Today in History:

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns escaped from his master in Virginia, and made his way to Boston. He was able to read and write, and found a job in a clothing store on Brattle Street. On May 24, 1854, having been in Boston only about two months, he was arrested on his way home from work. Richard Henry Dana offered to defend him; Burns was at first wary of the white lawyer, but was later persuaded to reconsider. Dana was assisted by black attorney Robert Morris. Burns was also visited by Rev. Leonard Grimes of the 12th Baptist Church, a member of the Vigilance Committee.

The abolitionist community was aroused by his capture; John Greenleaf Whittier and others, including the Vigilance Committee, called for nonviolent resistance. On Friday, May 26, a group of angry blacks met at Tremont Temple and called for volunteers to free Burns. At Faneuil Hall, the Vigilance Committee was holding a public meeting urging resistance. The meeting was interrupted by news that an attempt was being made to storm the courthouse. Led by Higginson and Hayden, the meeting adjourned to the courthouse, where they joined the attack. Only a few feet into the entrance of the courthouse, they were met by federal marshals. By the time order was restored, thirteen people had been arrested, and one U.S. marshal was dead.

By Saturday, Boston was overflowing with troops and anti-slavery supporters. Burns was heavily guarded at his trial the following week, and admission to the courthouse severely restricted. The federal court refused to rule on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law, and Judge Edward G. Loring turned Burns over to the custody of his master.

On Friday, June 2, Burns was escorted to a ship to be returned to Virginia. Every street along the route was guarded by the Massachusetts Infantry, with orders to fire on the crowd if it crossed police lines. Buildings along the route were draped with black by Burns’ supporters, flags hung upside down, and a huge coffin labeled "Liberty," symbolizing the death of liberty, was suspended across State Street. Richard Henry Dana describes the scene in his journal:

Mr. Grimes & I walked to & fro in front of the C’t. Hs. [Court House] for an hour or so, the entire Square being cleared of people, & filled with troops. Every window was filled, & beyond the lines drawn up by the police, was an immense crowd.

Whenever a body of troops passed to or fro, they were hissed & hooted by the people, with some attempts at applause from their favorers. Nearly all the shops in C’t & State streets were closed & hung in black, & a huge coffin was suspended across State st., and flags Union down. A brass field piece, belonging to the 4th Artillery was ostentatiously loaded in sight of all the people & carried by the men of that corps in rear of the hollow Square in which. Burns was placed. Some 1500 or 1800 men of the Vol. Militia were under arms, all with their guns loaded & capped, & the officers with revolvers. These men were stationed at different posts in all the streets & lanes that lead into Court or State streets, from the C’t. Hs. to Long Wharf...

...Gen. Edmands gave orders to each commander of a post to fire on the people whenever they passed the line marked by the police in a manner he should consider turbulent & disorderly. So, from 9 o’ck. in the morning until towards night, the city was really under Martial law. The entire proceeding was illegal.

Mr. Grimes & I remained in the C’t. Hs. until the vile procession moved. Notwithstanding their numbers & the enormous military protection, the Marshal’s company were very much disturbed & excited. They were exceedingly apprehensive of some unknown & unforeseen violence.

The "guard" at length filed out & formed a hollow square. Each man was armed with a short Roman sword & one revolver hanging in his belt. In this square marched Burns with the Marshal. The U.S. troops & the squadron of Boston light house preceded & followed the square, with the field piece. As the procession moved down it was met with a perfect howl of Shame! Shame! & hisses.

With the use of 2000 soldiers, marines, artillery, and Coast Guardsmen, and at a cost of $40,000, Burns was returned to slavery. In addition to the great financial burden of this incident, the furor aroused among the citizens of Boston was felt throughout the nation, causing one southern editor to write, "We rejoice at the recapture of Burns, but a few more such victories and the South is undone." His fear is justified by history; Burns was the last runaway slave to be captured in Massachusetts. Immediately after Burns was returned to slavery, an Anti-Man Hunting League was formed in Boston, and throughout the state, for the purpose of kidnapping slavehunters. In addition, the Vigilance Committee, led by Wendell Phillips, circulated 1500 petitions for the removal of Judge Edward G. Loring; he was finally removed from office by the governor in 1858.

The abolitionists of Boston did not consider this case closed, however. Money was collected to purchase Burns from his master. On February 27, 1855, Rev. Grimes met with Burns and his owner in Baltimore and purchased Burns’ freedom. In 1856, a biography of Burns was publish; some of the proceeds from the book helped to pay for his education. With those funds and a scholarship provided by a Boston Woman, Burns spent two years at Oberlin College, studying to be a minister. He spent a short time in Indianapolis as pastor of a black Baptist church before moving into Canada. There, in a small settlement on the shores of Lake Ontario, he was pastor of the Zion Baptist Church.

Burns’ health had been poor since his slave days; illness had plagued him while at Oberlin and his condition continued to deteriorate. He died on July 17, 1862, at the age of twenty-eight. The local paper said of him:

Reverend Burns had been here only a short time. When he came, he saw that there was much for him to do and he set himself to do it with all this heart, and he was prospering in his work, he was getting the affairs of the church into good shape. His memory will be cherished long by not a few in this town. His gentle, unassuming and yet manly bearing secured him many friends. His removal is felt to be a great loss and his place will not soon be filled.


Parsons, William S. and Margaret A. Drew. The African Meeting House in Boston: A Sourcebook. ©The Museum of Afro American History.

Content Provided By: