The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Five

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Commissioner Edward J. Loring ruled that Anthony Burns belonged to Charles Suttle and sent him back to Virginia. Burns went through rows of soldiers to a revenue cutter that spirited him back to slavery, courtesy of Franklin Pierce and at the cost of great agitation in both sections and thousands of dollars from the federal treasury. All those soldiers drew pay, after all.

The story could end there, at least until the war. Boston’s abolitionists tried to raise money to buy Burns from Suttle. At first, the Virginian seemed open to the idea. Suttle asked $1,200 and Boston’s abolitionists went to work gathering it. All of this transpired before the rescue attempt, over the weekend before the trial. After the rescue attempt and Batchelder’s death, Suttle insisted that Burns’ trial go forward before any sale. Subsequently, some major contributors to the fund pulled their money out. They wanted to prevent a fugitive slave trial in Boston out of civic pride. Freeing Burns only served as a means to that end and with a man dead already they couldn’t see a way to avoid some kind of trial. Attempts to buy Burns’ freedom during and after the trial, even to the point of doing it on board the revenue cutter, failed. Now Suttle would only sell Burns in Virginia.

Once Suttle had Burns back in Virginia, he received letters from Boston offering to make the purchase as promised. Suttle had Burns back in a slave state now. Surely he would sell? Unfortunately for Burns, Suttle also had Virginian friends bending his ear. He wrote back:

“I have had much difficulty in my own mind,” he writes, “as to the course I ought to pursue about the sale of my man, Anthony Burns, to the North. Such a sale is objected to strongly by my friends, and by the people of Virginia generally, upon the ground of its pernicious character, inviting our negroes to attempt their escape under the assurance that, if arrested and remanded, still the money would be raised to purchase their freedom. As a southern man and a slave-owner, I feel the force of this objection and clearly see the mischief that may result from disregarding it.

But, Suttle allowed, he had a soft side too. However much he feared the precedent he could set, the Virginian would part with Burns if the Bostonians agreed to cover his legal expenses too. Suttle would have taken $1200 in Boston, if they had the money. My source, Charles Emery Stevens, insists they had the money. But Suttle agreed to $1200 in Boston and for a limited time. Afterward he incurred the legal bills from the trial to the tune of $400 and Suttle wanted that money back too. But Suttle’s soft side struck again and he knocked two hundred off and called his price $1500. If Boston would deliver, Suttle would write up Burns’ freedom papers and deposit him in Washington or on a ship to New York.

Back in Boston, the original $1,200 promptly reappeared. The extra cash Suttle now demanded did not. By this point, the whole business has the air of a shakedown. Suttle’s Boston lawyers wrote telling him that he had an obligation to accept $1,200. Suttle never wrote back and the matter died there. Suttle finally sold him to a slave trader for $910. Whatever promises Bostonians made to Suttle, he no longer had burns to sell.

While Suttle and the Bostonians exchanged letters, Anthony Burns sat in Lumpkin’s Jail in Richmond. There Burns enjoyed every amenity a slave could expect:

Here he was destined to suffer, for four months, such revolting treatment as the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveholders can inflict. The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose. After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but, in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet. In this manacled condition he was kept during the greater part of his confinement. The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating. The gripe of the irons impeded the circulation of his blood, made hot and rapid by the stifling atmosphere, and caused his feet to swell enormously. The flesh was worn from his wrists, and when the wounds had healed, there remained broad scars as perpetual witnesses against his owner. The fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or night, and no one came to help him; the indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought. His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth. His food consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread and the parings of bacon or putrid meat. This fare, supplied to him once a day, he was compelled to devour without Plate, knife, or fork. Immured, as he was, in a narrow, unventilated room, beneath the heated roof of the jail, a constant supply of fresh water would have been a heavenly boon; but the only means of quenching his thirst was the nauseating contents of a pail that was replenished only once or twice a week. Living under such an accumulation of atrocities, he at length fell seriously ill. This brought about some mitigation of his treatment; his fetters were removed for a time, and he was supplied with broth, which, compared with his previous food, was luxury itself.

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