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Rendition Hearing Of Anthony Burns: 1854

Judge's Rulings Favor Master

During the hearing, Loring denied all Dana's motions and decided all questions of law and procedure in Suttle's favor. His most important decision was to let William Brent, Burns's former employer, testify to what Burns said to Suttle immediately after his arrest. But Loring forbade Burns from testifying about the same conversation.

Brent also testified that there was some doubt about who owned Burns under Virginia law. Suttle could not produce a deed or title and Brent hinted that the actual title was questionable. Brent also apparently lied about the timing of Burns's escape to avoid having to reimburse Suttle for the costs of retrieving him. Brent claimed to have seen Burns on March 20 and insisted that he escaped on March 24. In fact, Burns had left Virginia in February. To discredit Brent, Dana and Ellis called Boston witnesses who contradicted him.

Nevertheless, on June 2, Judge Loring ruled against Burns, citing Brent's testimony that Burns had recognized both Suttle and Brent. Dana was furious. Burns, he said, was "convicted on an exparte record, against the actual evidence, [and] on his own admissions made at the moment of arrest to his alleged Master!"

That afternoon Burns was marched to the wharf to board a ship for Virginia. Once he was back in the South, Suttle confined him to jail for four months, where he was manacled and fettered, and frequently ill. After Burns's Boston subscribers declined to pay $1,500 for him, Suttle sold him to a North Carolina trader, but six months later the trader sold him to members of Boston's black community, and Burns returned to the North. Judge Loring's reputation did not survive his part in the matter. For the next four years he was the focus of vilification and agitation. Ultimately he lost both his positions as instructor at Harvard Law School and on the Suffolk County Probate Court.

The Burns hearing emphasized the growing strength of the abolitionist in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and the government's determination to enforce an increasingly unpopular law.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Finkelman, Paul, ed. Fugitive Slaves and American Courts: The Pamphlet Literature. 4 vols. New York:Garland, 1988.

Pease, Jane H. and William H. The Fugitive Slave Law and Anthony Burns: A Problem in Law Enforcement. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1975.

Von Frank, Albert J. The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson's Boston. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Rendition Hearing Of Anthony Burns: 1854 - Tracked Down In Boston, Dana For The Defense, Abolitionists Mobilize, Judge's Rulings Favor Master