Burns was born a slave in Stafford County on May 31, 1834. He was the thirteenth and last child of the family cook of John F. Suttle and of her third husband, who supervised other slaves working in a stone quarry. After Suttle and his wife died, Burns became the property of their eldest son, Charles F. Suttle, a merchant who eventually moved to Alexandria. Burns remained with his mother in Stafford County and learned to read and write. He joined the Baptist Church and may have preached, which would have been a violation of Virginia law. As an adult Burns was about six feet tall with a dark complexion and scars on his cheek and right hand.
Suttle hired his slaves out to various men in Stafford County, and Burns worked for a time for William Brent, of Falmouth. In 1852 Suttle directed Brent to hire Burns out in Richmond, where Burns apparently persuaded Brent to let him hire his own time. Burns used some of the money he accumulated in this way to arrange for his escape from slavery with the assistance of friends and mariners from the North whom he met in Richmond. In February or March 1854 he secretly traveled to Boston. Once there, Burnsto one of his brothers in Virginia. Although he had the letter mailed from Canada in an attempt to conceal his location, its contents disclosed that he was in Boston, and, as was the custom, the postmaster delivered the letter to the slave’s owner. Suttle and Brent immediately went to Boston, where on May 24, 1854, they had Burns arrested and instituted proceedings to recover possession of him under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most famous and dramatic fugitive slave rendition cases of the 1850s resulted.
The United States marshal kept Burns incommunicado after his seizure and early the next morning carried him before a United States commissioner who expected to hear evidence from Suttle and Brent and promptly sign the necessary papers to turn Burns over to them. Richard Henry Dana Jr., a prominent antislavery attorney, passed the courtroom at that time, however, and saw what was happening. He intervened on Burns’s behalf, even though Burns initially rejected this offer of legal counsel because he believed that his return to Virginia in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act was inevitable and that at this juncture it would be better for him if things went smoothly for Suttle. Arguments by abolitionists of both races soon convinced Burns to accept Dana’s assistance.
For the next nine days an extended courtroom drama paralyzed Boston, and an antislavery crowd attempted to rescue Burns from jail. During the violence that ensued, a newly deputized marshal was killed. Hundreds of police, militiamen, and federal troops guarded the courthouse while Dana tried to persuade the commissioner that Burns was not Suttle’s slave. The commissioner rejected Dana’s arguments and ordered Burns returned to Virginia. It required more than 1,500 troops to conduct him safely through the angry crowd from the courthouse to the revenue cutter that transported him back to Virginia. The government had proved that it could enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, even in Boston, but at a cost estimated at between $40,000 and $50,000 and at the expense of inflaming public opinion in both North and South.
Burns spent four months chained in one of the Richmond slave jails, an ordeal that left him permanently crippled and in ill health. Suttle then sold Burns to a North Carolina, for $905. Burns lived briefly in Rocky Mount, but in the spring of 1855 a group of African Americans in Boston, acting through their Baptist minister, Leonard Grimes (a black man who had been born free in Virginia), bought his freedom for $1,300. Burns subsequently studied theology at Oberlin College and possibly at the Fairmont Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. By August 1858 he was in Maine preparing to present a panorama entitled the Grand Moving Mirror exhibiting the “degradation and horror of American slavery” and using the occasion to sell copies of a narrative of his travails by Charles Emery Stevens in order to support his continuing studies. Burns planned to travel with the exhibition through Massachusetts and New Hampshire in the autumn and winter. In 1860 he took a position at a Baptist church in Indianapolis, but shortly thereafter he moved to the Zion Baptist Church in Saint Catharines, Canada West (later Ontario). Burns died there of consumption two years later, on July 27, 1862, never having regained his health. He was buried in Saint Catharines Cemetery.