Local author shares heartbreaking tale of infamous mother

Exploring the me too movement in the era of slavery
March 21, 2018

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Margaret Garner story was presented by filmaker and author Joanne Caputo March 1, at Lewes Library. Co-sponsored by Women's March Sussex and the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice,the event drew about 50 people, mostly women, to hear how American slavery created a  setting where sexual assault was customary and legal. Caputo describes the sexual bondage of slave women who were used to breed future slaves. 

Margaret Garner was born a slave in 1833, and her mother’s master, John Gaines, was likely her father. In 1849 at 16 years old, she was chosen as a sex slave by her uncle/owner. When John Gaines left the area to pursue a political career, he sold his property, including Garner, to his brother, Archibald Gaines. Garner’s owners were brothers, who were likely her father and uncle. 

She had four children. In 1856, she escaped with her children to Kentucky, then to Ohio. Captured, she killed one of her children to prevent her return to a life slavery. She was tried in a Cincinatti court for the murders, and later returned to her master. Garner died two years later of typhoid fever at age 25. 

Caputo located Garner’s slave home in Kentucky and organized an archaeological dig, getting it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A tavern, owned by the father of the Gaines brothers, was thought to be a place where slave women were assaulted. Two decades of original research on Garner has taken Caputo to meet descendants of members of the community church where Garner was baptized before her escape.

While investigating Garner’s life, Caputo experienced paranormal events related to the research subjects leading her on a path of self discovery she subsequently wrote  her memoir “Butterfly on the River.”

Caputo's research also led her to write a screen play for a television series based on Garner's life. She is searching for a production company to produce the series.

Learn more about Caputo and Garner, go to:

Editors Note: the article has been changed to reflect these changes: Garner was chosen as a sex slave by her uncle/owner, she had four children and was pregnant when she escaped; she killed one upon capture.


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