This Day in History: The shocking capture of Anthony Burns

On this day in 1854, a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns is arrested in Boston, in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The manner in which he was returned to captivity shocked the city and deepened anti-slavery sentiment in the area.

Burns later had the opportunity to speak of the feelings that had prompted him to run away in the first place:

“Until my tenth year I did not care what became of me; but soon after I began to learn that there is a Christ who came to make us free; I began to hear about a North, and to feel the necessity for freedom of soul and body. I heard of a North where men of my color could live without any man daring to say to them, ‘You are my property;’ and I determined by the blessing of God, one day to find my way there….”

He got his chance during the spring of 1854. He’d met a sailor who helped him to stowaway on a ship. For a time, Burns was free! He got a job in a clothing store and was doing well. Unfortunately, a slave hunter located him. Burns was accused as a thief and arrested. The claim was a ruse, of course. Charles Suttle soon arrived to claim his runaway slave.

Word of the arrest quickly spread. On the evening of May 26, an attack was launched on the court house where Burns was being held. The mob had a battering ram and launched it at one of the doors! Matters quickly deteriorated. One man was killed. Others were wounded.

But abolitionists were not yet done trying to free Burns. Legal efforts on his behalf continued, and an attempt was made to purchase Burns from Suttle. In the end, none of these efforts succeeded. On June 2, a court determined that Burns must be returned to slavery in Virginia. A throng of protestors awaited the decision outside the court room. As Burns was led from the court house to the harbor, people lined the streets in protest. Black crepe had been strung from many windows. A black coffin was suspended opposite the Old State House. It bore the inscription, “The Funeral of Liberty.”

Militia, Boston police, and federal troops were present to keep the peace. A cannon was even aimed at the crowd! One eyewitness later reported: “It seemed as if the whole population of the city had been concentrated upon this narrow space. In vain the military and police had attempted to clear the streets; the carriage-way alone was kept vacant. On the sidewalks in Court and State streets, every available spot was occupied; all the passages, windows, and balconies, from basement to attic, overflowed with gazers, while the roofs of the buildings were black with human beings. It was computed that not less than fifty thousand people had gathered to witness the spectacle.”

Burns was taken through the streets to a steamer that had been chartered by the U.S. government. He was put aboard that ship and carried back to his life in captivity. Fortunately, Burns was freed again several months later when the people of Boston raised enough to purchase his freedom.

Obviously, much about this episode is a dark spot in our history. On the other hand, isn’t there a bit of a bright spot as well? People in Boston cared so much for the freedom of a fugitive slave that they were able to raise enough money to purchase his freedom.

And, naturally, if we are to know our history, then we must know all of it, mustn’t we?