Anthony Burns, born a Virginia slave, stole himself away to freedom in Boston in 1854. His owner found out where he had gone when Burns wrote his still enslaved family with the news. Under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that owner, Charles Suttle, went up to Boston to reclaim him. Happening the very same month as the Kansas-Nebraska Act narrowly passed the House and landed on Franklin Pierce’s desk, and in the very heart of abolitionism. The Burns case struck at the heart of the white North’s grievances with the South. Already incensed and building a popular movement against Kansas-Nebraska, it now brought back to mind the last great legislative affront to the section.
As the law provided, Burns’ owner had a federal marshal arrest him on his way home from work. The marshal did not declare to any passers-by that he had Burns as a fugitive slave, but maintained the fiction that he wanted Burns for robbery. They took other precautions too, knowing that abolitionists had a way of relieving courthouses of fugitive slave prisoners. The crowd that gathered around the courthouse found it chained shut and guarded against them.
Boston’s antislavery organizations had been through this before. They spirited away William & Ellen Craft to the United Kingdom. They took Shadrach Minkins from the courthouse. The Fugitive Slave Act provided for a commissioner to verify that the slave catchers had a right to seize the accused, or acted on behalf of those that did. Suttle had papers from a Virginia court testifying to his ownership. He had the law and the facts on his side. But Richard H. Dana, one of the founders of the Free Soil party and one of many who volunteered his services to help Shadrach Minkins back in 1851, took the case regardless. Dana, who worked with his black associate Robert Morris, convinced Loring to delay the hearing for a few days.
Dana got his delay on May 25, 1854. Boston’s abolitionists aimed to take advantage of it. They differed on how. The abolitionist movement had a strong pacifist streak, even in Boston. Should they use all the means available to them under the law to free Burns, or should they take him from the courthouse by force? The larger group preferred keeping within the law and met in Fanueil Hall on the night of May 27th. A group of thirty radicals met separately, electing Thomas Wentworth Higginson their leader. Higginson would go on to serve as a colonel in the first federally authorized black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. He had spent the previous few days distributing broadsides to rally public opposition to Burns’ arrest and stockpiling axes and other weaponry. A Higginson plant interrupted the Fanueil Hall meeting with the claim that a band of blacks intended to break Burns out that very night, and the peaceful abolitionists quickly adjourned. Two hundred of them joined the growing mob outside the courthouse, which swelled to two thousand.
Some of that mob got together a large beam to use as a battering ram and charged the courthouse doors. They burst in and a melee ensued between them and the federal marshals. The battle resulted in the death of James Batchelder, a twenty-four year old teamster serving as a temporary deputy. This technically made him the second federal marshal killed in the line of duty. Higginson received a saber cut to the chin. Ultimately the marshal and his men prevailed, driving the abolitionists out of the courthouse and arresting nine of them.