The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Six

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Charles Suttle tried to get a few hundred extra dollars out of various Bostonians while Anthony Burns rotted in a slave jail. But eventually Burns got out. Suttle wanted done with him and Richmond had a fair on, so Anthony Burns went up at auction. The crowd knew him for a runaway and heaped abuse on Burns. For some time, the auctioneer could get no bids. Finally David McDaniel, a North Carolinian, bought him for $905. Suttle refused a sure $1,200 in Boston, demanded $1,500 later, and bemoaned his expenses. He gave up the use of Burns’ labor for four months. Suttle told Boston correspondents that, as a man of no great wealth, he had to look out for his financial interests. Apparently that entailed giving up $295 for principle.

McDaniel went up and had a talk with Burns. He knew that Burns fancied himself a preacher and would have none of that. Preachers could give slaves ideas and an illicit meeting of slaves, ostensibly for religion, usually put visions of a conspiracy to run away or cut owners’ throats into the minds of slaveholders. When you outnumber a group of people you treat very badly, paranoia naturally follows. Burns refused to submit to that, but promised that if treated well he would serve well. Otherwise, Burns told his new owner, he fully intended to leg it again.

McDaniel, surprisingly, had a sense of humor about that. His business in North Carolina involved growing cotton, but mainly he traded slaves and horses. Charles Emery Stevens reports that McDaniel freely partook of the wares of his female property, happily selling off his children. One would not expect it of such a person, but McDaniel did treat Burns relatively well. Anthony had charge of his stables, slept in an office there, and did not have to answer to any overseer but McDaniel himself. Slaves regularly went in and out of McDaniel’s plantation, but Burns’ place there seems rather stable. Maybe McDaniel took a shine to him. Burns did not feel compelled to run, even if he’d rather be free.

Leonard A. Grimes

Leonard A. Grimes

By this time, his Boston supporters had lost all contact with Burns. He tried to write them from the slave jail, but the letters never arrived. In all likelihood, they never got past the local postmaster. But for a happy accident, Burns might have still been in North Carolina when the war broke out:

At length, an accident revealed the place of his abode. He had one day driven his mistress in her carriage to the house of a neighbor, and, while sitting on the box, was pointed out to the family as the slave whose case had excited such commotion throughout the country. It chanced that a young lady residing in the family heard the statement, and by her it was repeated in a letter to her sister in Massachusetts. By the latter the story was related in a social circle where the Rev. G. S. Stockwell, one of the clergymen of the place, happened to be present. This person immediately addressed a letter to Anthony’s owner, inquiring if the slave could be purchased. An answer was promptly returned that he might be purchased for thirteen hundred dollars.

Leonard A. Grimes, a black man born free in Virginia and now a minister in Boston, took up the challenge. Grimes had worked smuggling fugitive slaves through Washington. He had even done two years hard labor in a Virginia jail for helping fugitives make their way north. There, Grimes found religion. He also found Washington less than thrilled to see him again and so decamped to Massachusetts, founding a church in Boston where Shadrach Minkins had worshiped. Forty of his flock fled to Canada after the fugitive slave law passed.

With some trouble, Grimes raised the cash and made arrangements to buy Burns in Baltimore for $1,300. Then free at last, Burns met a hero’s welcome in Massachusetts and landed at Oberlin to study theology. He toured parts of the North with an exhibit on the evils of slavery and sold copies of Charles Emery Sevens’ story of his struggles to fund more studies, but Burns’ health never recovered. After a brief stay in Indianapolis in 1860, he made his way to Canada and died there, off the radar of American antislavery men, in 1862.

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