'The Blade Was At My Own Breast': Slave Infanticide in 1850s Fiction, Sarah N. Roth, American Nineteenth Century History, 8:2, June 2007, 169-185.
Anti-slavery authors searched for events to fictionalize so as to heighten the agitation of a northern readers. In January 1856 such an event occurred. In a year that included John Brown's Pottawatomie Massacre and Preston Brooks, one of South Carolina's representatives, attempted homicide of Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, other attempted murders and a homicide occurred. On January 27, Margaret Garner attacked her four children and killed one of them, a two year old. Garner and her children had runaway from Kentucky but were surrounded by slave catchers in Ohio. It was a front page story in the North but never appeared in print in the South.
Garner's infanticide caused a dilemma for Northern authors. Would white, middle class readers have sympathy for a murdering mother? Having committed an 'unnatural act' such as killing her own child, would Margaret Garner's story turn audiences away from slave mothers? If slave mothers were savages then why should they be set free on Northern soil?
Later that summer, Harriet Beecher Stowe author of Uncle Tom's Cabin published Dred. It contained an instance when a slave mother killed her two children. Other authors did attempt to portray such an instance in their own fiction. Race, femininity, motherhood, enslavement and violence directed toward children became entwined in these novels.
Garner herself was of West African descent, lived her entire life as a slave, and had murdered one of her own children. Northern readers were far removed from her.
Authors added attributes to their fictional Garner in order to develop sympathy in the readers. In two novels, Garner became nearly white with only a tincture of black blood. In other stories Garner's character spoke of salvation of death for the female child who would later be sexually assaulted by a white slaveholder. In the Victorian ante-bellum world a mother who murdered a child violated the sacred charge given to all mothers to protect their children.
Authors stressed that the Garner character was fulfilling rather than rejecting this sacred charge. With only one option of putting a child out of harm's, mothers slew their children. Infanticide was not an act of beast-like violence but one of desperate sacrifice. Women characters in antebellum fiction could engage in violence in only one way---suicide. Suicide was self-determination. In suicide, women remained victims.
A large number of antebellum fictional characters who were female slaves, committed suicide. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Lucy drowned herself when she learned her child had been sold away from her. In another story, a female slave drank poison rather than submit to her new owner, a rapist. In Another story, a female slave threatened suicide after her rescuer from slavery attempted rape. When mothers killed children to prevent the child's destruction at the hands of a rapist, they were also committing suicide by suppressing their innate maternal instincts to preserve the child.
Women in antebellum sentimental novels resorted to violence to protect their chastity, their faith and the safety of their child. Violence became logical when the choice was made in the face of abuse and harm by a slaveholder. Yet during the course of the plot, slaveholders who attacked women and young adults were not assaulted by women. The slaveholders were undone by other circumstances in the story.
Traditional abolitionist images of women as victims were there in antebellum stories. Yet they became more assertive and defiant in the face of violent authority.
Text by CWL.
Top Image Source: Newspaper Clipping
Second Image Source: Painting