A Woman to Know: Margaret Garner

In her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her back to God. — Lucy Stone

In her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her back to God. — Lucy Stone

(image via Library of Congress)

What many people don't know about Toni Morrison’s classic Beloved: a true story inspired the novel.

In 1856, Margaret Garner and her family followed the Underground Railroad from a plantation in Kentucky to Cincinnati, where they hoped to start a new life, free. But the authorities uncovered the family’s first hiding place and promised to use the Fugitive Slave Act to send Margaret, her husband and children all back to the plantation.

Cornered by the slave catchers, Margaret Garner did the unthinkable: she killed her two-year-old daughter. She threatened to kill her other three children, too — lest they be taken back to the plantation and forced to live again in slavery.

Margaret’s trial made headlines around the country. Abolitionists fought for her to be tried for murder, which would have set precedent for future cases; but instead, she was found guilty of destruction of property. At her trial, feminist scholar Lucy Stone testified to the horrors from which Margaret wanted to save her children: “Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it ... in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her back to God.”

The Garners were sold back into slavery — first to a plantation in Arkansas, then to a house in New Orleans. Margaret died in 1858, just two years after the family first tried to escape to freedom.

Toni Morrison wrote in her preface to Beloved:

In trying to make the slave experience intimate, I hoped the sense of things being both under control and out of control would be persuasive throughout, that the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead; that the herculean effort to forget would be threatened by memory desperate to stay alive.

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