"SHE WOULD KILL HERSELF...BEFORE SHE WOULD RETURN TO BONDAGE"
Margaret Garner, a fugitive slave from Kentucky, killed one of her children
rather than permit her to be returned to slavery. She drowned in a shipwreck
as she was being brought back to slavery.
Perhaps no case that came under my notice, while engaged in aiding
fugitive slaves, attracted more attention and aroused deeper interest and
sympathy than the case of Margaret Garner, the slave mother who killed her
child rather than see it taken back to slavery. This happened in the latter
part of January, 1856. The Ohio River was frozen over at the time, and the
opportunity thus offered for escaping to a free State was embraced by a number
of slaves living in Kentucky, several miles back from the river. A party of
seventeen, belonging to different masters in the same neighborhood, made
arrangements to escape together. There was snow on the ground and the roads
were smooth, so the plan of going to the river on a sled naturally suggested
itself. The time fixed for their flight was Sabbath night, and having managed
to get a large sled and two good horses, belonging to one of their masters,
the party of seventeen crowded into the sled and started on their hazardous
journey in the latter part of the night. They drove the horses at full speed,
and at daylight reached the River below Covington, opposite Wester Row. They
left the sled and horses here, and as quickly as possible crossed the river on
foot. It was now broad daylight, and people were beginning to pass about the
streets and the fugitives divided their company that they might not attract so
An old slave named Simon and his wife Mary, together with their son
Robert and his wife Margaret Garner and four children, made their way to the
house of a colored man named Kite, who had formerly lived in their
neighborhood and had been purchased from slavery by his father, Joe Kite.
They had to make several inquiries in order to find Kite's house, which was
below Mill Creek, in the lower part of the city. This afterward led to their
discovery; they had been seen by a number of persons on their way to Kite's,
and were easily traced by pursuers. The other nine fugitives were more
fortunate. They made their way up town and found friends who conducted them
to safe hiding-
where they remained until night. They were put on the Underground Railroad,
and went safely through to Canada....
In a few minutes...[Kite's] house was surrounded by pursuers-
masters of the fugitives, with officers and a posse of men. The door and
windows were barred, and those inside refused to give admittance. 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.
The 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-
the condition of the mother-
The Commissioner decided that a voluntary return to slavery, after a
visit to a free State, re-
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.
Source: Levi Coffin, Reminiscences (Cincinnati, 1876).