On this day in 1854, Anthony Burns—a fugitive slave from Stafford County, Virginia, then living in Boston—was arrested under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850). Failing to free him through legal channels, abolitionists later stormed the jail. A federal marshal was killed in the melee and the subsequent trial made national headlines.
After he was returned to Virginia, Burns spent four months chained in one of the Richmond slave jails, an ordeal that left him permanently crippled and in ill health. The Massachusetts Historical Society has an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his supporters at that time. Dated August 23, 1854, it reads:
… if what you all My Friends did for Me could Not keep Me from coming Back in to a Land of death it Did do some Good for my Suffering would have Been ten hundred times great than it is But I am yet Bound in Jail and am wearing my chains Night and Day … I am for sale … I will Be to you all A friend all My days … you can get Me Low he would take $800 dollars for Me …
IMAGES: Two broadsides related to Burns’s arrest and imprisonment suggest the passions surrounding the case. The image on the right can be found at the Massachusetts Historical Society.