Margaret Garner was a slave woman with a national reputation in the years before the American Civil War. In January 1856, she fled with her husband and four children (some sources say that she had six children) from her owner in Kentucky. The Garners successfully crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, but a group of slave owners found the family shortly thereafter. Before the slaveholders captured the fugitive slaves, Margaret Garner used a butcher knife to kill her young daughter. Garner also tried to kill her other children, but she was unsuccessful in her attempt. Garner did not want her children returned to a life of slavery.
The Hamilton County Grand Jury indicted Garner and her husband on murder charges. A United States commissioner then ordered the Garners released from jail and returned to their owner. A federal district judge agreed with the commissioner and ordered the Hamilton County sheriff to turn the Garners over to a United States marshal to return the slaves to their owner. A probate judge from Hamilton County tried to intervene, but the federal marshal had already transported the Garners back to their owner in Kentucky.
Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, a Republican and an abolitionist, demanded that Kentucky's governor immediately return the Garners to Ohio so that they could stand trial on the murder charges. Chase did not want a precedent to be set that would allow Kentucky slaveholders to come to Ohio and reclaim fugitive slaves. The Garners' owner then sold the family to a slaveholder in New Orleans, Louisiana. On the family's trip to New Orleans, the steamboat that the Garners were traveling upon collided with another vessel. One of Margaret Garner's other children drowned in the accident.
Margaret Garner's story of her willingness to kill her own child to prevent her from being returned to a life in bondage received national attention. A growing number of people, including many Ohioans, began to view slavery as an inhumane institution by the late 1850s. Margaret Garner was reported by her husband to have died of typhoid fever in Louisiana in 1858.
The story of Margaret Garner was the basis of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel Beloved by Ohio native Toni Morrison. An opera entitled Margaret Garner with libretto by Toni Morrison and music by Richard Danielpour premiered in 2005.
- Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad. New York, NY: Arno Press, 1968.
- Fess, Simeon D., ed. Ohio: A Four-Volume Reference Library on the History of a Great State. Chicago, IL: Lewis Publishing Company, 1937