Sethe’s life and story were inspired by the true story of Margaret Garner, a Black woman who in 1856 escaped slavery in Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River into Ohio, a free state. Margaret’s life and story become national news in 1856 when she was found by her slavemaster and killed her daughter rather than have her returned to slavery. Garner’s story was first written about in the American Baptist newspaper in 1856. The article was titled, “A Visit to the Slave Mother who Killed Her Child,” and Morrison stumbled upon it in the 1970s. She included it in The Black Book, a miscellaneous compilation of black history and culture that she edited in 1974.
Margaret Garner, called “Peggy” by her slave masters, was born a house slave at Maplewood Plantation in Boone County, Kentucky. Very little is known about the circumstances of her birth, including the year. However, she was of mixed racial heritage, which has led historians to believe that she may have been the daughter of John Pollard Gaines, the Maplewood Plantation owner. The next thing we know about Margaret is that she was married one of her fellow slaves, Robert Garner, in 1849. The Maplewood Plantation, including all of its slaves, was sold to John Pollard’s brother Archibald K. Gaines in December 1849. Margaret and Robert had their first child, Thomas, one year later in 1850. Her next three children were also of mixed racial heritage, and each was born five to seven months after Archibald Gaines and his wife had their own child. The timing of the births, combined with the fact that Archibald Gaines was the only white man on Maplewood Plantation, suggests that he raped Margaret and impregnated her with her last three children.
Margaret, Robert, their four children, and other family members escaped Kentucky and fled to Cincinnati, Ohio on January 28, 1856. A total of 17 people, the party crossed the frozen Ohio River into Cincinnati and then split up to avoid detection. Margaret and her family took shelter at her uncle’s house, while the other group went to safe houses in Cincinnati and eventually escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Margaret’s uncle, a former slave, left Margaret and her family in his house to go ask a local abolitionist for advice. While he was away, slave catchers and U.S. Marshals, acting on the Fugitive Slave Act, found the Garner family barricaded in the house and surrounded them. When they stormed the house, Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter with a butcher knife and tried to kill her other children but was subdued.
Margaret and her family were taken to jail, and the subsequent trial lasted for two weeks. The court struggled to decide whether Margaret should be tried as property under the Fugitive Slave Act or as a person. If the former, she would be returned to her slave master in Kentucky. If the latter, she would be tried in Ohio for murder as a free woman, with the understanding that the Ohio governor would pardon her if convicted. On the last day of the trial, an abolitionist named Lucy Stone took the stand and testified to the forced interracial sexual relationship that fueled Margaret’s decision to kill her daughter. Stone pointed out the similarities between Gaines and Margaret’s surviving children, defending Margaret’s actions as the actions of a loving mother who wanted to return her child to God rather than have her sexually defiled and degraded. In the end, the presiding judge ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act superseded Ohio state laws governing free slaves, ordering that Margaret, Robert, and their youngest child be returned to Kentucky.
Once they were back in Kentucky, Gaines continuously moved Margaret, Robert, and their child between cities in Kentucky so that Ohioan authorities couldn’t use an extradition warrant to bring her back to the free states. Eventually, the authorities caught up with Gaines in Louisville, only to discover that he had placed Margaret, Robert, and their child on a boat headed for his brother’s plantation in Arkansas. En route, the steamboat collided with another boat and began to sink. Margaret and her child were thrown overboard, and the child did not survive. It’s alleged that Margaret was glad her child died and tried to drown herself. She and Robert made it to Arkansas, where they remained for a short time before being sent to work for Gaines’ family friends in New Orleans. At this point, they disappeared from history’s annals until 1870, when reporters found Robert. He told them that he and Margaret worked in New Orleans until 1857, at which point they were sold to a plantation in Mississippi. Margaret died the following year of typhoid fever.
Margaret’s life and her controversial means of defying slavery have been memorialized throughout history. Beyond Beloved, John Jolliffe's Belle Scott, N.K. Jemisin's The Fifth Season, and K.A. Simpson's A Coven's Lament are other novels based on Margaret’s life. Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting The Modern Medea was also inspired by Margaret, and a picture of it is included above this biography. The opera Margaret Garner was also composed and written in her honor.