Dr. Peter A. Muckley

To Garner Stories :  A Note on  Margaret  and  Sethe
in and out of History, and Toni Morrison's Beloved

         Levi Coffin, life-long Underground Railroad Man and sometime President thereof, in his Reminiscences (1876), detailed the case of Margaret Garner.  He there referred to it as the case of slavery which had "aroused deeper interest and sympathy," than any other.  It was the case of "Margaret Garner, the slave mother, who killed her child rather than see it taken back to slavery" (Blockson 217).1
         Here, we intend to simply look at the divergences between Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Garner's story.  This is done not in a John Livingstone Lowes’ Road to Xanadu attempt to trace the untraceable of artistic creation, nor is it done to answer such non-questions as the famous "How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?"  It is not done to simply reveal sources, nor to detract from a haunting novel of our collective consciousness.  No.  It is rather done to let Margaret's story be more widely known, and to trace how looking at changes in detail—those between history, Sethe's story, Toni Morrison's story—a future  might now have been created from the unrelenting spitefulness of the past.
         The following synopsis of the reported facts of Margaret Garner's case has been broken into discreet, numerated event-units (1 to 11) to facilitate analysis and discussion.  Certain speculatively key-motifs have been underlined to aid readerly identification.  Observations follow each unit and are indicated by two dashes.  While Sethe is never given a surname, Paul D. is.  He is called Mr. Garner (11).  Slaves generally were referred to by their owners' names.  Sethe then too would be a Garner.
The "simple facts" of Margaret Garner's life are these:

1.          Margaret Garner, slave, in late January 1856, together with 16 other slaves from neighboring parts of Kentucky, formed an escape plan.  The weather was cold, the Ohio River frozen.  On a Sunday night, with two horses stolen from their respective slave-owners, they hitched up a sled to carry them from Kentucky to Freedom.
             —Sethe Garner escapes pregnant and alone, but three of her children already reside with Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother-in-law.

2.          The 17 crossed the frozen Ohio River on foot.  Their crossing was from Covington, Kentucky to Wester Row, Ohio.  Once across, they thought it best to split up, it being daylight Monday morning.  Simon, Mary, their son Robert, together with his wife Margaret, and their four children (two boys, two baby girls) went the dangerous route to a Mr. Kite's cabin in Mill Creek, a lower part of Wester Row.  Mr. Kite (no christian name is given) was the son of one Joe Kite.  The son had been bought out of slavery by his father.  The route via Kite's house was dangerous because white residents might see them pass.  The 9 other escapees, who had taken a different route, made it to Canada.
            —Sethe has 4 children: two boys, two baby girls.  Sethe crosses from Kentucky to Ohio.  The real Robert would become the mythic Halle, and the returning Paul D.
            It is not difficult to understand why Robert's mother Mary might become Grandma Baby Suggs, holy.  No other name lends itself to her role so easily.

3.          Kite went to Levi Coffin for advice at his store on 6th and Elm Streets. Coffin advised Kite to take the 8 fugitives to the outskirts, West of the city, where the colored settlement lay, and the escapees would be helped. Coffin would meanwhile arrange their escape for that night.
             —"West of the city, where the colored settlement lay" becomes "the Clearing" of Baby Suggs, where Sethe had learnt "how it felt to wake up at dawn and decide what to do with the day" (95).  Coffin himself becomes Mr. Bodwin.

4.          When Kite returned, his home was already surrounded by slave masters, sheriff's officers, and a posse.  The fugitives, barred and locked in, were resolved to fight and die.   Margaret determined to kill herself and children rather than to submit to slavery again.  Robert fired on the officials. They beat down the door and dragged him from the house.
             —Kite is a kind of Stamp Paid, his freedom stamp paid for by his father Joe.  Robert here goes briefly to an unknown destiny as do Halle and Paul D.

5.          Margaret seized a butcher's knife, and cut her youngest girl's throat "with one stroke".  "The throat of her little daughter," following Coffin, "whom probably she loved the best."  She immediately tried to kill herself, and the rest of
the children (220).
             —Sethe kills her second youngest daughter Beloved with a saw. Sethe's near strangulation (96) is the dead daughter's psychic revenge.  Margaret's one day of freedom becomes Sethe's "twenty-eight days," from her child's "pure clear stream of spit" to "her oily blood" (95).
             Somewhat speculatively—as indeed everything here must be—those baptismal to sacrificial twenty-eight days might recall February, the month which elapsed between Margaret Garner's killing of her child and her March trial.  Certainly Margaret was visited by all kinds of solicitous black folk while in prison.

6.          All remaining 7 of the Garner group were put in jail.  Their trial lasted a sensational 2 weeks.  Lawyers for the Slave-Owners were Wall and Tinnell, for the Slaves, Jolliffe and Getchell.  Jolliffe argued that, because Margaret had been given permission to work in a Free State some years before by her owner, she should have been legally free from that point on.  That, therefore, all her children were legally free, since they were born after that time.  He, curiously, proposed that Margaret be charged with murder, the others with complicity. This, at least, would guarantee that they remain in a Free State to be judged as people, not as property.
             He did this to circumvent the harsh provisions of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.  In fact, his whole defence turned on proving both this law in particular, and slavery in general, unconstitutional.
             —Coffin's longest section, detailing the legal ramifications of Margaret's trial, become Bodwin's fleeting wistful memories: "The Society managed to turn infanticide and the cry of savagery around, and build a further case for abolishing slavery" (260). This seems almost a Morrisonian footnote.
             Perhaps, this is why Nelson Lord's question –“the question about her mother”-- must forever go unanswered (102).  Nelson Lord, incidentally, as "Lord Nelson," ties in with all the water imagery of the book.  Margaret's second youngest daughter died by drowning in March, 1856 (Blockson 223).

7.           Margaret is described by Coffin as "a mulatto, about five feet high... she appeared to be twenty-one or twenty-three years old."  He specifically noted: "On the left side of the forehead was an old scar, and on the cheekbone of the same side, another one.  When asked what caused them, she said: “White man struck me.”
              —Sethe would have been 19 or 20 in 1856.  Her height even seems to match that of Margaret's.  Margaret's facial scars become Sethe's dorsal "chokecherry tree."  The laconic "white man struck me" blossoms into Baby Suggs' dying wisdom, "there was no bad luck in the world but white-people" (104).2

8.           Coffin dwelt on the fact that Margaret held her remaining daughter of nine months close to her throughout the trial, while "the little boys, four and six years respectively, were bright-eyed, woolly-headed little fellows, with fat dimpled cheeks."  The youngest daughter who had been murdered was "of rare beauty" (Blockson 221-222).
              —Toni Morrison seems to have transposed the ages of Beloved and Denver vis à vis these factual conterparts.  In a similar way, Beloved's fate partakes of both murder and drowning, as previously noted.
             "The little boys" become Howard and Buglar, and their mysterious disappearance in Beloved is equalled by their abrupt fading out of the Coffin chronicle of events.  Coffin does, however, note that Margaret "declared she would kill herself and her children" (Blockson 219) which would certainly account for Denver's speculation that "if Nelson Lord was right—no wonder they were sulky, staying away from home as much as they could" (103).  They feared for their lives.  Beloved, of course, is certainly "of rare beauty."

9.          The family was remanded back into slavery by the Commissioner on the grounds that this was in accord with the property laws of Kentucky, and the United States of America.
             Apparently, only Robert, Margaret and the remaining youngest child were sent South (Sold Down the River).  Nothing more is said in the account of either the grand-parents or of the two boys.
             —Baby Suggs dies in 1865, but she does not witness the end of the Civil War.  That is, for her consciousness, the question of slavery is as yet an open issue (perhaps, however, it still is).  Paul D.'s war-time wanderings may have been inspired by the real-life Robert's long odyssey to freedom, recounted in the Philadelphia Press of March 14, 1870 (cf. Blockson 223).

10.        William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator of March 11, 1856 recounted that the sinking Lewis, the ship carrying Margaret and her baby in arms, was badly shaken by a ship coming to its rescue.  Margaret and her child were hurled into the river by the shock of the collision.  A Black man and the cook of the Lewis leaped to save them, but only succeeded in saving Margaret, the baby was drowned.  Margaret "displayed frantic joy" on hearing the news, and indicated her intention “to drown herself" before ever returning to slavery (Blockson 223).
             —Beloved, in some ways a composite of both of Margaret's girl children, comes out of the water, and seems to have lived in a watery limbo beneath a bridge.  Denver is born while being borne on a boat.  Sethe at one time feels she herself is “voiding all the waters of the world” (51).  Water symbolism in Beloved would require a book in itself, but, given Margaret and her daughter's fate, there is, even here, more than sufficient raw material for the creative imagination of Toni Morrison to develop.

11.        A Cincinnati Chronicle article, reprinted in the Philadelphia Press, March 14, 1870, stated that Robert and Margaret had worked in New Orleans, and then had been sold to one Judge Bonham, for forced plantation labor, at Tennessee Landing, Mississippi.  Robert reported to the Chronicle that Margaret had died in 1858 of typhoid fever.  Her last words to him had been that he should never again marry in slavery, but “live in the hope of Freedom” (223).
 —Here we seem to have left that place where Margaret's and Sethe's stories overlap.  Margaret's story, however, should always be remembered.  Like her, Toni Morrison adjures us to "live in the hope of Freedom."

Differences and Significances:

           There are, of course, vast differences between Toni Morrison's Beloved and Margaret Garner's story but if we accept that Coffin's Reminiscences in some wise inspired Sethe's story—as I think we must—then some of those vast changes can be dwelt upon to help focus Toni Morrison's special emphases.  The whole of the Sweet Home episode of Sethe's life is pure creation, though its division into pre- and post-Mr. Garner, or "enlightened patriarchy" and Schoolmaster's "vicious despotism," with its social Darwinian claptrap, cannot help but remind the reader of the Shelby, of Kentucky, and the Legree episodes in Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, an unjustly abused founding text for all who write of slavery.  Much else in the novel is likewise pure, inimitable Morrison creation too.3
          The major deviations from the story of Margaret we shall treat of here are: the solo flight of Sethe; the introduction of Amy—"the raggediest-looking trash you ever saw" (31-32); the disappearance of the adult males of the Margaret Garner group, both father-in-law and Robert, with only Stamp Paid remaining to remind us of Kite; the uniting of traits of Robert in both Halle and Paul D.; the uniting of traits of Margaret's two hapless daughters in the figure of Beloved; the downplaying of the legalistic white world, in fact of the white world altogether; the transmogrification of Margaret's slavery sentence into Sethe's imprisonment within her own brain and its incessant, uncalled-for memories; the maturing of Denver as a promise for tomorrow.
          These eight considerations taken together point up Toni Morrison's shift from the public to the personal, from the legalistic/paternal to the familial/maternal, from the external/phenomenal to the intimate noumenal.  The outside world beyond 124 only breaks in as disruption, danger, and evil until the final acceptance of Paul D., harbinger of the freedom of love, and the resplendent independence of Denver, representative of a sturdy new African-American freedom.
          Denver is named after Amy Denver of Boston, she is thus a link of love and solidarity between the white and the black worlds, the common sisterhood of the marginalized —as Sethe and Amy were recognized as "two throw-away people" (84).  The emphases and changes between Margaret and Sethe's stories point to Toni Morrison's offering us tentative hopes for a future based on the qualities residing in the ethos of the poor and the outcast, qualities of resilience and mutual aid.


          A knowledge of Margaret Garner's history and fate helps us better appreciate the vision of Toni Morrison's Beloved.  While Margaret's life was one of unremitting misery, Sethe's offers some hopes for the future—founded on the transracial love and endurance of women.  While the unforgiving past must always haunt us—as Beloved haunts 124, as slavery haunts the ghettoes of the U.S.A. today—the combined efforts of poor whites and poor blacks may deliver the beautiful future hope that is a Denver, née Garner.  Harriet Beecher Stowe and Margaret Garner might help beget a Toni Morrison.

1.          The whole of the tragic story of Margaret Garner, as related by Coffin, can be found in Levi Coffin's Reminiscences. Robert Clarke & Co.: Cincinnati, 1876. The latter part of the same is recorded in the Cincinnati Chronicle for March, 1870. Cincinnati as the place of publication has an obvious bearing on Beloved, with its Ohio setting. Coffin's curious name may even, remotely, have aided in Sethe's obsession with her Beloved's tombstone. Everything in the novel takes place around Cincinnati, though, historically, only Robert Garner actually found refuge there.    back

2.          The novels chronology is somewhat as follows: Sethe arrives at "Sweet Home" in 1850. She is then 13. She marries Halle in 1851. Pregnant every year thereafter, she escapes in 1856, aged 19 or 20. One month after her arrival on the Ohio bank, she kills Beloved, as the white posse arrives in town. Baby Suggs dies in 1865. Paul D. comes to Nº 124 in 1873/1874. That is, 18 years after Baby Suggs' death, 18 years after his last seeing Sethe.    back

3          I think Lincoln's comment to Harriet Beecher Stowe should never be forgotten: "So you are the little lady who started this big war". Beecher Stowe had a tremendous influence on American History. Perhaps one reason why Toni Morrison omits any description of the historical flight of Margaret across the frozen ice (from Kentucky to Ohio) may have been to obviate comparison with Eliza and the "floundering masses of ice" in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Surely, amongst much else, Beloved is a "black-wise" rewriting of Beecher Stowe's novel. For instance, Uncle Tom's Cabin begins in February, while February is Sethe's "free month". Beecher Stowe's Haley—the slave-driver—and Harry—the slave child—might even have yielded up Toni Morrison's use of the name Halle. Henry/Harry/Hal are variants of the same name, as seen in Shakespeare, for example. While source speculation is often absurd, offering potential intertextual depth is not. After all, going back to founding texts is one way in which poor culture manages to struggle on.    back


Works  Cited

Beecher Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin.
              Boston, 1852.
Blockson, Charles L.    The Underground Railroad.
              New York: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Coffin, Levi. Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, the Reputed President of the Underground Railroad.
              London, 1876.

Morrison, Toni.  Beloved.
              London: Picador, 1988.

----- . Song of Solomon.
              London: Picador, 1989.

To cite this essay:

Muckley, Peter A. "To Garner Stories : A Note on Margaret and Sethe in and out
              of History, and Toni Morrison's Beloved." 2002.
              Anniina's Toni Morrison Page. 19 Sept. 2002. [Date you accessed the page].


Essay copyright ©2002 Dr. Peter A. Muckley. Published by Luminarium through Express Written Permission.

Toni Morrison site and web presentation copyright ©2002-2011 Anniina Jokinen.
Page created 19 September 2002 by Anniina Jokinen. Last updated January 5, 2011.