Margaret Garner and Seven Others – Fugitive Slave Law

Of this recent and peculiarly painful case we give a somewhat detailed account, mainly taken from the Cincinnati papers of the day.

About ten o’clock on Sunday, 27th January, 1856, a party of eight slaves – —two men, two women, and four children— – belonging to Archibald K. Gaines and John Marshall, of Richwood Station, Boone County, Kentucky, about sixteen miles from Covington, escaped from their owners. Three of the party are father, mother, and son, whose names are Simon, Mary, and Simon, Jr.; the others are Margaret, wife of Simon, Jr., and her four children. The three first are the property of Marshall, and the others of Gaines.

They took a sleigh and two horses belonging to Mr. Marshall, and drove to the river bank, opposite Cincinnati, and crossed over to the city on the ice. They were missed a few hours after their flight, and Mr. Gaines, springing on a horse, followed in pursuit. On reaching the river shore, he learned that a resident had found the horses standing in the road. He then crossed over to the City, and after a few hours diligent inquiry, he learned that his slaves were in a house about a quarter of a mile below the Mill Creek Bridge, on the river road, occupied by a colored man named Kite.

He proceeded to the office of United States Commissioner John L. Pendery, and procuring the necessary warrants, with United States Deputy Marshal Ellis, and a large body of assistants, went on Monday to the place where his fugitives were concealed. Arriving at the premises, word was sent to the fugitives to surrender. A firm and decided negative was the response. The officers, backed by a large crowd, then made a descent. Breaking open the doors, they were assailed by the negroes with cudgels and pistols. Several shots were fired, but only one took effect, so far as we could ascertain. A bullet struck a man named John Patterson, one of the Marshal’s deputies; tearing off a finger of his right hand, and dislocating several of his teeth. No other of the officers were injured, the negroes being rendered powerless before they could reload their weapons.

On looking around, horrible was the sight which met the officers’ eyes. In one corner of the room was a nearly white child, bleeding to death. Her throat was cut from ear to ear, and the blood was spouting out profusely, showing that the deed was but recently committed. Scarcely was this fact noticed, when a scream issuing from an adjoining room drew their attention thither. A glance into the apartment revealed a negro woman holding in her hand a knife literally dripping with gore, over the heads of two little negro children, who were crouched to the floor, and uttering the cries whose agonized peals had first startled them. Quickly the knife was wrested from the hand of the excited woman, and a more close investigation instituted as to the condition, of the infants. They were discovered to be cut across the head and shoulders, but not very seriously injured, although the blood trickled down their backs and upon their clothes.

The woman avowed herself the mother of the children, and said that she had killed one and would like to kill the three others, rather than see them again reduced to slavery! By this time the crowd about the premises had become prodigious, and it was with no inconsiderable difficulty that the negroes were secured in carriages, and brought to the United States District Court-rooms, on Fourth Street. The populace followed the vehicle closely, but evinced no active desire to effect a rescue. Rumors of the story soon circulated all over the city. Nor were they exaggerated, as is usually the case. For once, reality surpassed the wildest thought of fiction.

The slaves, on reaching the marshal’s office, seated themselves around the stove with dejected countenances, and preserved a moody silence, answering all questions propounded to them in monosyllables, or refusing to answer at all. Simon is apparently about fifty-five years of age, and Mary about fifty. The son of Mr. Marshall, who is here, in order, if possible, to recover the property of his father, says that they have always been faithful servants, and have frequently been on this side of the river. Simon, Jr., is a young man, about twenty-two years old, of a very lithe and active form, and rather a mild and pleasant countenance. Margaret is a dark mulatto, twenty-three years of age; her countenance is far from being vicious, and her senses, yesterday, appeared partially stultified from the exciting trials she had endured. After remaining about two hours at the marshal’s office, Commissioner Pendery announced that the slaves would be removed to the custody of the United States Marshal until nine o’clock Tuesday morning, when the case would come up for examination.

The slaves were then taken down stairs to the street-door, when a wild and exciting scene presented itself; the sidewalks and the middle of the street were thronged with people, and a couple of coaches were at the door in order to convey the captives to the station-house. The slaves were guarded by a strong posse of officers, and as they made their appearance on the street, it was evident that there was a strong sympathy in their favor. When they were led to the carriage-doors, there were loud cries of “Drive on!” “Don’t take them!” The coachmen, either from alarm or from a sympathetic feeling, put the whip to their horses, and drove rapidly off, leaving the officers with their fugitives on the sidewalk. They started on foot with their charge to the Hammond Street station-house, where they secured their prisoners for the night.

The slaves claimed that they had been on this side of the river frequently, by consent of their masters.

About three o’clock application was made to Judge Burgoyne for a writ of habeas corpus, to bring the slaves before him. This was put in the hands of Deputy Sheriff Buckingham to serve, who, accompanied by several assistants, proceeded to Hammond Street station-house, where the slaves were lodged. Mr. Bennett, Deputy United States Marshal, was unwilling to give them up, and a long time was spent parleying between the marshal and the sheriff’s officers. The sheriff being determined that the writ should be executed, Mr. Bennett went out to take counsel with his friends. Finally, through the advice of Mayor Faran, Mr. Bennett agreed to lodge the slaves in the jail, ready to be taken out at the order of Judge Burgoyne. Mr. Buckingham obtained the complete control of the slaves.

On the morning of the 29th, Sheriff Brashears, being advised by lawyers that Judge Burgoyne had no right to issue his writ for the slaves, and remembering Judge McLean’s decision in the Rosetta case, made a return on the writ of habeas corpus, that the slaves were in the custody of the United States Marshal, and, therefore, without his jurisdiction. This returned the slaves to the custody of the Marshal. By agreement, the parties permitted the slaves to remain in the county jail during that day, with the understanding that their examination should commence the next morning, before Commissioner Pendery. An inquest had been held on the body of the child which was killed, and a verdict was found by the jury charging the death of the child upon the mother, who it was said would be held under the laws of Ohio to answer the charge of murder. An examination took place on Wednesday, before the United States Commissioner. Time was allowed their counsel to obtain evidence to show that they had been brought into the State at former times by their masters. A meeting of citizens was held on Thursday evening, to express sympathy with the alleged fugitives.

The Cincinnati Commercial of January 30, said:—The mother is of an interesting appearance, a mulatto of considerable intelligence of manner, and with a good address. In reply to a gentleman who yesterday complimented her upon the looks of her little boy, she said, “You should have seen my little girl that—that—[she did not like to say, was killed]—that died, that was the bird.”

The Cincinnati Gazette, of January 30, said:—We learn that the mother of the dead child acknowledges that she had killed it, and that her determination was to have killed all the children, and then destroy herself, rather than return to slavery. She and the others complain of cruel treatment on the part of their master, and allege that as the cause of their attempted escape.

The coroner’s jury, after examining the citizens present at the time of the arrest, went to the jail last evening, and examined the grandmother of the child—one of the slaves. She testified that the mother, when she saw they would be captured, caught a butcher knife and ran to the children, saying she would kill them rather than to have them return to slavery, and cut the throat of the child, calling on the grandmother to help her kill them. The grandmother said she would not do it, and hid under a bed.

The jury gave a verdict as follows:—That said child was killed by its mother, Margaret Garner, with a butcher knife, with which she cut its throat.

Two of the jurors also find that the two men arrested as fugitives were accessories to the murder.

“The murdered child was almost white, and was a little girl of rare beauty.”

The examination of witnesses was continued until Monday, February 4, when the commissioner listened to the arguments of counsel until February 7th. Messrs. Jolliffe and Gitchell appeared for the fugitives, and Colonel Chambers, of Cincinnati, and Mr. Finnell, of Covington, Kentucky, for the claimants of the slaves. A great number of assistants, (amounting very nearly to five hundred,) were employed by the United States Marshal, H.H. Robinson, from the first, making the expenses to the United States Government very large; for their twenty-eight days’ service alone, at $2.00 per day, amounting to over $22,000. February 8th, the case was closed, so far as related to the three slaves of Mr. Marshall, but the decision was postponed. The examination in regard to Margaret and her children was farther continued. It was publicly stated that Commissioner Pendery had declared that he “would not send the woman back into slavery while a charge or indictment for murder lay against her.” Colonel Chambers, counsel for the slave-claimants, in his argument, “read long extracts from a pamphlet entitled, ‘A Northern Presbyter’s Second Letter to Ministers of the Gospel of all Denominations, on Slavery, by Nathan Lord, of Dartmouth College,’ approving and recommending Dr. Lord’s views.” Colonel Chambers having alluded, in his remarks, to Mrs. Lucy Stone Blackwell, and said that she had sought to give a knife to Margaret Garner, the Court gave permission to Mrs. Blackwell to reply to Colonel C. Mrs. B. preferred not to speak at the bar, but addressed the crowded court-room directly after the adjournment. Her eloquent remarks will be found in the papers of the day. At the close of the hearing, February 14th, the commissioner adjourned his court to the 21st, afterwards to the 26th, when, he said, he would give his decision.

Meantime the case was making some progress in the State courts. Sheriff Brashears having made return to the Common Pleas Court that the fugitives were in the custody of the United States Marshal, Judge Carter said this could not be received as a true return, as they were in the County jail, under the sheriff’s control. The sheriff then amended his return, so as to state that the prisoners were in his custody, as required in the writ, and this was received by the Court. The fugitives now came fully into the charge of the State authorities. The sheriff held them “by virtue of a capias issued on an indictment by the grand jury for murder.”

The slaves declared they would go dancing to the gallows rather than to be sent back into slavery.

On the 26th February, Commissioner Pendery gave his decision. First, he refused to discharge Margaret and three others from the custody of the United States Marshal and deliver them to the Sheriff of Hamilton County, although held to answer, under the laws of Ohio, to the charge of murder. He then proceeded to consider the claim of Marshall to three of the slaves, decided it to be valid, and ordered them into Marshall’s custody. He then considered Gaines’s claim to Margaret and her three surviving children, decided that also to be good and valid, and ordered them to be delivered into the possession of said Gaines.

The case of the rightful custody, as between the United States Marshal and the Ohio Sheriff also came on, February 26th before Judge Leavitt, of the United States District Court, and was argued by counsel on both sides. On the 28th, Judge Leavitt decided that the custody was with the United States Marshal. The substance of Judge L.’s argument and decision is found in the following extract.

“Judge McLean says: ‘Neither this nor any other Court of the United States, nor Judge thereof, can issue a habeas corpus to bring up a prisoner who is in custody under the sentence or execution of a State Court, for any other purpose than to be used as a witness. And it is immaterial whether the imprisonment be under civil or criminal process.’ If it be true, as there asserted, that no Federal Court can interfere with the exercise of the proper jurisdiction of a State Court, either in a civil or criminal case, the converse of the proposition is equally true. And it results that a State Court cannot take from an officer of the United States, even on a criminal charge, the custody of a person in execution on a civil case.

“It is said in argument that if these persons cannot be held by the arrest of the Sheriff under the State process, the rights and dignity of Ohio are invaded without the possibility of redress. I cannot concur in this view. The Constitution and laws of the United States provide for a reclamation of these persons, by a demand on the Executive of Kentucky. It is true, if now remanded to the claimant and taken back to Kentucky as slaves, they cannot be said to have fled from justice in Ohio; but it would clearly be a case within the spirit and intention of the Constitution and the Act of Congress, and I trust nothing would be hazarded by the prediction that upon demand properly made upon the Governor of Kentucky, he would order them to be surrendered to the authorities of Ohio to answer to its violated law. I am sure it is not going too far to say that if the strictness of the law did not require this, an appeal to comity would not be in vain.”

Mr. Chambers said his client, Mr. Gaines, authorized him to say that he would hold the woman Margaret, who had killed her child, subject to the requisition of the Governor of Ohio, to answer for any crime she might have committed in Ohio.

Judge Leavitt’s decision covered the cases of the four adult fugitives. Another legal process was going on, at the same time, before Judge Burgoyne, of the Probate Court, viz.—a hearing under a writ of habeas corpus allowed by Judge Burgoyne, alleging the illegal detention, by the United States Marshal, of the three negro children, Samuel, Thomas, and Silla Garner, which took place in the Probate Court, before Judge B., on the afternoon of February 27.

Mr. Jolliffe said he represented the infants at the request of their father and mother, who had solicited him to save the children, if possible.

Messrs. Headington and Ketchum appeared for the United States Marshal.

Judge Burgoyne intimated that, in view of the serious and important questions involved, he should require some time to render a decision. He intimated, however, that a majority of the Judges of the Supreme Court having passed on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law was no reason why he should not take up the Constitution and read it for himself, being sworn to support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Ohio.

Mr. Ketchum suggested that his Honor was as much bound in conscience to regard the decision of the majority of the Judges of the United States Courts as the express provisions of the Constitution itself.

Judge Burgoyne said, that however the decisions of the Judges of the United States Courts might aid him in coming to a conclusion, where the obligations of his conscience were involved, he could not screen himself behind a decision made by somebody else.

Judge Burgoyne subsequently decided that, in as far as the Fugitive Slave Law was intended to suspend the writ of habeas corpus—and he believed that it was so intended—it clearly transcended the limits prescribed by the Constitution, and is “utterly void.” Judge B. required the United States Marshal to answer to the writ on the following Friday; and on his neglect to do so, fined and imprisoned him. Judge Leavitt, of the United States Court, soon released the Marshal from prison.

The Cincinnati Columbian, of February 29, gave the following account:—The last act of the drama of the fugitives was yesterday performed by the rendition of the seven persons whose advent into the city, under the bloody auspices of murder, caused such a sensation in the community. After the decision of Judge Leavitt, Sheriff Brashears surrendered the four fugitives in his custody, under a capias from an Ohio court, to United States Marshal Robinson. An omnibus was brought to the jail, and the fugitives were led into it—a crowd of spectators looking on.

Margaret was in custody of Deputy-Marshal Brown. She appeared greatly depressed and dispirited. The little infant, Silla, was carried by Pfc. Russell, the door-keeper of the United States Court, and was crying violently. Pollock, the reporter of the proceedings in the United States Court, conducted another of the fugitives, and all were safely lodged in the omnibus, which drove down to the Covington ferry-boat; but, although a large crowd followed it, no hootings or other signs of excitement or disapprobation were shown.

On arriving at the Kentucky shore, a large crowd was in attendance, which expressed its pleasure at the termination of the long proceedings in this city by triumphant shouts. The fugitives were escorted to the jail, where they were safely incarcerated, and the crowd moved off to the Magnolia Hotel, where several toasts were given and drank. The crowd outside were addressed from the balcony by H.H. Robinson, Esq., United States Marshal for the Southern District of Ohio, who declared that he had done his duty and no more, and that it was a pleasure to him to perform an act that added another link to the glorious chain that bound the Union. [What a Union! For what “glorious” purposes!]

Mr. Finnell, attorney for the claimants, said he never loved the Union so dearly as now. It was proved to be a substantial reality.

Judge Flinn also addressed to the crowd one of his peculiar orations; and was followed by Mr. Gaines, owner of Margaret and the children. After hearty cheering the crowd dispersed.

Further to signalize their triumph, the slaveholders set on the Covington mob to attack Mr. Babb, reporter for one of the Cincinnati papers, on the charge of being an abolitionist, and that gentleman was knocked down, kicked, trampled on, and would undoubtedly have been murdered, but for the interference of some of the United States Deputy Marshals.

A legal irregularity on the part of the Sheriff was brought to the notice of Judge Carter on the morning of February 29. It was passed over lightly.

On the Sunday after the delivery of the slaves, they were visited in the Covington jail by Rev. P.C. Bassett, whose account of his interview, especially with Margaret, was published in the American Baptist, and may also be found in the National Antislavery Standard of March 15, 1850. Margaret confessed that she had killed the child. “I inquired,” says Mr. Bassett, “if she were not excited almost to madness when she committed the act! ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I was as cool as I now am; and would much rather kill them at once, and thus end their sufferings, than have them taken back to slavery and be murdered by piece-meal.’ She then told the story of her wrongs. She spoke of her days of suffering, of her nights of unmitigated toil, while the bitter tears coursed their way down her cheeks.”

Governor Chase, of Ohio, made a requisition upon Governor Morehead, of Kentucky, for the surrender of Margaret Garner, charged with murder. The requisition was taken by Joseph Cooper, Esq. to Gov. Morehead, at Frankfort, on the 6th of March—an unpardonable delay in the circumstances. Gov. Morehead issued an order for the surrender of Margaret. On taking it to Louisville, Mr. Cooper found that Margaret, with her infant child, and the rest of Mr. Gaines’s slaves had been sent down the river in the steamboat Henry Lewis, to be sold in Arkansas. Thus it was that Gaines kept his pledged word that Margaret should be surrendered upon the requisition of the Governor of Ohio! On the passage down the Ohio, the steamboat, in which the slaves were embarked, came in collision with another boat, and so violently that Margaret and her child, with many others, were thrown into the water. About twenty-five persons perished. A colored man seized Margaret and drew her back to the boat, but her babe was drowned! “The mother,” says a correspondent of the Louisville Courier, “exhibited no other feeling than joy at the loss of her child.” So closed another act of this terrible tragedy. The slaves were transferred to another boat, and taken to their destination. (See Mr. Cooper’s letter to Gov. Chase, dated Columbus, March 11, 1856.) Almost immediately on the above tragic news, followed the tidings that Gaines had determined to bring Margaret back to Covington, Kentucky, and hold her subject to the requisition of the Governor of Ohio. Evidently he could not stand up under the infamy of his conduct. Margaret was brought back, and placed in Covington jail, to await a requisition. On Wednesday, Mr. Cox, the prosecuting-attorney, received the necessary papers from Gov. Chase, and the next day (Thursday), two of the Sheriffs deputies went over to Covington for Margaret, but did not find her, as she had been taken away from the jail the night before. The jailor said he had given her up on Wednesday night, to a man who came there with a written order from her master, Gaines, but could not tell where she had been taken. The officers came back and made a return ‘not found.’

The Cincinnati Gazette said,—”On Friday our sheriff received information which induced him to believe that she had been sent on the railroad to Lexington, thence via Frankfort to Louisville, there to be shipped off to the New Orleans slave market.

He immediately telegraphed to the sheriff at Louisville (who holds the original warrant from Gov. Morehead, granted on the requisition of Gov. Chase,) to arrest her there, and had a deputy in readiness to go down for her. But he has received no reply to his dispatch. As she was taken out on Wednesday night, there is reason to apprehend that she has already passed Louisville, and is now on her way to New Orleans.

Why Mr. Gaines brought Margaret back at all, we cannot comprehend. If it was to vindicate his character, he was most unfortunate in the means he selected, for his duplicity has now placed this in a worse light than ever before, and kept before the public the miserable spectacle of his dishonor.

We have learned now, by experience, what is that boasted comity of Kentucky on which Judge Leavitt so earnestly advised Ohio to rely.”

The assertion of the Louisville Journal, that Margaret was kept in Covington jail “ten days,” and that the Ohio authorities had been notified of the same, is pronounced to be untrue in both particulars by the Cincinnati Gazette, which paper also declares that prompt action was taken by the governor of Ohio, and the attorney and sheriff of Hamilton County, as soon as the fact was known.

Here we must leave Margaret, a noble woman indeed, whose heroic spirit and daring have won the willing, and extorted the unwilling, admiration of hundreds of thousands. Alas for her! after so terrible a struggle, so bloody a sacrifice, so near to deliverance once, twice, and even a third time, to be, by the villainy and lying or her “respectable” white owner again engulphed in the abyss of Slavery! What her fate is to be, it is not hard to conjecture. But friendless, heart-stricken, robbed of her children, outraged as she has been, not wholly without friends,

“Yea, three firm friends, more sure than day and night, Herself, her Maker, and the angel Death.”

Gaines, Garner, Marshall,


American Anti-Slavery Society. The Fugitive Slave Law, and its Victims. New York: American Anti-Slavery Society. 1856.

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