Margaret (Peggy) Garner was born into slavery in Kentucky. Her biological father was most likely the slave owner. She married in 1849 to another slave with the same owner. She and her husband were sold to the brother of their original owner.
Peggy had five children. Three of them were most likely the product of rape by Peggy’s new owner. A very cold winter provided an opportunity for Peggy, her husband, their children, and other slaves to escape to Ohio across a frozen Ohio River. Since Ohio did not allow slavery, the Garners hoped that their escape would lead to their freedom.
Some of the slaves were able to travel to the Underground Railroad to Canada, but the Garners were captured by slave hunters and U.S. Marshalls. The Fugitive Slave Law allowed for the recapture of slaves who had made it to non-slave states. Peggy killed her two-year-old daughter so that she wouldn’t be returned to slavery and to face a life of abuse, both physical and sexual.
Peggy’s defense attorney argued that she be tried for murder so that the trial would be held in Ohio. He believed that the Governor would pardon her if she were convicted. The prosecuting attorney argued that the federal Free Slave Act should take precedence.
The judge declared that she be returned to Kentucky and tried for destruction of property. His reasoning was that Peggy’s daughter was property and not a person so murder did not apply.
Peggy’s attorney then argued that the Fugitive Slave Act was a violation of religious freedom guaranteed in the Constitution. This argument was rejected.
Peggy was returned to Kentucky where her owner sent her south. On their way to New Orleans, their steamboat collided with another boat. Peggy threw her baby daughter into the water where she drowned. Peggy also had hoped to drown but was unsuccessful. Peggy eventually died of typhoid fever.
Just imagine how difficult it must be for a mother to kill her own children to save them from a life even worse than death. The Garner family should be a reminder to all of us who try to varnish the reality of what slavery was really like.
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“Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” – Abraham Lincoln