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Trial of Anthony Burns (1854)

Original Citation
Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns (Boston: Fetridge and Company, 1854), 5-7.

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.

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On Wednesday evening last, about eight o'clock, Anthony Bums, colored, while walking in Court street, was taken into custody by officers Coolidge, Riley, and Laighton, under the orders of Watson Freeman, United States Marshal, and by virtue of a warrant issued by United States Commissioner Edward G. Luring, authorizing the arrest of Burns, as an alleged fugitive from the "service and labor" of Charles F. Suttle, a merchant of Alexandria, Va. The arrest was made very quietly, and he was escorted to an upper room in the court house, where, under a strong guard of officers, he was kept for the night, and the intelligence of his arrest did not transpire until the following morning.
Burns, who is about thirty years old, has for some time been in the employ of Coffin Pitts, clothing dealer, No. 36 Brattle street. He is a shrewd fellow and his story of the manner of his leaving Alexandria is curious. After acquitting his master of all suspicion of cruelty, he stated that leaving him was the result of accident -- that one day, while tired, he laid down on board a vessel to rest, got asleep, and that during his slumbers, the vessel sailed! Burns, at one time after his arrest, expressed a willingness to return with his master, but he was induced by his advisers to make his claimants show their authority for his return.


On Thursday, at nine o'clock, the United States Marshal made return of his doings to the Commissioner, who proceeded to investigate the case. Messrs. Seth J. Thomas and Edward G. Parker appeared as counsel for the claimants, and Messrs. Richard H. Dana, Jr., Charles M. Ellis and Robert Morris volunteered as counsel for the alleged slave. The official papers -- embracing the customary powers of attorney, &c., from the court in Alexandria -- having been read, Mr. Parker read the complaint, of which the following is a copy: --

United States of America, Massachusetts District, ss
To the marshal of our District of Massachusetts, or to either of his deputies.

In the name of the President of the United States of America, you are hereby commanded forthwith to apprehend Anthony Burns, a negro man, alleged now to be in your District, charged with being a fugitive, from labor, and with having escaped from service in the State of Virginia, if he may be found in your precinct, and have him forthwith before me, Edward G. Loring, one of the Commissioners of the Circuit Court of the United States for the said District, then and there to answer to the complaint of Charles F. Suttle, of Alexandria in the said State of Virginia, merchant, alleging, under oath, that the said Anthony Burns, on the twenty-fourth day of March last, did, and for a long time prior thereto had owed service and labor to him, the said Suttle, in the State of Virginia, under the laws thereof; and that while held to service there by said Suttle, the said Burns escaped from the said State of Virginia into the said State of Massachusetts; and that said Burns still owes service and labor to said Suttle, in the said State of Virginia, and praying that said Burns may be restored to him, said Suttle, in said State of Virginia, and that such further proceedings may then and there be had in the premises as are by law in such cases provided. Hereof fail not, and make due return of this writ, with your doings thereto, before me.

Witness my hand and seal, of Boston aforesaid, this twenty-fourth day of May, in the year one thousand eight hundred and fifty-four.

ED W. G. LORING, Commissioner.

United States of America, Boston, Massachusetts District ss., May 25, 1854.

Pursuant herewith, I have arrested the within named Anthony Burns, and now have him before the Commissioner within named, for examination.

WATSON FREEMAN, United States Marshal.

The first witness introduced was William Brent, who deposed as follows: --

I reside in Richmond, Virginia, am a merchant; have resided there four years; know Mr. Charles F. Suttle -- he now resides in Alexandria; he is a merchant; know Anthony Burns; now see him at the bar in front; he is the man referred to in the record Which has been read; he is owned by Mr. Suttle as a slave; he was formerly owned by Mr. Suttle's mother; Mr. Suttle has owned him for the last twelve or fifteen years. I have hired Anthony of Mr. Suttle; this I think was in the years 1846, 1847 and 1848; paid Mr. Suttle for his services. I knew that he was missing from Richmond on or about the 24th day of March last; have not seen him since until a day or two past. Last night I heard Anthony converse with his master.

Mr. Dana here took occasion to say that he had not been regularly retained as counsel, and he addressed the Commissioner as follows: --

May it please your Honor: I arise to address the court as amicus curiae, for I cannot say that I am regularity of counsel for the person at the bar. Indeed, from the few words I have been enabled to hold with him, and from what I can learn from others who have talked with him, I am satisfied that he is not in a condition to determine whether he will have counsel or not, or whether or not and how he shall appear for his defence. He declines to say whether any one shall appear for him, or whether he will defend or not.

Under these circumstances, I submit to your Honor's judgment that time should be allowed to the prisoner to recover himself from the stupefaction of his sudden arrest, and his novel and distressing situation, and have opportunity to consult with friends and members of the bar, and determine what course he will pursue.

Mr. Parker. I feel bound to oppose the motion. The counsel himself says that the prisoner does not wish for counsel, and does not wish for a defence. The only object of delay is to try to induce him to resist the just claim which he is now ready to acknowledge. The delay will cause great inconvenience to my client, the claimant, and his witness, both of whom have come all the way from Virginia for this purpose, and will be delayed here a day or two if this adjournment is granted. If it were suggested that the prisoner were insane, out of his mind, and would be likely to recover soon, we could not object. As it is we do object.

Mr. Dana replied. The counsel for the prosecution misapprehends my statement. I did not say that the prisoner did not wish counsel and defence. I said he was evidently not in a state to say what he wishes to do. Indeed he has said that he is willing to have a trial. But I am not willing to act on such a statement as that. He does not know what he is saying. I say to your Honor, as a member of the bar, on my personal responsibility, that from what I have seen of the man and from what I have learned from others who have seen him, that he is not in a fit state to decide for himself what he will do. He has just been arrested and brought into this scene, with this immense stake of freedom or slavery for life at issue, surrounded by strangers -- and even if he should plead guilty to the claim, the Court ought not to receive the plea under such circumstances.

It is but yesterday that the Court at the other end of the building refuged to receive a plea of guilty from a prisoner. The Court never will receive this plea in a capital, case, without the fullest proof that the prisoner makes it deliberately, and understands its meaning and his own situation, and has consulted with his friends. In a case involving freedom or slavery for life, this Court will not do less.

The counsel for the claimant objects to a delay; he objects on the ground of the inconvenience to which it will put the claimant and his witness, who have come all the way from Virginia for this purpose! I can assure him, I think, that he mistakes the character of this tribunal, by addressing to it such an argument as that. We have not yet come to that state in which we cannot weigh liberty against convenience and freedom against pecuniary expense. We have yet something left by which we can measure those quantities.

I know enough of this tribunal to know that it will not lend itself to the hurrying off a man into slavery to accommodate any man's personal convenience, before he has even time to recover his stupefied faculties, and say whether he has a defence or not. Even without a suggestion from an amicus curiae, the Court would, of its own motion, see to it that no such advantage was taken.

The counsel for the claimant says that if the man were outer his mind, he would not object. Oat of his mind! Please your Honor, if you had ever reason to fear that a prisoner was not in full possession of his mind, you would fear it in such a case as this. But I have said enough. I am confident your Honor will not decide so momentous an issue against a man without counsel and without opportunity.

Mr. Ellis urged the postponement on the ground of the importance of the issue. Commissioner Loring informed the prisoner that he was entitled to counsel, and that if he desired it, time would be given to afford him an opportunity to select them. Burns, who seemed somewhat amazed, at length muttered that he desired delay, and the further hearing of the case was thereupon postponed until Saturday morning. The usual order was issued to the Marshal to keep the prisoner in a place of safety, and the Court then adjourned.


The interest felt in the slave was very general, but the leading abolitionists obtained the use of Faneuil Hall for Friday evening and issued the following card, which appeared in all the papers and was placarded throughout the city.

A MAN KIDNAPPED. -- A Public Meeting will be held at Faneuil Hall this (Friday) evening, May 26, at 7 o'clock, to secure justice for a man claimed as a slave by a Virginia kidnapper, and imprisoned in Boston Court House, in defiance of the laws of Massachusetts. Shall he be plunged into the hell of Virginia slavery by a Massachusetts Judge of Probate?


Citation for this page

Boston Slave Riot, and Trial of Anthony Burns, Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, Dickinson College, 2008,

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