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Digital Bookshelf: Records & Court Cases

Christiana Treason Trial (1851)

The federal treason trial for the accused ringleaders of the Christiana Riot began in Philadelphia on Monday, November 24, 1851. The so-called “riot” involved a resistance effort orchestrated by fugitives and free blacks in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania that resulted in the death of a Maryland slaveholder named Edward Gorsuch. Castner Hanway, a white neighbor not really involved in the episode, was the first defendant to stand trial.

Trial of Anthony Burns (1854)

The rendition or return of Anthony Burns to slavery in Virginia was one of the antebellum period’s most dramatic fugitive slave cases. Burns had fled to Boston and faced arrest in the spring of 1854. Crowds of abolitionists and free black supporters quickly filled the streets and eventually violence erupted, leading to the death of a federal marshal named James Batchelder. Though federal officials did succeed in removing Burns to Virginia, a group of activists, led by Pastor Leonard Grimes of the Twelfth Street Baptist Church in Boston, purchased his freedom and Burns was thus legally rescued from slavery the next year.

Passmore Williamson v. John K. Kane (1855)

Passmore Williamson was a white leader of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which spearheaded Underground Railroad efforts in the region.  In 1855, he was involved in the rescue of Jane Wheeler, a slave of the U.S. minister to Nicaragua, John H. Wheeler, who was traveling through Philadelphia.  Williamson was arrested along with other vigilance leaders, including William Still, and faced trial.  This transcript, however, concerns a counter-attack mounted by abolitionist lawyers on Williamson's behalf alleging “false imprisonment” for the officials responsible for his detention.

John Brown’s Statement (1859)

The eloquence of John Brown's speech to the court prior to his sentencing (for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia) is one of the reasons why he became such a polarizing national figure.  The power of his words and behavior during his trial and execution stirred national sentiment, as much, if not more, than the deeds of his raid in October 1859.


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