Anthony Burns, engraving
In 1854, fugitive slave Anthony Burns is captured and sent back to Virginia. Image from the Rendition of Anthony Burns. Courtesy Library of Congress, Department of Prints and Photographs.

Anthony Burns and the Fugitive Slave Act

Anthony Burns (1834–1866) escapes from slavery in Virginia, makes his way to Boston and finds a job in a clothing store operated by the abolitionist Lewis Hayden. Two months later while on his way home from work, Burns is seized by his owner under the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act.

Black and white abolitionists, led by Lewis Hayden and Worcester clergyman Thomas Wentworth Higginson, join forces to storm the courthouse in an attempt to free Burns. By the time order is restored, thirteen people have been arrested and one marshall has been killed. Boston is overflowing with federal troops and abolitionists. Burns goes to court, represented by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and the African American attorney Robert Morris.

“…if what you all my friends did for Me could Not keep Me from coming Back into a Land of death it did Dow Sum good for My suffering wood have Ben ten hundre times gretter than it is. But I am yet Bound in Jail, and am waring my Chings [chains] Night and day… I am for sale… you can get me Low he would take $800 dollars for me….”


Handwritten letter from Anthony Burns to Richard Henry Dana, Jr., in which Burns implores his Massachusetts supporters to buy his freedom. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.
Letter by Anthony Burns

U.S. Commissioner Edward G. Loring rules in favor of Burns' master. Federal troops escort Burns to a ship to return to Virginia. Every street along the route is draped in black and flags hang upside-down. A huge coffin labeled Liberty is suspended across State Street. With 2,000 soldiers and Marines and, at a cost of $40,000, Anthony Burns was returned to slavery.

Federal troops march Burns down State Street in Boston.
Federal troops march Burns down State Street in Boston to the ship that returns him to slavery. From Anthony Burns: A History by Charles Emery Stevens.
Reverend Grimes.
Reverend Leonard A. Grimes. From William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1887).

Reverend Leonard A. Grimes of Boston’s Twelfth Baptist Church led efforts to raise money for the purchase of Anthony Burns’ freedom. Acting through intermediaries, Grimes purchases Burns for $676, and Burns returns to Massachusetts a free man. Burns later studied at Oberlin College in Ohio, and became a minister in Canada.

Check for Anthony Burns.
Check for the purchase of Anthony Burns. Courtesy Massachusetts Historical Society.