Margaret Garner was an enslaved African woman in pre-Civil War America who was known for killing her daughter rather than allowing the child to be returned to slavery.
Margaret Garner and her family had escaped in January 1856 across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, but they were apprehended by U. S. Marshals acting under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. When Slave catchers and U.S. Marshals found Garner, she killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery. She had wounded her other children, preparing to kill them and herself, when she was caught.
Margaret Garner's trial lasted for two weeks, a typical fugitive slave hearing would have lasted less than a day. The core issue was whether the Garner would be tried as a person, and charged with the murder of her daughter, or tried as property under the Fugitive Slave Law. The defense attorney argued that Ohio's right to protect its citizens should take precedence. The slave catchers and owner argued for the precedence of federal law over the state. The presiding judged ruled that Federal fugitive warrants had supervening authority.
After the trial, Garner was sent back south were she was sold in New Orleans.
Margaret Garner's story was the inspiration for the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 and was a finalist for the 1987 National Book Award. Beloved was adapted into a film and, was the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner, composed by Richard Danielpour.
Margaret Garner's story also inspired Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble's 1867 painting, The Modern Medea. The painting, owned by Cincinnati manufacturer Procter and Gamble Corporation, was presented as a gift to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where it remains on permanent display.
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