African American News and Genealogy

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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Fugitive preferred death over slavery

By Owen Findsen The Cincinnati Enquirer The following is a story from the Enquirer archives. Margaret Garner sat in the courtroom with her head downcast. "During the trial she would look up occasionally, for an instant, with a timid, apprehensive glance at the strange faces around her, but her eyes were generally cast down," Cincinnatian Levi Coffin recalled. Mr. Coffin was the so-called president of the Underground Railroad. The young fugitive had cut the throat of her 3-year-old daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. A coroner's jury in Cincinnati charged her with murder. Her husband, Simon, and his parents, Simon and Mary, were charged with accessories to murder. This was not a murder trial. The Garner family, including Margaret's two sons, 4 and 6 years old, and her 9-month-old baby, were brought before U.S. Commissioner John L. Pendery to determine if they should be returned to slavery under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The claimants were Kentucky slave owners Archibald Gaines, owner of Margaret and her children, and James Marshall, owner of her husband and his parents. Margaret wore a dark calico dress with a white handkerchief at the neck and a yellow handkerchief wrapped around her head like a turban. She held her baby in her arms. "The babe continually fondled her face with its little hands but she barely noticed it, and her general expression was one of sadness. The little boys, 4 and 6 years old...sat on the floor near their mother, playing together in happy innocence," Mr. Coffin wrote in Reminiscences of Levi Coffin (Robert Clark Co.; 1876). Every day, crowds lined the streets as the Garners were brought by omnibus from the jail to the court. Free African-Americans waved handkerchiefs, cheered, sang songs of freedom and taunted the marshals, who were pro-slavery Kentuckians deputized to prevent rescue efforts. John J. Jolliffe, Cincinnati's most active anti-slavery attorney, represented the fugitives with his partner James Gitchell. They called for a writ of habeas corpus for the Hamilton County sheriff to take the prisoners away from the federal marshal, to be tried by the state of Ohio for murder. Although that meant that Margaret Garner would probably hang, it would strike a blow against the Fugitive Slave Law. "My father sent me to look after these slaves," said 19-year-old William Marshall, son of slave owner James Marshall. William said he had grown up with Margaret's husband and considered him "more of a companion than a slave. If money can save him from the effect of any rash act he has committed, I am willing to give it in any amount." "These people would go singing to the gallows rather than go back into slavery," Mr. Jolliffe said. "The mother of these children, rather than permit them to be returned into bondage, would murder them with her own hands. Yes, she would imbue her hands in the blood of her children and go to the gallows joyfully, rather than permit them to be taken back to Kentucky." "I would rather go there myself than go into slavery," replied Col. Francis Chambers, representing the slaveholders. "But I would rather take a chance of a slide on the Underground Railway than consent, just at this particular time, to go singing or any other way to the gallows." Mary Garner testified that she was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Cincinnati and had been permitted to cross the river to attend church services. The men also cited instances when they had been sent or taken to Cincinnati. Mr. Jolliffe said that by allowing their slaves to come freely to Ohio, where slavery was illegal, the owners had effectively given them their freedom. Children of freed slaves were likewise free. The claimants replied that the slaves had escaped on the night that Margaret had killed her child. As each witness was called, Mr. Jolliffe questioned them about the killing of the 3-year-old, but the claimants' attorneys objected that "the fact of the death of any of these persons could not be material to the decision of this case." It also was immaterial whether the fugitives were in Ohio or Kentucky, said John W. Finnell, an attorney for the slave owners. "We are now above the soil of Ohio and surrounded by the aegis of the United States Union. We are as much on the soil of Kentucky at present as we are on the soil of Ohio, and the laws of the Union override those of Ohio as well as those of Kentucky. If these persons are entitled to their freedom, I for one say let them have it; but if they are slaves, I say let them be returned to their owners without delay." The trial lasted from Feb. 1 to Feb. 14, 1856, and was reported in newspapers across the nation. When the attorneys presented their closing arguments, all America was listening.The information in this story came from the Enquirer, editions of Jan. 29 and 30, 1856.


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