On May 24, 1854, runaway slave Anthony Burns was captured in Boston, setting the stage for a trial and attempted rescue that gave a spark to the abolitionist movement.

Burns was a slave in Virginia “owned” by Charles F. Suttle. In 1853, Suttle hired Burns out to a man named William Brent. Burns managed to escape by ship and made his way to Boston.

But when he arrived in Boston, Burns made a mistake. He sent a letter to a brother in Virginia and it fell into the hands of Suttle. Suttle and Brent made their way to Boston and tracked Burns down. On May 24, Burns was arrested and held in the courthouse.

The plan was to have Burns quietly appear before a U.S. commissioner the next day to sign the paperwork to place Burns into the custody of Suttle under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But Richard Henry Dana Jr. happened by the courtroom and realized what was happening. Dana was a prominent antislavery attorney and intervened on Burns’ behalf.

This was the beginning of a nine-day courtroom saga.

Thousands of protesters assembled outside the courthouse. Eventually, the crowd attempted to rescue Burns, resulting in the death of a newly deputized marshall.

In the wake of the violence, President Pierce ordered federal troops to guard the courthouse.

Both the rescue and the legal wrangling failed and Burns was ultimately returned to Virginia. It took more than 1,500 troops to hold back the anti-slavery protestors as Burns was moved from the courthouse to the ship that would haul him back to Virginia.

Burns spent four months chained up in a Richmond slave jail, leaving him permanently crippled and in ill health. Suttle later sold Burns to a North Carolina slave trader. In the spring of 1855, a group of free African Americans bought his freedom for $1,300.

While his rescue failed, the protests in Boston didn’t die with Burns’ return to Virginia. The incident fueled anti-slavery sentiment throughout the North. Amos Adams Lawrence was one man who thrust himself into the abolitionist movement after the Burns affair. He summed up the feelings of many,

“We went to bed one night old-fashioned conservative compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists.”

Mike Maharrey

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