In two rundown Boone County buildings, Margaret Garner may have worked as a slave before her escape - and her awful choice

Friday, October 2, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Thomas Satterwhite Noble's painting of Margaret Garner killing her daughter rather than letting her be returned to slavery.

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The horrifying story of Margaret Garner - the runaway slave who killed her child in Cincinnati 143 years ago rather than see her returned to slavery in Kentucky - may have begun in two buildings still standing on a farm in Boone County.

The Garner story has captivated thousands of Americans in the past decade.

Toni Morrison in 1987 published a popular Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, inspired by Ms. Garner's tragedy, and a movie version starring Oprah Winfrey will be released this month. A new historical account of Ms. Garner has just been published. Screenplays and research papers on the case abound.

Now a freelance writer working on a manuscript about the Garner tragedy thinks she has found two dilapidated buildings where Ms. Garner probably lived and worked as a slave amid the rolling hills of southern Boone County.

Garner's home? She would have worked in the old cook house on the Gaines farm in Boone County - if it really dates to 1856.
(Tony Jones photo)

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"We really need archaeologists to come out here and date these buildings," Joanne Caputo, 43, of Yellow Springs, Ohio, said as she stood gingerly on the rotted floorboards of a 19th century two-room kitchen house at Maplewood, the farm of Archibald Gaines, a prominent Boone County farmer of the period. "It's important to save these buildings if we can. They need to examine the ground here. There are artifacts here. I really feel attached to this land, because (Ms. Garner) walked it."

Ms. Caputo's evidence, and evidence gathered from other sources, is overwhelming that Margaret Garner lived on the Gaines farm on Richwood Road. What is yet to be determined is whether these buildings date from her time as a slave.

Ms. Caputo said she has walked through the kitchen house and found several items from the last century, including a huge metal cook pot and pieces of china.

Joanne Caputo holds her 'Margaret doll' after building a shrine by the cook house.
(Tony Jones photo)

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"The slaves stood here and looked out north, toward freedom," she said, staring out a window behind the house's chimney.

The Garner story was one of the most notorious runaway slave cases in pre-Civil War America. Ms. Garner, her husband, children and other slaves stole a carriage and fled to Covington, where they ran across the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati, like thousands of other slaves. They hid overnight in the home of her cousin, a freeman. But the Garners were caught.

A frantic choice

Slave catchers, armed with guns and carrying warrants, arrived and demanded their "property" - Ms. Garner, her four children and her husband.

Ms. Garner made an awful, frantic choice as she cowered with her family in a shack near Cincinnati's Mill Creek on Jan. 28, 1856. Gripping a knife, the 23-year-old shouted that she would rather see her children die than be returned to slavery at Maplewood.

As the white men burst in, she killed her 3-year-old daughter before she was subdued.

The Enquirer's 1856 story on the capture of Margaret Garner

Kentucky to do with what they wished. She became a cause celebre among those opposed to slavery, but she lost her case and was sent back to slavery. Shipped to Mississippi, she died of typhoid fever in 1858.

Ms. Caputo said she became interested in Margaret Garner several years ago, when she came across an account of the case in a history book.

"I kept thinking, How could she?' " Ms. Caputo said. "Part of me just couldn't get it. How could she kill her child? I was a mother of a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old at the time. I just couldn't understand it, the real impact of slavery on their lives."

Site draws interest

Most of Ms. Garner's life was spent as a house slave on the Gaines farm in Boone County. The farm is now the property of Cincinnati businessman George Budig, who bought it from the descendants of the Gaines family about 15 years ago. Gaines descendants continued to live there until a few months ago. Mr. Budig had planned to clear the property with bulldozers, but Ms. Caputo convinced him several weeks ago that the two run-down buildings should be examined by professionals to determine their historical importance.

"I don't know anything about the story (of Margaret Garner)," said Mr. Budig, "but it's great to be associated with all this historical stuff."

Kentucky historians contacted Thursday were excited about looking at the site.

"I am very interested and will be quietly taking some steps to get action on this," said Anne Butler, a professor at Kentucky State University in Frankfort and a member of the state-appointed Kentucky African American Heritage Commission. "It's certainly worthy of further investigation."

"We're very interested and we'd like to take a look at the property," added Richard Jett, who examines historic sites for the Kentucky Heritage Council, the state agency focusing on historic preservation. If the two buildings - the wood and brick kitchen house and a brick building that probably was a smokehouse - are found to date from the 1850s, Margaret Garner most definitely worked in them, Ms. Caputo said.

Documentation that Ms. Garner lived at Maplewood includes a state historic marker on the road identifying the land as that of John Gaines, who later sold the land to his brother Archibald; the property transfers by the Gaines family; newspaper accounts of Margaret Garner's trial; a bill of sale of the slaves recorded at the trial; nearby church records; and numerous testimony by witnesses at the trial that Ms. Garner lived and worked on the farm. Ms. Caputo said she hoped some historical group would preserve the site as a museum.

Mr. Budig said he just wants to use the surrounding land for farming. Any historians or archaeologists are welcome to examine the site, he said.

"If somebody wants to come in and take a look and do all the work, that's fine with me," he said.

The Feb. 12, 1856, edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer identified numerous witnesses telling the court that Margaret, called Peggy, lived on the property as a slave of the Gaines brothers.


A white farm worker, Peter Nolan, swore that he had "known the woman Peggy and her three children, and I recognize them as the persons who belong to Mr. Gaines as his slaves. . . . I have seen this woman (Ms. Garner) on his place all the time; I always understood she was his slave; I saw her working on his place, and she did things he told her to do; I know that she was Mr. Gaines' slave from seeing her on the place and from my own knowledge."

Steven Weisenberger, an English professor at Kentucky University in Lexington and author of the recently published Modern Medea, a story of Margaret Garner, said his

research confirms Ms. Caputo's claim about the buildings.

He said he interviewed a Gaines relative who used to live on the property who said the buildings dated from the 1850s. Mr. Weisenberger also said he reviewed maps from the 1870s that showed the buildings existing then on the Gaines farm.

But unlike Ms. Caputo, Mr. Weisenberger is not sure the buildings should be preserved.

"This woman was very tortured by slavery," Mr. Weisenberger said. "She fought it heroically and lost. We ought to remember her for that. . . . But these were the places where she experienced the horrors of slavery. I'm not sure preserving them is what we ought to do."

Also, not everyone is convinced the buildings are from the Garner period.

Susan Cabot, Boone County's historic preservation planner, said she has walked the property and thinks the buildings are probably from the later 19th century, after Margaret Garner had died.

Kentucky preservationists and historical experts plan to visit the property soon.

The Enquirer's 1856 story on the capture of Margaret Garner

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