The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Three

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Parts one and two.

The abolitionists, black and white, stormed the courthouse to free Anthony Burns on the night of Friday, May 26, 1854. They got inside and nine got arrested, but Burns remained in custody. They shot James Batchelder, a temporary deputy federal marshal, dead in the fray. Then as now, the murder of an officer of the law provoked strong reactions. The abolitionist press defended the pure motives of the mob while Boston’s more conservative papers demanded that the killers face the full wrath of the law.

My sources disagree on how Batchelder died, exactly. Allan Nevins has him “shot dead.” I previously took the inference that someone in the mob got him. But today I found Batchelder insisting that someone stabbed him. Charles Emery Stevens, writing about the affair in 1856, tells it this way:

On the first alarm, the specials were hastily armed with these weapons and set to defend the assaulted door. As often as the pressure from without forced it partially open, it was closed again and braced by the persons of those inside. While thus engaged, one of the Marshal’s men, a truck-man named Batchelder, suddenly drew back from the door, exclaiming that he was stabbed. He was carried into the Marshal’s office and laid upon the floor, where he almost immediately expired. It was discovered that a wound, several inches in length, had been inflicted by some sharp instrument in the lower part of his abdomen, whereby an artery had been severed, causing him to bleed to death. A conflict of opinion afterward arose respecting the source from whence the blow proceeded. Some affirmed that it was an accident caused by one of his own party. It was said that Batchelder was engaged at the moment in bracing one part of the door with his shoulders; that while he was in that half-stooping posture, another of the specials, seeing through the opening the hands of one of the assailants, aimed at them a blow with a watchman’s club, which, missing its mark, fell upon the head of Batchelder and drove him down upon the blade of his own cutlass. Another, and perhaps more probable account was, that while Batchelder stood bracing the door behind the broken panel, the wound was inflicted by an arm thrust through from the outside, not with any murderous intent, but to compel him to relax his hold.

Stevens witnessed some of the events himself and wrote much closer in time to them, so I suspect that Nevins made a mistake which, given how often other works cite him, then got repeated by others.

Regardless of how exactly Batchelder died, his death and the angry abolitionist mob prompted stronger security measures. Two companies of artillery from the Massachusetts militia, a company of the US Army, and a company of US Marines descended on Boston. Every day of Burns’ trial, his defenders and any would-be rescuers had to pass through four or five checkpoints just to get into the building. Then they faced down 120 guards packed into the courtroom itself.

But thick crowds gathered beyond the rings of security. Even if Commissioner Edward J. Loring found that Charles Suttle owned Anthony Burns, they would have to get him through the waiting mob.

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