May 31, 1829?
July 27, 1862
The fugitive slave Anthony Burns was born and reared in northern Virginia, where he taught himself to read and write, converted to the Baptist faith, and became a preacher to other slaves. From boyhood he was annually hired out and, during one such hire, accidentally broke his right hand. Although the break healed, Burns feared he would be sold south and put to some new kind of work that he would perform so poorly as to be mistreated. So he decided to escape. While hired as a stevedore on the Richmond docks, he enlisted the aid of a sailor who stowed him aboard his Boston-bound ship, but his owner learned of his whereabouts and federal marshals arrested him in Boston on May 24, 1854.
The arrest prompted Boston's Vigilance Committee to stage a mass protest meeting in Faneuil Hall that the abolitionists Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker addressed. At its midpoint, some militants in the audience interrupted the proceedings to lead an armed attack to rescue Burns, who was being held in the nearby municipal courthouse. A biracial assault force of fourteen rioters failed to gain entry when the expected reinforcement from the Faneuil Hall audience did not back them, but during the struggle, they stabbed to death a specially deputized guard. The government later prosecuted the rioters and speakers Phillips and Parker for obstructing federal officers, but discontinued (nol-prossed ) the case because of a defective indictment.
The next morning, Burns's owner, Colonel Charles F. Suttle, agreed to sell Burns to some Bostonians, whose leader, black minister Leonard A. Grimes, had raised the purchase money. The group would then free Burns. But United States Attorney Benjamin F. Hallett, citing the killing of the guard as justification, stopped the sale until after the case was decided. To guard the prisoner from any more rescue attempts, Hallett also assembled some 180 soldiers and marines and 120 armed civilians known as the "marshal's guard." Anticipating Burns's likely return, he persuaded the mayor with the suggestion of probable federal payment to call out approximately 1500 militiamen to keep the peace while the federal soldiery marched their prisoner to the wharf. President Franklin Pierce not only approved these actions but also sent to Boston the adjutant general to coordinate the regulars and militia and a U.S. revenue cutter to carry Burns back to Richmond, if necessary. The federal government paid the city $14,165.78 for their costs of an estimated $40,000 for the nine-day affair.
Although defense counsel Richard Henry Dana, Jr. emphasized the defects in the record, Judge Edward G. Loring, the commissioner appointed by the federal courts to decide fugitive slave cases, used Burns's replies to his master on the night of his arrest to identify him and issued the certificate for his removal. While church bells tolled dirges at Boston and throughout the state, an estimated 50,000 persons lined the one-third mile route to witness the rendition; later Burns quipped that "there was lots of folks to see a colored man walk through the streets."
Back in Virginia, Burns was punished with four months solitary confinement until sold. Luckily, Bostonians learned of his whereabouts and arranged to buy his freedom from his new owner, David McDaniel, who defied a southern mob to sell the notorious fugitive for $1,300 raised by Grimes. Now a freedman, Burns decided to study for the ministry and was helped by a benefactress to attend the Preparatory Department of Oberlin College intermittently from 1855 to 1862. He became pastor of a black Baptist church in Indianapolis, but soon left the state in part because of Indiana's racially discriminatory Black Laws. He moved to St. Catharines, Canada West (now Ontario), and became pastor of its fugitive slave community. There he died of tuberculosis in July 1862.
The coincidental timing of Burns's case, with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Sherman M. Booth fugitive slave rescue case earlier that year, contributed to the rise of antislavery parties throughout the North, including Massachusetts, where the secret American or Know-Nothing order was elected to office for the next three years. This nativist, antislavery party promptly disbanded all five Irish militia companies because of their participation in the rendition. Massachusetts joined seven other states in enacting new personal liberty laws that withdrew state support from fugitive slave rendition. The resentment against Commissioner Loring's decision resulted
in social ostracism for Loring and the loss of his Harvard Law School professorship and state probate office. After Burns's rendition, no owner ever again chanced fugitive slave recovery in Boston.
Throughout his ordeal, Anthony Burns demonstrated his intelligence and resourcefulness, courage and humor, honesty and integrity. As the victimized protagonist, of the most dramatic and famous such case, he became "the fugitive." He originally had discouraged the legal defense urged on his behalf, telling his lawyer that he would fare worse if he lost, for his master was "a malicious man if crossed." And so he was returned, punished, sold, and celebrated as "the Boston Lion."
The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns. Boston: Fetridge, 1854. Reprint, Northbrook, Ill.: Metro Books, 1972.
Maginnes, David R. "The Case of the Court House Rioters in the Rendition of the Fugitive Slave Anthony Burns, 1854." Journal of Negro History 56, no. 1 (January 1971): 31–42.
Pease, Jane H., and William H. Pease. The Fugitive Slave Law and Anthony Burns. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1975.
Stevens, Charles E. Anthony Burns: A History. Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1856. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
david r. maginnes (1996)
Updated by author 2005
Anthony Burns (1834-1862) was a fugitive African American slave whose recapture in Boston forced his return to slavery, thus angering many Northerners and increasing the moral force of the abolitionists.
Anthony Burns was born in Stafford Country, Va., on May 31, 1834. By the age of 6 he had learned the alphabet from neighboring white children and could read. After a youthful conversion, he became a Baptist slave preacher. While working in Richmond, he escaped from his owner, C. T. Suttle, by stowing away on a ship. Arriving in Boston in March 1854, Burns found friendship and employment among the free blacks.
Suttle learned the whereabouts of Burns through an intercepted letter and determined to recover his slave, valued at $1,000. Armed with a court order, Suttle had Burns arrested in May 1854 under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required only "positive identification" before a Federal commissioner to award custody of an African American to an "owner"; there was no jury trial or possibility of appeal.
On the night preceding the formal hearing before the commissioner, an abolitionist meeting was held. Theodore Parker and Wendell Phillips urged that Burns be freed, by force if necessary. Thomas Wentworth Higginson led a group of blacks and whites in a badly timed charge on the jail. Although one guard was killed, Burns was not freed. On the next day Richard Henry Dana, Burn's counsel, argued brilliantly for his client but failed to prevent the slave's return to Virginia. Mass hostility regarding the decision forced the governor to use militia, marines, and regular army troops when Burns was marched across Boston to a waiting ship. To prevent a repetition of similar cases, several Northern states enacted "personal liberty laws" designed to block the capture and return of fugitive slaves.
After 5 months in a Richmond prison, Burns was sold to a speculator who made a handsome profit by reselling the slave to a group of Bostonians who, in turn, freed him in March 1855. He returned to a hero's welcome in Boston, where he assisted C. E. Stevens in compiling Anthony Burns: A History (1856).
Late in 1855, with the aid of antislavery people, Burns entered the preparatory department of Oberlin College in Ohio. After a year there he attended Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati for a year's study and returned again to Oberlin. During 1858-1859 he reportedly served as pastor of an African American congregation in Indianapolis, Ind. He returned to Oberlin once more, remaining there until June 1862. During his holidays, in addition to preaching, Burns traveled on the abolitionist circuit, speaking against the evils of slavery and selling copies of his book. In the spring of 1862 he went to St. Catharines, Ontario, to become pastor of a congregation of freedmen. He died there on July 27, 1862, after a short illness.
In addition to the biography by Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History (1856), the trial of Burns is described in an anonymous pamphlet, The Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns (1854). More recent accounts appear in the biographies of the prominent Bostonians who participated: Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty: The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips (1958); Samuel Shapiro, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., 1815-1882 (1961); John L. Thomas, The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison (1963); and Tilden G. Edelstein, Strange Enthusiasm: A Life of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1968). □