Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South

In January of 1856, Margaret Garner, a twenty-three-year-old slave mother, fought back against slavery. With her four young children (she was pregnant with her fifth), her husband Robert, and Robert’s parents, she fled from slavery on a plantation in northern Kentucky, knowing that the frozen Ohio river would offer an ice bridge to Ohio and freedom. Less than twenty miles away, the family took shelter in the Cincinnati home of a cousin until they could connect with the local underground railroad. But their escape was discovered; a posse, including the Garners’ owner, deputies, and U.S. marshals armed with a fugitive slave warrant, surrounded their hiding place. A gathering crowd of several hundred watched the drama unfold as the posse took the house by force and Robert made an armed defense of his family. Inside, Margaret, believing all was lost, acted to prevent the return of her children to a life in slavery. Knife in hand, she killed her two-year-old daughter and turned to her other children when she was overtaken by the posse. Her actions transformed what was by all accounts an undistinguished attempt to gain freedom by an enslaved family into a stunning and horrific example of the violence generated by American slavery.

Today, Margaret Garner is known to most Americans through Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, or its film adaptation. But as Steven Weisenburger’s Modern Medea informs us, between 1856 and the Civil War, Margaret Garner was also widely known, largely due to the daily newspaper coverage of Garner’s trial (not for the murder of her child, for which she was never tried, but for being a fugitive from slavery). Modern Medea traces the notoriety that surrounded Garner as pro- and antislavery forces competed to impose and promote their own uses of this border-state story of slavery, Flight, capture, and infanticide. Perhaps more importantly, despite that notoriety, Steven Weisenburger has uncovered the multidimensional story of Margaret Garner’s life and death in slavery, focusing on her trial, and their memorialization in American culture. Weisenburger’s determined and imaginative research, as well as his skilled use of the varied tools of the legal scholar, the historian, and the literary historian, makes Modern Medea the fullest accounting to date of Margaret Garner’s life and her challenge to a life of slavery.

By “fullest” accounting, I do not mean to suggest that Modern Medea can provide the full story of Margaret Garner’s life and decisions. While making every effort to place Garner in the lived and scholarly context of American slavery, Weisenburger’s study is overwhelmed by the details of the institutions and people with the power to shape Garner’s experience–the institution of slavery as shaped by white slave holders; the federal and state legal systems through which the case was maneuvered; the writers, politicians, and activists seeking to impose particular meanings on the Garner case; the strategies of lawyers, slave owners, and deputies commissioned by authority of the Fugitive Slave Law. As resistant and thorough as Weisenburger’s research is, there is much we do not learn from this book and that even Weisenburger concedes is probably unlearnable. Was Margaret coolheaded and determined as she brought her knife to her children? Was her act an unthinking act of desperation, the penultimate expression of maternal love and protectiveness? Was her act spurred in part by revenge against her owner, a man who may have fathered the daughter who died at Margaret’s hands? Despite Weisenburger’s imaginative consideration of the possibilities, we will probably never know. But most of what we can learn from the documentary record is offered here, a story burdened by the odd if familiar tension of attempting to tell the story of an enslaved woman and her family through the stories of the whites who were involved in her exploitation.

The effort to trace the fate of Margaret and her family is but one of the “three parallel paths” pursued by Modern Medea. The book also explores the social, political, and legal consequences of the events attending Garner’s recapture in Cincinnati and the effort to interpret and assign meaning to her actions in popular and political literature. The least compelling of these (perhaps because it moves furthest away from Garner herself) is the book’s study of the many efforts to impose meaning on Garner’s act of infanticide. Here, Weisenburger argues that the infanticidal slave mother was a popular cultural icon before Garner’s act, and therefore the reading public tended to view Garner “as a figure they thought they already knew,” “a fantasized image circulated for decades among genteel white abolitionists” (217). But in Modern Medea, even white abolitionists are complexly rendered; Weisenburger also reveals that feminist abolitionist Lucy Stone alone had the tenacity to call a courthouse press conference and directly raise the issue of the sexual exploitation of slave women by white slave owners and its bearing on Garner’s actions.

Modern Medea’s greatest strength is its fine, detailed, and well-researched story of the legal battles involved in the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law and state criminal law in this case, the longest and costliest of all fugitive slave law cases. The book engagingly assesses the practical, ongoing, and strategic border-state legal and political battles in which the Garner case became enmeshed. This includes not only a procedural history of the trial, but also an analysis of the performative nature of the proceedings, and a careful explication of the legal strategies pursued by Garner’s legal counsel. John Jolliffe, who represented slaves in seventeen fugitive slave cases in the 1850s, brought to the Garner case a complex strategy for challenging the Fugitive Slave Law, beginning with his creative and carefully developed argument that for Christians, slavery was a sin; therefore, the Constitution’s protections for freedom of religion meant that on First Amendment grounds, Christians could not be compelled to obey the Fugitive Slave Law. Jolliffe brought more than this singular argument to this case; he persistently challenged the dehumanization of the Garners in the legal process by insisting on their treatment as people rather than as property; he attacked the Fugitive Slave Law from a number of directions; attempted to increase the opportunities for a rescue by delaying the procedures; and also attempted (in vain) to get the Garners charged and convicted of murder in Ohio, which would place them out of reach of their owner. For those readers knowledgeable about the constitutional and political implications of the Fugitive Slave Law, Modern Medea offers a fresh ground-level perspective on its enforcement, from the process of obtaining a warrant, arresting fugitives, managing their captivity, and the courtroom battles that arose.

For retrieving the documentable history of Margaret’s Garner’s case, for shedding light on the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, and for a study that carefully reveals all the many ways in which Margaret Garner was lost, forgotten, or betrayed by both northern and southern whites, Steven Weisenburger’s Modern Medea is well worth reading. It also offers a valuable reminder that even as historians of slavery develop increasingly sophisticated uses for increasingly accessible primary sources, most scholars (and innumerable families involved in the detective work of genealogy) still encounter frustrating obstacles in their effort to recount the history, the lived experience, of individuals held to bondage within our nation’s most horrific institution.

Leslie A. Schwalm
University of Iowa