Kentucky in the Eyes of Women: Margaret “Peggy” Garner

The below is the script for Season 5, Episode 7 of our podcast, Dime Stories. Listen to the episode on Anchor, Google Podcasts, or Spotify.

Today, we continue looking at the stories of individual enslaved women, this time with the more infamous of the two: Margaret “Peggy” Garner, who became infamous a s fugitive slave who killed her own daughter to keep her from returning to enslavement. Margaret’s story has been widely circulated, due to the media attention it received during her trial in 1856, its subsequent use by abolitionists to illustrate the plight of enslaved women and children, and more recently having inspired Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel, Beloved. But I’m ahead of myself.

Margaret was born into slavery in 1833 or 1834 on a plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, the product of rape by a white slave master – making her a “mulatto.” She worked primarily as a house slave, often traveling with her masters to assist them. This was because as a mulatto, her skin was lighter – making it more acceptable for Margaret to be seen accompanying her mistress and assisting as a personal servant. On some of these trips, she was taken into free territories such as Cincinnati, Ohio – and while her masters shopped, Margaret likely observed how close freedom really was for her.

In 1849, Margaret married another slave, Robert Garner, and the couple had four children. This was the 1850s – the Underground Railroad was at its height, especially in nearby Cincinnati where fugitive slaves were then transported to freedom in Canada. Robert and Margaret longed for freedom – and decided to escape with their children.

On the evening of Sunday, January 27, 1856, they escaped the plantation with a group of other slaves by taking a sled and horses across the Ohio River. They headed towards Covington, then to the house of Joseph Kite – a freed Black man – in Cincinnati. Their journey took around 12 hours, and they arrived on Monday morning. Their master, wanting his property back, assembled Federal marshals and stormed Kite’s home that same day.

What the Federal marshals found when they encountered Margaret and her children shocked the nation. The episode was recounted in an 1876 book by Levi Coffin:

“The fugitives were determined to fight, and to die, rather than to be taken back to slavery. Margaret, the mother of the four children, declared that she would kill herself and her children before she would return to bondage. The slave men were armed and fought bravely. The window was first battered down with a stick of wood, and one of the deputy marshals attempted to enter, but a pistol shot from within made a flesh wound on his arm and caused him to abandon the attempt. The pursuers then battered down the door with some timber and rushed in. The husband of Margaret 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.”

Robert and Margaret were represented by abolitionist and lawyer John Jolliffe, who argued that Margaret’s prior trips to free territories entitled her and her children to freedom. Notably, “Newspaper coverage often described her physical appearance, and noted that she gave her testimony while holding her youngest child. The Cincinnati Gazette reported: “The babe, with its little hands, was continually fondling her face but she rarely noticed it, and her general expression was one of extreme sadness. Only once, when it put its hand to her mouth, we observed her smile upon it, and playfully bite its little fingers with her lips.”

The argument fell on deaf ears, as the judge denied the couple’s plea for freedom and returned them to their master. Jolliffe – determined to free them – convinced officials to arrest Margaret on the charge of murdering her daughter, thinking that the trial would give her another chance at freedom.

Unfortunately, before the arrest could be made, Margaret was relocated to other plantations. She was first sent to New Orleans, and during the journey their steamboat collided with another, and Margaret lost her infant daughter, Cilla. She was then sold to her master’s brother in Arkansas. Margaret died just two years later from typhoid fever; seven years short from freedom.

What Matilda and Margaret’s stories demonstrate is, firstly, that enslaved women’s narratives from Kentucky exist – perhaps in more detail than largely given credit for, but also that their stories hint as the trials and difficulties of life in slavery – something most modern audiences can barely imagine, let alone fully comprehend. As we discuss Black lives in our country today, the history of slavery in Kentucky must not only be recognized and told – but also reckoned with. Matilda’s story forces us to see the everyday lives of enslaved women, while Margaret’s forces us to reckon with what that life meant emotionally and psychologically – both for enslaved women then, and for their descendants now.

As journalist Rebecca Carroll recounted in a 2019 New York Times article,

“Garner’s story has been preserved in history as both sensational and singular. It writ large a question that had been unanswered in the homes and hearts of whites in pre-Civil War America: Was slavery a fate worse than death? Garner, with knife in hand, gave an answer that was impossible to ignore.”

Recounting the various fictionalized accounts of Garner’s life, she went on to state, “Only in these fictionalized versions of Garner are we given an idea of who she might have been as a black woman with an interior life, not just a runaway slave who committed a heinous crime. She continues to be measured not by infamy, but by the shadows of her fortitude. As [Toni] Morrison told NPR in 2010 while talking about the opera “Margaret Garner”:

“The interest is not the fact of slavery, the interest is what happens internally, emotionally, psychologically, when you are in fact enslaved and what you do in order to transcend that circumstance. That really is what ‘Margaret Garner’ reveals.”

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