio River was frozen providing a bridge of ice. There was the contagious of hope for freedom - spread through the slave community by African Americans and abolitionists. For the Garners, there was an organizer- apparently Robert. There was a resource - the Marshall's sled and horses. There was timing - Sunday was their day off. There was motivation - family unification. Robert's father, Simon, had been separated from his family for many years and only bought back within the year. There was rebellion against oppression. There was religious conviction about a moral life on earth and a better life after death. Margaret stated that she fled for freedom. Implicit in her statement was the universal and enduring quest for freedom.

Margaret's possible reasons for killing her daughters and attempting to kill her sons are complex. Her motivation might include her new found religion I her mental status as well as vengeance toward her owner who had thwarted her escape. She expressed a religious conviction that heaven was a better place for her children. She was described as having a violent temper with physically assaultive behavior. The current mental health diagnosis for this condition is intermittent explosive disorder (lED), an impulse control disorder, a violent reaction to loss of control resulting in extreme aggressive behavior preceded by anxiety and fear. It has been proposed that her vengeance was also directed toward the whiteness of her children. Infanticide of light skinned children by black mothers was a documented practice during Slavery. Her stated reason was that she would rather kill her children than allow them to be returned to slavery.

In an interview by the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle published March 11, 1870 Robert said that Margaret's last words to him were never to marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom, which she believed would soon come. Robert remarried, but was listed as a widower on his death certificate in 1872. In the interview Robert stated that he then suspected but now firmly believed that Margaret's cousin had sold them back to their masters. If so, Margaret was betrayed by her family and then by the abolitionists. No requisition was sent to any other southern state for her to be returned to Ohio to stand trial for murder. Robert was not charged for assault with a deadly weapon. The money collected during the trial to buy their freedom was not used for this purpose. Peace was restored to the streets of Cincinnati and the Garners were forgotten. Margaret, the individual, was sacrificed for the cause of abolition.

Margaret's contribution to the anti-slavery movement was profound as her trial received national press coverage, the attention of Governor Chase of Ohio, Governor Moorhead of Kentucky, President Buchanan and prominent abolitionists including Levi Coffin and Lucy Stone. The trial galvanized abolitionist sentiment. It also polarized the feelings of the North and the South over states rights and slavery. Margaret's story became the basis for a novel by Toni Morrison, Beloved, (1983) which was made into a movie by Oprah Winfree (1998) and became the inspiration for an opera, "Margaret Gamer" (2005). Both are fiction, not historical accounts. The book which is an accurate historic account is Who Speaks for Margaret Gamer, (2010) by Mark Reinhardt. - Other books are seriously flawed with factual errors and false assumptions.  

Ruth Wade Cox Brunings   2/2012  

Did Margaret's brutal murder of her daughter demonstrate "the inhumanity of slavery" or "the inhumanity of slaves?" (Karen Samples, Cincinnati Enquirer, February 2,2002.)

Boone County; Census Reports of Boone County, KY by J.J.Milar, Assistant Marshall,
& 1860.

-----------------; Deed Books of Boone County, KY.

Hamilton County Ohio Death Records 1870-1873, Vol II, BkA.

Issaquena Genealogy and History Project, 1860 Federal Census of Issaquena County,
Mississippi, Thos S
ellers, Assistant Marshall, June 1860.

Madison Parish, Census Report of Madison Parish, LA, Assistant Marshall, June 1970.

Brunings, Ruth Wade Cox, "Slavery and the Tragic Story of Two Families - Gaines and
Garner,"Northern Kentucky Heritage
, Volume 12, Number 2,2004, pages 37-45.

Bynum, Victoria E., Unruly Women, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill,

McKee, Geoffrey R., Why Mothers Kill, Oxford University Press, New York, NY,2006.

Reinhardt, Mark, Who Speaks for Margaret Garner, University of Minnesota Press,
Nov 2010

Yanuck, Julius, "The Gamer Fugitive Slave Case, " Mississippi Valley Historical Review,
Volume XL, Number 1, June 1953.

Richwood Church Session Books, 1934-1942.

Gaines Family Bibles

Gaines Family Letters, 1800's & 1900's.
Gaines Family Interviews, 1900's
& 2000's.

Newspapers 1825-2002:

Boone County Recorder
Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Daily Chronicle
Covington Journal

 [The views and opinions expressed in this essay are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Boone County Historical Society and/or any other contributors to this website.]