Reference Entry

Burns, Anthony, Trial of

Gordon S. Barker

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895: From the Colonial Period to the Age of Frederick Douglass

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195167771
Burns, Anthony, Trial of

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On 24 May 1854, after leaving the secondhand clothing shop owned by Coffin Pitts on Boston's Brattle Street, Anthony Burns was arrested by the notorious slave catcher Asa Butman and several associates on trumped-up charges of petty theft. They took Burns to the courthouse and held him in a third-floor jury room. Burns's former owner, Colonel Charles Suttle of Virginia, and his agent, William Brent, joined Burns in the room, thus beginning Boston's last and most famous fugitive slave case. , with scenes from his life, engraving of 1855 by John Andrews, printed in Boston. It was copyrighted under Burns's name, although by this time Burns had been returned to Virginia; such copyrighting was a common abolitionist practice. Library of Congress. Burns's arrest and trial fueled northern resentment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which had been evident in earlier fugitive slave cases. Renowned for their participation in the Underground Railroad, Boston abolitionists spirited many fugitive slaves to freedom, including William and Ellen Craft and Frederick (Shadrach) Minkins. Several Bostonians had also voiced their support of the daring Jerry Rescue in Syracuse in 1851. Although the city's antislavery activists had been unable to rescue the fugitive slave Thomas Sims, arrested in Boston in the same year, they mounted strong opposition to his rendition and publicized the heavy-handed tactics used by federal authorities to return him to bondage in Georgia. They portrayed the Fugitive Slave Law as a flagrant violation of both Massachusetts personal liberty laws and the U.S. Bill of Rights guarantees of the rights to life and liberty and to trial by jury. Antislavery leaders argued that the Fugitive Slave Law was not only inconsistent with the nation's founding principles but also was evidence that in federal politics the power of the slaveholding South compromised the interests of free states. On the heels of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, wherein slavery had been prohibited north of latitude 36°30′, Burns's arrest appeared to confirm the worst fears of northern abolitionists. The day after Burns's arrest the young attorney Richard Henry Dana Jr., walking through the courthouse, noticed a hearing involving a black man before the federal slave commissioner Edward Greely Loring. Dana immediately entered the courtroom, insisted on acting on behalf of the distraught Burns, and obtained a postponement of proceedings from Loring. The Reverend Leonard Grimes and Deacon Pitts of Boston's Twelfth Baptist Church quickly spread the news of Burns's arrest among their black congregation and antislavery whites. Although Boston's Vigilance Committee was divided between moderates, who called for an orderly trial, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, and other radical abolitionists, who favored a rescue attempt, the committee organized a mass rally at Faneuil Hall in support of Burns on the evening of 26 May. After several stirring orations by leading abolitionists, an unidentified man shouted from the back of the hall that an attempt to rescue Burns was under way. The crowd, numbering about five thousand, dispersed; some headed toward the Boston courthouse, where Higginson, Martin Stowell, and several black Bostonians led a charge to free Burns, precipitating Boston's legendary Courthouse Riot. Federal deputies quashed the assault after the death of a guard named James Batchelder and the arrest of several militants. Fearing another rescue attempt and civil disorder, Watson Freeman, the U.S. marshal overseeing the Burns case, requested reinforcements, and the Pierce administration complied. Several thousand soldiers, marines, and voluntary militia transformed Boston's courthouse into a veritable fortress for the duration of the Burns trial. On Saturday, 27 May, Dana and his associate, Charles Ellis, succeeded in obtaining an additional delay in proceedings until the following Monday, and the Reverend Grimes approached the former owner Suttle's lawyers, Seth Thomas and Edward Parker, to inquire whether the Virginian would consider an offer by several Bostonians to purchase Burns's freedom. Suttle consented to sell Burns for twelve hundred dollars, but the marshal Freeman successfully delayed the transaction until the stroke of midnight. He then declared that it was Sunday, and no sale could take place on that day. By Monday, Freeman and the U.S. attorney Benjamin Hallett had persuaded Suttle not to sell Burns. The trial captured the nation's attention, making headlines in newspapers throughout the North and South. The commissioner Loring dismissed Dana's opening argument averring that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. Citing an earlier opinion by Justice Lemuel Shaw, Loring ruled that the unpopular federal legislation was constitutional and asserted that the only points to be clarified in the Burns case were the identity of the prisoner and whether or not he owed service to Suttle. The Virginian's lawyers called on Suttle's agent, Brent, who identified Burns by a scar on his face and a disfigured right hand. Brent also stated that Burns had been seen in late March in Virginia—an erroneous claim, since Burns had fled the South the month before; several witnesses testified that he was at work in Boston in February. Suttle's attorneys used statements made by Burns on the night of his arrest that confirmed his status as a slave and Suttle's ownership of him. Although Burns's lawyers objected to the use of these statements on the grounds that the Fugitive Slave Law explicitly excluded the use of testimony by alleged fugitives, Loring admitted Burns's remarks as evidence against him. With a crowd of several thousand milling about the Boston courthouse, Loring delivered his ruling on the morning of 2 June 1854. Disregarding the testimony of several witnesses and the objections of Burns's attorneys, Loring based his decision on the fugitive's own statements, which he considered to have established the prisoner's identity. Later the same day, dressed in a top hat and tails similar to the outfits worn by slaves at auctions in southern slave pens, Burns was escorted by an armed guard to Boston's T wharf to begin his trip southward. A crowd of some fifty thousand persons, held in check by several thousand troops and militia, lined the route between the courthouse and the waterfront. Bells tolled, stores were closed, windows were draped in black, and flags were lowered in mourning. Burns's voyage to the South ended in the infamous Lumpkin slave jail in Richmond, Virginia, where he was held in solitary confinement for several months before being sold to a North Carolina slave trader named David McDaniel for $905. Hearing of Burns's fate, the Reverend Grimes and members of the Twelfth Baptist Church, with the assistance of the Reverend G. S. Stockwell of Amherst, Massachusetts, purchased his freedom for a price of $1,300. Afterward, Burns studied at Oberlin College and became the pastor of a Baptist church in Saint Catherines, Ontario, Canada. There were several fugitive slaves in his congregation. The shadow of the Burns trial lingered over an increasingly divided nation. Burns's rendition underscored increasing northern resistance to the federal defense of southerners' rights to human property. Abolitionists used the Burns story to fan antislavery sentiment; at a Fourth of July antislavery gathering one month after the trial, William Lloyd Garrison ceremoniously burned a copy of Loring's decision and Suttle's claim to his ownership of Burns along with copies of the Constitution and the Fugitive Slave Law. The Burns drama and the role played by the Reverend Grimes and the congregation of the Twelfth Baptist Church also sent a unique message to black communities in the North—one that called for African Americans to unite, build their own institutions, and look out for themselves. Reflecting on the Burns case, Frederick Douglass remarked that African Americans had “a special mission to perform in the United States—a mission which none but themselves could perform.” Anthony Burns died of consumption at only twenty-nine years of age. He was buried in the cemetery adjacent to his church in Saint Catherines. See also Faneuil Hall (Boston); Fugitive Slave Law of 1850; Higginson, Thomas Wentworth; Jerry Rescue; Kansas-Nebraska Act; Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society; Oberlin College; Parker, Theodore; and Phillips, Wendell.

Reference Entry.  1395 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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