The Margaret Garner Story

On the cold night of January 27, 1856, a pregnant Margaret Garner and her four children, owned by Archibald Gaines, escaped with Margaret's husband Robert, and his parents, Simon and Mary, slaves of James Marshall. Nine slaves from nearby farms accompanied them as well. Everyone crowded into a horse-drawn sleigh and sped down ice-covered roads to the Ohio River, 16 miles away.

Because they were in the middle of a particularly cold winter, the river was frozen and the escaping slaves were able to cross by foot. By the time they made it across, it was daylight. As it would be suspicious for 17 African Americans to walk down the streets of Cincinnati together, they separated into two groups. The nine friends of the Garners made it to friends in the Underground Railroad, and on to Canada. The Garners would suffer a much less fortunate fate.

After asking for directions several times, the Garners found the home of their family member Margaret's free cousin, Elijah Kite. After a quick greeting, Elijah then went to a nearby shop owned by Levi Coffin, "President" of the Underground Railroad, to report the new arrivals and receive directions for the next stop of the Underground Railroad. He hurried home to move the Garners along; however, shortly after he arrived Archibald Gaines, James Marshall, a group of their friends, and a force of U.S. Marshalls surrounded the house and demanded the Garners' surrender. Someone who the Garners asked for directions had betrayed them.

In the cabin, the Garners and Kites barred the doors and windows. Robert fired two rounds from a revolver, which kept the aggressors at bay for a short while. Perhaps realizing their efforts were futile, Margaret Garner grabbed a butcher knife and turned on her 3-year-old daughter and nearly decapitated her. The two Garner men began to scream and run around the cabin in terror. Margaret then turned to her mother-in-law, Mary Garner, and said, "Mother, help me kill the children." Mary began to cry and hid under the bed. Elijah Kite's wife finally managed to disarm Margaret, who sobbed that she would rather kill every one of her children than have them taken back across the river.

One deputy marshal forced a window open, and then jumped into the cabin. Robert then aimed his pistol at him. When the deputy marshal attempted to wrestle the pistol from Simon, the weapon was fired and two fingers were shot from the marshal's hand; the ball ricocheted, hitting the Marshal in the lip and knocking out several teeth. He ran out of the cabin. 

Archibald Gaines and his group used a log as a battering ram, and knocked down the front door. Margaret Garner fought wildly, but was overpowered. When the pursuing group was finally able to look inside the cabin, they found the lifeless body of Margaret Garner's daughter along with two other children bleeding profusely and an infant covered in bruises. One of Gaines' party took the dying girl into his arms, but the crowd that had gathered wouldn't let her be taken with the other slaves. A moment later the child died. 

The Garners were then brought to the federal courthouse in Cincinnati. Archibald Gaines asked John L. Pendery, a United States commissioner for the Southern District of Ohio, for a certificate to bring his slaves back to Kentucky. Because James Marshall's son didn't bring a power of attorney, he couldn't reclaim Simon and his parents and the hearings were postponed until the next day. The slaves were kept in a cell at the Cincinnati Police Station. Gaines came in with the body of the dead little girl that Margaret Garner had killed. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 29, 1856, commented bitterly, "He was taking it to Covington for interment that it might rest in ground consecrated to slavery."

Margaret Garner sat in her cell and waited for judgment as though stupefied, except when someone complimented her handsome boy. She replied sadly, "You should have seen my little girl that died, that was the bird." While there, she was also asked about a scar on the left side of her forehead running down to her cheek. She replied, "White man struck me."

While the Gaines and Marshalls were trying to use federal law, the Fugitive Slave Act to be exact, to have their slaves returned to Kentucky, abolitionists were working as well. Judge John Burgoyne supplied a writ of habeas corpus which demanded that the slaves appear before him so that he could decide if the marshals had legally arrested the slaves. The law gave precedence for slaves who had previously resided in free-states to be made free by living there. Because Margaret had been brought to live in Cincinnati with John Pollard Gaines, Archibald's brother and Margaret's previous owner, her defenders were prepared to argue that she was legally free and that her arrest was illegal. The same was true of her children, as they were born into freedom by a free mother. Judge Burgoyne knew that this would not be an easy fight, so he traveled to Columbus to meet with Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, who assured him that the process of the state courts should be enforced… and authorized him to say to the sheriff that he was backed by the whole power and command of the Governor.

The writ was served by Deputy Sheriff Jeff Buckingham, who came to the police station with a group of assistants. The U.S. Marshals refused to obey the state's order of habeas corpus. An antislavery group outside demanded that Buckingham and his group take the salves by force. As trouble was brewing, the marshals tried to lure Buckingham out of the building with an invitation for a drink. The marshals claimed that the mayor James J. Faran had given them permission to use the police station to hold the slaves. Faran later fervently denied this, and advised the marshals to yield, which they finally did.

Sheriff Buckingham loaded the slaves onto an omnibus, or a horse drawn carriage meant for carrying several people. Buckingham asked the driver to take the slaves to the county jail. The marshals then jumped on the carriage and drew their pistols, two or three held down the deputy sheriff and demanded that the driver go to the U.S. Courthouse. And so that's where they went, with Buckingham's assistants chasing behind.

The marshals brought the prisoners into the federal courthouse, closely followed by Buckingham and other sheriffs. One marshal urged the crowd, which had supporters of both sides, to assist the U.S. authorities in driving out the state officers. Almost all of the sheriffs were driven out except for Buckingham, who also appealed to the crowd for aid in serving the writ of the state court. Finally, Hamilton County Sheriff Gazoway Brashears brought a group of his own officers and took the Garners, but agreed to produce them at the hearings to take place before U.S. Commissioner Pendery. The Garners were then locked in the county jail. Brashears' attorneys advised him that he hadn't acted lawfully, and that the U.S. Marshals had priority. Brashears stated that even though the prisoners were housed in the Hamilton County jail, they were actually the legal custody of U.S. Marshal Hiram H. Robinson. And so the question was settled, and it seemed that the case would proceed before Commissioner Pendery.

The hearings began on January 30, 1856, three days after the escape from Kentucky. Margaret and her children were tried separately from Simon, Mary and Robert. John Jolliffe, a prominent anti-slavery attorney in Cincinnati, acted a chief counsel for the Garners, while Colonel Francis T. Chambers of Cincinnati, and two other lawyers from Covington represented the claimants, Archibald Gaines and James Marshall.

As soon as the hearing started, Joliffe, the Garner's lawyer asked for a postponement. He needed more time to compile evidence that the Garners had, with the consent of their owners, been in Ohio before. This is because he was going to argue that the constitution of Ohio forbade slavery on Ohio soil, and so when the slaves had resided indefinitely in Ohio, they became free, a status that could not be taken from them. He would also argue that because Margaret Garner was free at the time of her children's births, they were born free. The Gaines' lawyer, Colonel Chambers would argue that whatever the effect of the Garners' previous visits to Ohio, their voluntary return to Kentucky removed any free status. Joliffe's request for a postponement was granted by Commissioner Pendery.

During this postponement, the coroner performed his inquest into the death of the Garner's youngest daughter. The coroner's jury found that, "the murdered child was almost white, and was a little girl of rare beauty," and that she had been killed by her mother, Margaret Garner. The two Garner men were named as accessories. The state of Ohio then issued warrants for the arrest of all four adults on a charge of murder.

When the hearing resumed for Margaret Garner, she testified that at the age of seven she had served in Cincinnati as a nursemaid to her former owner, John P. Gaines, for Archibald's brother's baby daughter. Although the Fugitive Slave Law expressly forbade testimony by a slave in his own defense, the Commissioner allowed Margaret Garner to give this evidence as to her claimed free status because it involved the status of her children. Joliffe asked for his clients to be turned over to the state for prosecution for murder. Though this seemed strange, he stated that his clients had assured him that they would go singing to the gallows rather than return to slavery. Also, the right of Ohio to punish for a crime must be superior to private claims. Otherwise a fugitive slave might shoot U.S. Marshals or even the Commissioner, and not be prosecuted until after the Fugitive Slave Law had run its course. The opposition argued that this reasoning would defeat the operation of the law, since a fugitive would only need to break some small state law and he would be beyond his master's reach. Because of the large number of ground-breaking claims, Commissioner Pendery set the date of his decision for a month later, March 12.

After the adjournment, there was a meeting of spectators where a famed abolitionist and women's rights activist spoke. She drew tears from many listeners when she pleaded for sympathetic understanding of the Garners. She stated: "The faded faces of the negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her little daughter to that life, she killed it. With my own teeth would I tear open my veins and let the earth drink my blood, rather than to wear the chains of slavery. How then could I blame her for wishing her child to find freedom with God and the angels, where no chains are?"

After more arguments over who had legal custody over the slaves, the state or the federal government, Commissioner Pendery gave his decision. He announced that certificates of ownership would be granted, and the slaves would be delivered to their former masters. Simon Garner had never been in Ohio before; clearly he was a fugitive. The other Garners were recoverable, because even though the law of Ohio forbid slavery, it could not annul the relationship permanently. He stated that even though the master abandoned his legal power over the slave by coming to Ohio, the slave also equally abandoned his claim to freedom by going back to Kentucky. The state government was still trying to hold onto the Garners in order to try them for murder, but instead the Gaines and Marshall families were allowed to take their slaves home, as long as they returned them for their trial for murder.

Across the river in Kentucky, the victors were given a hero's welcome. U.S. Marshal Robinson declared that he was only doing his job, but that he was glad to have performed "an act that added one more link to the glorious chain that bound the Union."

Even though Gaines had stated that he would wait for extradition proceedings, he had already sent Margaret Garner down river to the Deep South by the time that Ohio officials attempted to extradite her. The Governor of Kentucky, Charles S. Morehead expressed his extreme regret and indignation, and assured the Governor of Ohio, Salmon P. Chase, that they were working to bring her back to Kentucky. Governor Chase was furious. Antislavery activists criticized Chase for allowing Garner to slip through his fingers.

On the way to the South, the Garners' ship was in a crash, and Margaret fell into the water with her child in her arms. Margaret was rescued, but her child drowned.  Margaret rejoiced that still another of her children had found death rather than slavery. Reports reached Governor Chase that Garner had been brought back to Kentucky and housed in the Covington Jail. By the time Chase's officer reached the jail to get her, the jailer informed him that Margaret Garner had been taken away the night before on orders from Gaines. Gaines was publicly denounced for his duplicity, and he wrote an indignant letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer stating that he had twice made Margaret Garner available for Ohio, but that each time Chase had taken too much time. He stated that he had doubts that the abolitionists really wanted to bring her to Ohio at all, that they really just wanted to use her for their political gain. He promised that as soon as he knew where she was located, he would make her whereabouts known so that the Ohioans could go get her themselves. But, if Gaines ever did find out where she wound up, he never made it known. Margaret Garner was never heard of again.

Not many knew what happened to the Garners until an 1870 interview with Robert Garner in the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle. Robert stated that they were sold down river to Archibald's brother, Legrand Gaines. Margaret would die in 1858 of typhoid fever. Robert would later serve with the Union in the Civil War.

The people of Ohio were very disturbed by the fact that possession of the Garners for trial was never gained. No one appreciated that the Fugitive Slave Law took precedence over Ohio's criminal laws. When the second Garner child died, that only exacerbated their feelings. The angry state legislature then enacted a law requiring state officers to take persons out of the possession of the United States authorities upon the issuance of a writ of habeas corpus, and denounced the Fugitive Slave Law as unconstitutional and "repugnant to the plainest principles of justice and humanity."

Cases such as this one are what contributed to the increasing friction between the states and the Union, even though in this case it was an individual state working against slavery and the Union working for it.