Driven to Madness: Margaret Garner, "Soul Murder," and Tragedy on the Ohio River

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:20 PM
Rhythms Ballroom 1 (Sheraton New Orleans)
Nikki M. Taylor, University of Cincinnati
Late one cold, winter evening on January 27, 1856, an enslaved family, consisting of 22-year-old Margaret Garner, her four children, husband, and his parents escaped from a farm in rural Boone County, KY. Garner’s owner, Archibald K. Gaines, tracked the family to a Cincinnati home and federal marshals were promptly dispatched there. As they gained entrance, Margaret grabbed a knife and allegedly declared to her mother in-law, “Before my children shall be taken back to Kentucky I will kill every one of them!” She then took a knife and slit the throat of her two year-old daughter, Mary, nearly decapitating her. With this act, Garner gained national notoriety.
        Every portrayal of Garner in that era is a gross distortion, manufactured by different segments of society that designed to use her as a symbol. The real Margaret is lost. This paper strives to use black feminist theories to bring the real Margaret into sharper focus, particularly the history of sexual abuse that was at the root of the case.
        Using newspaper accounts, trial proceedings, and first person accounts, I illuminate the physical, psychological, and sexual assaults of three Gaines women, and how it rendered them mad. My interpretative framework builds on historian Nell Irvin Painter’s concept of “soul murder.” In Margaret’s case, her own rape and delivery of at least one of her rapist’s children, compounded by a collective memory of rape and physical abuse of other women in her circle, led to soul murder. While people will long debate and speculate about what madness drove Margaret to her actions, a better question to explore is what madness defined her experience as an enslaved woman.