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"God made me a man- not a slave": The Arrest of Anthony Burns

Boston served as a destination for many people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers arriving in the city found that Boston's tightly knit free Black community provided support and a welcome sanctuary as they began their new lives. This article highlights the journey of one freedom seeker, Anthony Burns, who escaped to Boston. To explore additional stories, visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

In May 1854, slave catchers arrested Anthony Burns, a 20 year old freedom seeker who escaped slavery in Virginia. His arrest sparked major protests, a failed courthouse rescue, a military takeover of downtown Boston, and, ultimately, a return to slavery by the federal government. The arrest of Anthony Burns became a flash-point for many Bostonians who had remained silent on the issue of slavery and the abolitionist movement. Ultimately freed through the efforts of Boston's abolitionists, Burns attended school at Oberlin College and trained to become a minister. Follow the inspiring story of Anthony Burns through our interactive story map.

Explore the story map below to learn about Anthony Burns' journey to freedom. Click "Get Started" to enter the map. To read more about each point, click "More" or scroll down to view the map, historical images, and accompanying text. To navigate between the points, please use the "Next Stop" button at the bottom of the slides or the arrows on either side of the main image. To view a larger version of the main image depicted below the map, click on the image.

Anthony Burns

1834 - July 27, 1862

Follow Anthony Burns' journey to freedom.

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Anthony Burns

1834 - July 27, 1862

Follow Anthony Burns' journey to freedom.

Political cartoon of Burns in the center, with sketches of different aspects of his life around him.c. 1855 cartoon with a portrait of Anthony Burns and scenes of his life around him. (Credit: Library of Congress)

1834: Stafford Courthouse, Stafford, Virginia

Born enslaved in 1834, Anthony Burns lived in Stafford Courthouse with his owner John Suttle. Shortly after Burns' birth, both John Suttle and his wife died leaving their son, Charles Suttle, as Burns' owner. Attempting to get the family's finances in order, Charles hired a young Anthony Burns out, collecting any wages that he earned. Burns used this to his advantage and had some of his new mistresses teach him how to read. [1]

Sketch of passenger and cargo boats on the James River and Kanawha Canal in Richmond, VAIn Richmond, Burns secretly boarded a ship departing for Boston to escape slavery. (Credit: Library of Congress)

1854: Richmond, Virginia

While hired out, Anthony Burns suffered an unfortunate accident. When the machinery in the mill where he worked started unexpectedly, it crushed his hand, putting him out of work for months. During his recovery, Burns experienced a religious awakening and began preaching to other enslaved individuals.[2] Within his deep studies of scripture, Burns determined that he should run away from Charles Suttle and attempt to gain his freedom. Hired out to a druggist in Richmond named Millspaugh, Anthony Burns planned his escape in early February of 1854. Finding a sympathetic dockhand, Burns slipped onto a ship bound for Boston.[3]

A painting of Boston and Boston Harbor with the Massachusetts State House and the Bunker Hill Monument in view.After three-weeks at sea, Burns arrived in Boston. (Credit: Library of Congress)

1854: Boston, Massachusetts

Following a three-week journey, Burns arrived in Boston in February of 1854. After finding employment in the shop of Coffin Pitts on Brattle Street, Burns wrote a letter to his brother still enslaved in Virginia.[4] Though he had it postmarked from Canada, the letter's contents gave away his location in Boston.[5] Now knowing his whereabouts, Charles Suttle acquired a warrant for Burns' arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law. In the evening of May 24, 1854, a federal marshal arrested Anthony Burns in Boston under the false charge of robbery.

Broadside about the kidnapping of Anthony Burns.A broadside advertising a public meeting to discuss the arrest of Anthony Burns under the Fugitive Slave Law. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

May 24 - June 2, 1854: Boston Courthouse, Boston, Massachusetts

Word of Anthony Burns' arrest spread quickly amongst Boston's abolitionist community. Anti-slavery activists called for a mass meeting at Faneuil Hall on May 26 while a smaller group of White and Black militant abolitionists met at Tremont Temple.

Sketch of the Court House.

"Night Attack on the Court House." (Credit: Anthony Burns, A History, 1856)

During the Faneuil Hall meeting, word spread that the group from Tremont Temple had begun an assault on the courthouse in an attempt to free Burns. Using a makeshift battering ram, abolitionists broke down the courthouse's door and began hand to hand fighting with the marshals. The rescue attempt failed, but during the attack an abolitionist fired a pistol, killing one of the federal marshals.[6]

Sketch of Burns on State Street with hundreds of soldiers around him.Federal Marshals and soldiers escorted Burns down State Street in chains. (Credit: American Antiquarian Society)

June 2, 1854: State Street, Boston, Massachusetts

In the aftermath of the assault, Marshal Watson Freeman, with the approval of President Franklin Pierce, called in federal troops to guard the courthouse and prevent another rescue attempt. Commissioner Edward G. Loring ruled in favor of Charles Suttle. On June 2, the federal government returned Burns to enslavement. While the presence of hundreds of soldiers marching Anthony Burns down State Street to Long Wharf prevented any attempt at a rescue, over 50,000 people lined the streets to protest. Black drapes hung on buildings and abolitionists strung up a coffin over the street with the word "Liberty" inscribed on it, signifying a funeral procession. The return of Anthony Burns sparked change in Massachusetts. As one prominent businessman stated, "we went to bed…compromise conservative Union Whigs and waked up stark mad abolitionists."[7] By 1855, Massachusetts passed one of the strictest Personal Liberty Laws in the United States, making it nearly impossible to return another freedom seeker from the state.

Sketch of Lumpkin's Slave Jail, a small, two-story building.Burns' enslaver had him imprisoned at Lumpkin's Slave Jail. (Credit: Princeton Theological Seminary Library)

1854: Richmond, Virginia

After a journey of eight days, Anthony Burns arrived in Richmond, Virginia. Once there, Charles Suttle had Burns locked up in the infamous Lumpkins slave jail. Burns remained imprisoned for four months in shackles with "neither bed nor chair; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single coarse blanket..."[8] After this period of confinement, Suttle finally sold Burns to David McDaniel of North Carolina.

State map zoomed in on Rocky Mount with the area highlighted. Enslaved in Rocky Mount (highlighted), Burns worked as a coachman and stable keeper. (Credit: William W. Wellington, Library of Congress)

1855: Rocky Mount, North Carolina

At the plantation of David McDaniel, Anthony Burns served as a coachman and stable keeper. Anti-slavery leaders in Boston had lost track of Burns' location and, if not for a stroke of luck, he may have remained enslaved in North Carolina for the rest of his life. One afternoon, McDaniels wife took Burns to a neighbor's home. While there she identified Burns as "the slave whose case excited such commotion throughout the country." [9] Another neighbor heard the story and repeated it in a letter written to her sister in Massachusetts, who told a minster named George S. Stockwell.

View of the First Baptist Church on South Pleasant Street with a white fence in the foreground.

George S. Stockwell served as minister at First Baptist Church. (Credit: Jones Library Special Collections, Digital Amherst)

Familiar with the Anthony Burns case, Stockwell immediately informed Reverend Leonard Grimes, a prominent Black abolitionist in Boston, that he had identified Burns’ location.

Photograph shows portrait of Rev. Grimes in church robes with his hand on a book, probably a Bible.While in Boston, Burns worshipped at Twelfth Baptist Church, where Reverend Leonard Grimes served as minister. (Credit: Library of Congress)

1855: Barnum Hotel, Baltimore, Maryland

Once word of Anthony Burns' location reached Leonard Grimes, he quickly sprang into action. Grimes served as the minister of the Twelfth Baptist Church, where Burns worshipped before his arrest in 1854. Grimes called upon individuals who previously pledged money for the purchase of Burns' freedom and, by February of 1855, acquired $1,300.

Sepia photo of Barnum Hotel in Baltimore.

Barnum Hotel, Baltimore. (Credit: New York Public Library)

Meeting with McDaniel on February 27, 1855 at the Barnum Hotel in Baltimore, Grimes completed the exchange and Anthony Burns once again became a free man.[10]

Sketch of Tremont Temple, viewing the facade.Burns spoke at Tremont Temple on March 7, 1855. (Credit: The Boston Directory, 1851)

1855: Boston, Massachusetts

Arriving in Boston in early March, abolitionists planned a reception for Anthony Burns to celebrate his freedom. On March 7, an estimated 1,000 people gathered in Tremont Temple where, just ten months prior, militant abolitionists met to plan Burns' rescue. According to local newspaper accounts, "Burns spoke very well at times and was much applauded throughout."[11]

Newspaper clipping advertising Burns' lecture.

Advertisement for a lecture Burns gave in Lowell. (Credit: Boston Herald, April 20, 1855.)

Following this reception, Burns embarked on a speaking tour throughout Massachusetts and New York to help raise money for his education. He also received a five hundred dollar offer from PT Barnum to speak at his museum for five weeks. Burns turned Barnum's offer down though, saying that "he wants to show me like a Monkey!"[12]

Anthony Burns (highlighted) at Oberlin College with his classmates1855 class photo with Anthony Burns (highlighted, upper right corner). (Credit: Oberlin College Archives)

1855-1859: Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio

By the summer of 1855, with a scholarship from an anonymous Boston donor and income gathered from the sale of his book Anthony Burns: A History at his speaking engagements, Burns had enough money to enroll at Oberlin College in Ohio. Studying for the ministry, Burns wanted to join a local Baptist congregation and attempted to get a letter of dismission from his former church in Virginia. His former church responded to his request by writing a newspaper article excommunicating him for "disobeying the laws of God and men" when he escaped enslavement.[13] Surprised and hurt, Burns wrote back: "That manstealer who stole me trampled on my dearest rights. He committed an outrage on the law of God…God made me a man- not a slave."[14]

Newspaper clipping about Anthony Burns as a pastor in Indiana.Newspaper clipping about Burns as a pastor in Indianapolis. (Credit: Evansville Journal, August 6, 1859)

1859: Indianapolis, Indiana

During the summer of 1859, Anthony Burns answered a call to serve as the pastor of an African American Baptist church in Indianapolis. His time in Indianapolis proved to be short lived, however, because of threats to enforce “Black Laws,” which prohibited immigration of African Americans into Indiana.[15]

Blurry black and white image of Zion Baptist Church.Anthony Burns served as pastor at Zion Baptist Church. (Credit: St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre)

1860-1862: St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

After nearly five years of study at Oberlin and his short stint in Indianapolis, Burns accepted a position as a pastor at a Baptist Church in St. Catharines, Ontario. According to A History of Oberlin College from its Foundation Through the Civil War, Anthony Burns did not graduate from the college.[16] Nonetheless, Burns won over his constituents in St. Catharines working hard to repair the meetinghouse and stabilize the church’s finances. According to another reverend in St. Catharines, Anthony Burns “was a fine speaker and was considered to be well educated. He was unmarried and very popular with the white people and the people of his own race.”[17]

Historical plaque at Anthony Burns' gravesite.Historical plaque at the cemetery where Burns is buried. (Credit: Tour St. Catherines)

July 27, 1862: Victoria Lawn Cemetery, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

By May of 1862, as reported in the Congregationalist, Anthony Burns “was sick, with inflammation of the lungs.”[18] Suffering from a bad case of tuberculosis, Anthony Burns died on July 27, 1862 at the age of 28. Reflecting on Burns’ short time in Canada, a local St. Catharines newspaper wrote, “Mr. Burns’ 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.”[19] Restored in 2000 after nearly deteriorating, Anthony Burns’ grave in a St. Catharines cemetery still stands today.[20]

Footnotes

[1] Earl M. Maltz, Fugitive Slave on Trial (Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 2010), 55.

Image: John Andrews, "Anthony Burns / drawn by Barry from a daguereotype [i.e. daguerreotype] by Whipple & Black ; John Andrews, sc." (Boston : R.M. Edwards, printer, 129 Congress Street, c. 1855), Library of Congress, accessed September, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689280/.

[2] Charles Emery Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History (Boston: J.P Jewett and Co, 1856), 162.

Image: John R. Hamilton, "The Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad, Virginia - train starting out from Richmond The James River and Kanawha canal, Richmond, Virginia / / sketched by J.R. Hamilton," October 14, 1865, Library of Congress, accessed September, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003689065/.

[3] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 172-180.

[4] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 15.

Image: Robert Havell, "View of the city of Boston from Dorchester heights / painted & engraved by Robt. Havell ; coloured by Havell & Spearing" (New York : Published by Robt. Havell, 172 Fulton St., c. 1841), Library of Congress, accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004672548/.

[5] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 180.

[6] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 28.

Images: "A man kidnapped!," Ephemera (Boston: s.n., 1854), Digital Commonwealth, accessed September, 2020, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/70796c995; Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 42-43.

[7] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 120.

Image: "Rendition of Anthony Burns," sketch by George DuBois, 1854, American Antiquarian Society.

[8] McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, 189.

Image: Charles H. Corey, "A history of the Richmond Theological Seminary : with reminiscences of thirty years' work among the coloured people of the South," (Richmond, Va.: J.W. Randolph Company, 1895), Princeton Theological Seminary Library, 47, https://archive.org/details/historyofrichmon00core/page/46/mode/2up?q=lumpkin.

[9] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 202.

Image: W. Williams, A new map of the state of North Carolina: constructed from actual surveys, authentic public documents and private contributions (Philadelphia: S.N, 1854), Map, accessed September, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2010587011/; John L. Lovell, “First Baptist Church in Amherst,” Digital Amherst, accessed September, 2020, https://www.digitalamherst.org/items/show/478.

[10] Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 290.

Images: G.H. Loomis, Reverend Leonard Grimes, abolitionist, conductor on the Underground Railroad, and first pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church "The Fugitives Church", Boston / G.H. Loomis, cartes de visite, 7 Tremont Row, Boston, 1860. Photograph, accessed September, 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017660624/; "Barnum's City Hotel, Monument Square, Baltimore," 1858?-1890?, Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library, accessed September, 2020.

[11] “Anthony Burns Festival,” Boston Herald, March 8, 1855, 2.

Image: "Tremont Temple," The Boston Directory, (Boston: Sampson & Murdock Company, 1851, 68, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015066720791&view=1up&seq=382; "Anthony Burns," Boston Herald, April 20, 1855, Genealogy Bank.

[12] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 216.

[13] “A Fugitive Slave from a Virginia Church,” Buffalo Morning Express, February 13, 1856, 2.

Image: “Preparatory Department Class, 1855,” The Oberlin Sanctuary Project, accessed September, 2020, https://sanctuary.oberlincollegelibrary.org/items/show/16.

[14] Stevens, Anthony Burns: A History, 280.

[15] Evansville Journal, August 6, 1859, 3.

Image: Evansville Journal, August 6, 1859, 3.

[16] Robert Samuel Fletcher, A history of Oberlin College from its Foundation Through the Civil War (Ohio: Oberlin College, 1943), 535. Archive.org, https://archive.org/details/historyofoberlin02flet/page/n51/mode/2up?q=anthony+burns

Image: Zion Baptist Church St. Catharines Ontario, St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre.

[17] Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns, 305.

[18] “Anthony Burns,” Congregationalist, May 2, 1862, 2.

Image: Anthony Burns Grave Site Plaque Photograph, "Niagara's Freedom Trail Sites and Exhibits of the Underground Railroad," Tour St. Catharines, accessed September 2020, http://www.tourstcatharines.com/freedom-trail.shtml.

[19] Fred Landon, “Anthony Burns in Canada” (Columbia University Libraries, 2016), 6. Archive.org https://archive.org/details/anthonyburnsinca00land/page/n5/mode/2up

[20] Michael Valpy, “New Stone Marks Grave of Famous Slave and Pastor,” The Globe and Mail, September 18, 2000.

Last updated: November 19, 2020