Rendition Hearing Of Anthony Burns: 1854

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Rendition Hearing of Anthony Burns:

Defendant: Anthony Burns
Crime Charged: Being a fugitive slave
Claimant: Charles Suttle
Chief Defense Lawyers: Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Charles Mayo Ellis
Claimant's Lawyer: Seth J. Thomas
Judge: Edward Greeley Loring
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates of Hearing: May 25-June 2, 1854
Decision: Anthony Burns was the property of Charles Suttle and was returned to him.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Anthony Burns hearing highlighted the strains that the issue of slavery had placed on the nation, tested the government's willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, and became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement.

O n June 2, 1854, Boston became an armed camp during the rendition hearing of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia. Burns's owner, Charles Suttle, was demanding Burns's return under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Abolitionist agitation was so great that the army, the marines, the militia, the police, and 120 newly deputized federal marshals had to guard the courthouse during the proceedings, while 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets in protest.

The story began in Virginia in 1852, when Suttle sent Burns to Richmond to work under William Brent. Burns was literate and skilled at a variety of jobs. He persuaded Brent to let him hire his own time and keep a percentage of the money. This was illegal in Virginia, but it was common in larger Southern cities. The arrangement was mutually beneficial since Brent would not have to pay to feed and clothe Burns, and Burns would have some autonomy. Burns made his payments to Brent while he began saving money and seeking friends among Northern seamen. In early 1854 he saw his chance to escape, stowing away on a Boston-bound ship. Once there he posed as a free man and began working in a clothing store belonging to Coffin Pitts, a well-known figure in the black community.

Tracked Down in Boston

Burns soon wrote his brother a letter, which he had mailed from Canada to conceal his location. But the letter was delivered to Suttle instead. Burns had been indiscreet enough to suggest that he was in Boston, and Suttle and Brent immediately set out to reclaim him. On May 24 they had him arrested on the spurious charge of robbing a jewelry store. Only when Burns was taken to the federal courthouse rather than the city jail did he realize that he had actually been seized as a fugitive slave.

At the jail Suttle asked Burns why he had run away. Burns replied that he had fallen asleep aboard the ship on which he was working. "Before I woke up, she set sail and carried me off," he claimed. Suttle asked Burns if he had not always treated him well. Burns made no reply, and Suttle continued. "Haven't I always given you money when you needed?" Burns countered "You have always given me 12 1/2 cents a year." This proved that Suttle and Burns knew each other, but not that Suttle owned Burns. For the rest of the night the marshal held Burns in the courthouse, while raucous guards tried to prod Burns into admitting that Suttle owned him.

The next morning U.S. Commissioner Edward Greeley Loring began a rendition hearing. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act required special federal commissioners to hold summary hearings on the status of seized negroes, grant certificates of removal, and order federal marshals to hunt down alleged fugitives. The accused had no right to trial and the standard of proof needed to return a Negro to slavery was very low. Fugitives could not testify on their own behalves, and they had no right to counsel or public trial. The commissioner's job was to decide whether the slave described in the affidavit was the person standing before him. The commissioner's decision was final; the fugitive could not even seek a writ of habeas corpus. The restrictive nature of these hearings had enraged abolitionists since 1850.

Dana for the Defense

No doubt Burns would have been returned quickly to Suttle and Virginia except for the intervention of the famous abolitionist lawyer Richard Henry Dana, Jr., best remembered for his book, Two Years before the Mast. Dana forced his way into the courtroom and offered to represent Burns. Burns refused, saying, "It is of no use, they have got me. I shall fare worse if I resist." But Dana asked Loring for a delay so that Burns could have time to consider whether or not to accept his offer. He argued that Burns was in no state to decide anything at that moment. Loring asked Burns directly what his wishes were. Burns made no answer. Loring then asked him if he wanted time to consider his situation. Burns, still unsure of what answer to give, said nothing. Loring then answered for him, saying, "Anthony, I understood you to say you would?" Burns agreed and Loring adjourned the hearing for two days.

A rendition hearing was supposed to be a summary proceeding, but the case took on many of the aspects of a full-blown trial. Although Dana had delayed the hearing, he still did not officially represent Burns. Hesitant to approach him directly, Dana sent two black men, the Reverend Leonard A. Grimes and Coffin Pitts, and the white abolitionist Wendell Phillips, to talk to him. When a marshal blocked their entry, Loring ordered him to let Burns see "a few friends." Once the three were admitted they persuaded Burns to accept Dana as counsel. Meanwhile, Dana was seeking co-counsel. After approaching several established lawyers in vain, he accepted the services of Charles Mayo Ellis, a young attorney, who volunteered his help.

When Burns met with Dana, he again said that he feared severe punishment, such as being sold on the New Orleans slave market or beaten, if he resisted return. Still the attorneys pressed him, hoping, despite the odds, to convince Loring not to remand Burns to slavery. But even if Burns were returned, a long hearing would provide useful propaganda for the abolitionists by showing the Fugitive Slave Act's blatant unfairness. Regardless of the outcome for Burns, other fugitives might benefit.

Abolitionists Mobilize

While Dana and Ellis were preparing for the hearing, other abolitionists called a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall. During the meeting, Thomas Wentworth Higginson led an unsuccessful attempt to rescue Burns, during which a deputy was killed. As a result, by early the next day, soldiers, militia, and emergency deputies had Boston under what appeared to be martial law. Loring postponed Burns's hearing until Monday.

Meanwhile, Suttle offered to sell Burns for $1,200. Burns's supporters quickly raised the money and Loring himself drew up a bill of sale. But at the last minute, the pro-slavery U.S. district attorney, Benjamin F. Hallett, announced that a slave could not be sold in Massachusetts. He then threatened to bill Suttle for all the government's expenses if he sold Burns before the hearing was over. The discussion continued until midnight, when Hallett announced it was now Sunday and that no sale could take place on the Sabbath.

The hearing commenced on Monday and lasted until Thursday. All the while the courtroom was filled with a U.S. marshal's guard of about 120 men drawn from the dregs of society. To reach the courtroom the parties had to duck under the heavy anchor chains that were draped around the building and pass through four or five cordons of police and armed soldiers.

Judge's Rulings Favor Master

During the hearing, Loring denied all Dana's motions and decided all questions of law and procedure in Suttle's favor. His most important decision was to let William Brent, Burns's former employer, testify to what Burns said to Suttle immediately after his arrest. But Loring forbade Burns from testifying about the same conversation.

Brent also testified that there was some doubt about who owned Burns under Virginia law. Suttle could not produce a deed or title and Brent hinted that the actual title was questionable. Brent also apparently lied about the timing of Burns's escape to avoid having to reimburse Suttle for the costs of retrieving him. Brent claimed to have seen Burns on March 20 and insisted that he escaped on March 24. In fact, Burns had left Virginia in February. To discredit Brent, Dana and Ellis called Boston witnesses who contradicted him.

Nevertheless, on June 2, Judge Loring ruled against Burns, citing Brent's testimony that Burns had recognized both Suttle and Brent. Dana was furious. Burns, he said, was "convicted on an exparte record, against the actual evidence, [and] on his own admissions made at the moment of arrest to his alleged Master!"

That afternoon Burns was marched to the wharf to board a ship for Virginia. Once he was back in the South, Suttle confined him to jail for four months, where he was manacled and fettered, and frequently ill. After Burns's Boston subscribers declined to pay $1,500 for him, Suttle sold him to a North Carolina trader, but six months later the trader sold him to members of Boston's black community, and Burns returned to the North. Judge Loring's reputation did not survive his part in the matter. For the next four years he was the focus of vilification and agitation. Ultimately he lost both his positions as instructor at Harvard Law School and on the Suffolk County Probate Court.

The Burns hearing emphasized the growing strength of the abolitionist in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the government's determination to enforce an increasingly unpopular law.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Fugitive Slaves and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature. 4 vols. New York:Garland, 1988.

Pease, Jane H. and William H. The Fugitive Slave Law and Anthony Burns: A Problem in Law Enforcement. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975.

Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.