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Vignette Details

Anthony Burns

Washington, D.C.


In 1854 Anthony Burns, a twenty-year old freedom seeker, stowed away on a vessel bound from Virginia to northern ports.

Burns reached Boston, Massachusetts and found employment in a clothing store. Burns’ freedom was short-lived, as he was seized by a federal marshal and held in a U.S. Court House under the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law. Reverend Leonard A. Grimes convinced Burns to contest his case, while uproar over the enforcement of this hated law consumed abolitionist Boston.

Antislavery advocates launched an unsuccessful attack on the courthouse in an attempt to free Burns; one policeman was killed. Grimes and his congregation raised $1200 toward the goal of purchasing freedom for Burns. However, they were stymied by a District Attorney determined to prove the point that if the Fugitive Slave Law could be enforced in abolitionist Boston, then it could be enforced throughout the nation.

Burns, denied bail, a jury trial, an appeal, and the right to testify, was returned to his master, though it took an escort of federal troops and the Boston militia to get him aboard a government vessel bound for Virginia. Held in a Richmond slave jail for five months, Grimes was eventually successful in purchasing Burns’ freedom.

Burns returned triumphant to the North where he toured briefly as a antislavery speaker. In 1860, Burns settled in St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada. He died in 1862.

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