A Cincinnati Story

The enduring legacy of Margaret Garner and Beloved

click to enlarge Margaret Garner’s story inspired Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s “The Modern Medea.”
Margaret Garner’s story inspired Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s “The Modern Medea.”


ruce Willis’ Marauders is just the latest in a string of Hollywood productions to film in the Queen City. Plenty of movies have been filmed here in the past (Rain Man, anyone?), but it’s never been with this frequency, even for movies that take place here.

Take, for instance, 2008’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, set in Cincinnati during the Great Depression but filmed in Toronto. Even more glaring, however, is the filming of the historical drama/horror movie Beloved nearly 20 years ago in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania even though it’s based on a historical figure from Boone County. That woman, Margaret Garner, has received more recognition in the last decade thanks to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, but in 1998 her name had been all but forgotten in Cincinnati.

Garner, a slave in pre-Civil War America, was notorious for killing her own daughter rather than allowing the child to be returned to slavery. According to Carl Westmoreland, the senior historian at the Freedom Center, she and her family fled from Maplewood Farm in Richwood, Ky., in January 1856.

“Her husband Robert set up the escape,” says Westmoreland, “even though he had been away from the farm on an 18-month contract and found his wife pregnant.” The child’s father was most likely Archibald Gaines, the owner of the plantation. Garner and her family crossed the frozen Ohio River to Cincinnati only to eventually be apprehended, but not before Garner’s tragic decision to end her four children’s lives.

She only succeeded in killing her two-year-old daughter Mary before being subdued. A Jan. 29, 1856 Cincinnati Enquirer story, “Stampede of Slaves: A TALE OF HORROR!” sums up the public reaction: “There is much excitement existing, the bloody episode having invested the affair with a tinge of fearful, although romantic interest. The Abolitionists regard the parents of the murdered child as a hero and heroine, teeming with lofty and holy emotions (...) while others look upon them as brutal and unnatural murderers.”

According to Westmoreland, the Enquirer even referred to Garner as a “whore” in the press, over her alleged infidelity with Gaines, during the chaotic month-long trial, exemplifying a victim-blaming mentality that persists in some circles even today.

Garner’s story was subsequently the inspiration for Frances Harper’s 1859 poem “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio”; the 1867 painting “The Modern Medea” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble that was donated to the Freedom Center by Procter & Gamble in 2004; the 2005 opera Margaret Garner that was performed at Music Hall at the time to much acclaim; and, of course, Beloved. Beloved was first a book by Toni Morrison published in 1987, and the movie stays close to the source material. Sethe (Oprah Winfrey) was a free woman living in 1873 Cincinnati with her teenage daughter Denver (Kimberly Elise), but Morrison diverged from Garner by adding the supernatural horror elements. Sethe’s house is haunted by the angry spirit of the baby, Beloved, that Sethe killed years before.

It’s unfortunate that Beloved wasn’t filmed here, considering Lori Holladay fought for years to make that happen. Holladay was the director of the Cincinnati Film Commission at the time, and according to a February 1998 issue of Cincinnati Magazine, she “pulled out all the stops to convince producers that Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky were the perfect locations in which to shoot Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel.” Although by that time the Maplewood Farm had long been destroyed, Holladay is quoted by Cincinnati Magazine as having proposed the Dinsmore Homestead in Burlington, Ky., as a possible substitute. The movie’s director Jonathan Demme was said to be thinking of something more along the lines of the Tara plantation from Gone with the Wind, however, and passed. The proximity of Philadelphia to New York City didn’t help, along with the fact that Philly also offered their old convention center as a sound stage for free.

Perhaps consequently, the movie Beloved is all but forgotten today — in Cincinnati and in the national conversation. It didn’t make a splash at the box office, grossing about only $23 million domestically compared to its $80 million budget, and was only nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in 1998. This could be due to its bizarre subject matter — with revenants and resurrections presented bluntly and untraditionally compared to most horror movies — but more than likely it’s that the American people shied away from such harsh history.

That’s only recently started to change with movies like 12 Years a Slave, but they’re still few and far between. Winfrey herself took a sabbatical from acting for 15 years, only returning for Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but took to Beloved’s defense when interviewed by Moviefone in 2013: “Was it a mistake to not try and make that a more commercial film? To take some things out and tell the story differently so that it would be more palatable to an audience? Well, if you wanted to make a film that everybody would see, then that would be a mistake. But at the time, I was pleased with the film that we did because it represented to me the essence of the Beloved book…”

So why isn’t Garner a more prominent figure in Cincinnati’s history? Surely if she was in the late 1990s there would have been more of a push to film Beloved here. As Westmoreland puts it, however, the average American is “not comfortable with people that do good and bad things.”

Garner is worthy of being remembered —

she is at the Freedom Center, where “The Modern Medea” painting can still be viewed, as well as at the Covington floodwall between the foot of Madison Avenue and the Roebling Suspension Bridge where “The Flight of the Garner Family,” along with four other murals, was painted there in 2003. 

“People have to figure out where they fit and where they have value,” says Westmoreland. Margaret Garner lived by that philosophy, and much can be learned from her struggle.

More information about Margaret Garner can be found at the NATIONAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD FREEDOM CENTER. Visit freedomcenter.org.

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