Margaret Garner (called Peggy) was an enslaved African American woman in pre-Civil War America who was notorious – or celebrated – for killing her own daughter rather than see the child returned to slavery. Her story was the inspiration for the novel Beloved by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, as well as for her libretto for the early 21st century opera Margaret Garner, composed by Richard Danielpour.
Garner was born on a farm called Maplewood in Kentucky, probably the daughter of the plantation owner. When both were 15, Margaret married Robert Garner from a neighboring plantation and had one son, Thomas, described as dark-skinned. Robert was frequently hired out to work on distant farms and Margaret’s three other children (Samuel, Mary, and Priscilla) would each be born a few months after the plantation owner’s own children. These light skinned children were likely the children of Margaret and her current owner, the brother of the man who had owned the plantation when she was born. Levi Coffin described Margaret Garner, at the time of her arrest, as “a mulato, about five feet high … she appeared to be about twenty-one or twenty-three years old.” She also had an old scar on the left side of her forehead and cheek, which she said had been caused when a “White man struck me.” Her two boys were about four and six years old, Mary, 2 and a half, and Priscilla, an infant.
On January 28, 1856, a pregnant Margaret and her husband Robert, together with family members, escaped and fled along with several other slave families. Robert had stolen his master’s horses and sleigh along with his gun. Seventeen people were reported to have been in their party. . . . .Robert, his father Simon and wife Mary, together with Margaret and their four children, made their way to the home of a former slave named Kite, an in-law of the Garners, living along Mill Creek, below Cincinnati. The other nine slaves in their party made it to safe houses in Cincinnati and eventually escaped via the Underground Railroad into Canada. . . . . Slave catchers and police found the Garners barricaded inside Kite’s house before he returned. They surrounded the property, then stormed the house. As they pursued the fugitive slaves, Robert Garner fired several shots and wounded at least one deputy marshal. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife rather than see the child returned to slavery. She had injured her other children, preparing to kill them and herself, when she was subdued by the posse. (see more)