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Rendition Hearing Of Anthony Burns: 1854

Tracked Down In Boston, Dana For The Defense, Abolitionists Mobilize, Judge's Rulings Favor Master

Defendant: Anthony Burns
Crime Charged: Being a fugitive slave
Claimant: Charles Suttle
Chief Defense Lawyers: Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Charles Mayo Ellis
Claimant's Lawyer: Seth J. Thomas
Judge: Edward Greeley Loring
Place: Boston, Massachusetts
Dates of Hearing: May 25-June 2, 1854
Decision: Anthony Burns was the property of Charles Suttle and was returned to him.

SIGNIFICANCE: The Anthony Burns hearing highlighted the strains that the issue of slavery had placed on the nation, tested the government's willingness to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, and became a rallying point for the abolitionist movement.

On June 2, 1854, Boston became an armed camp during the rendition hearing of Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia. Burns's owner, Charles Suttle, was demanding Burns's return under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Abolitionist agitation was so great that the army, the marines, the militia, the police, and 120 newly deputized federal marshals had to guard the courthouse during the proceedings, while 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets in protest.

The story began in Virginia in 1852, when Suttle sent Burns to Richmond to work under William Brent. Burns was literate and skilled at a variety of jobs. He persuaded Brent to let him hire his own time and keep a percentage of the money. This was illegal in Virginia, but it was common in larger Southern cities. The arrangement was mutually beneficial since Brent would not have to pay to feed and clothe Burns, and Burns would have some autonomy. Burns made his payments to Brent while he began saving money and seeking friends among Northern seamen. In early 1854 he saw his chance to escape, stowing away on a Boston-bound ship. Once there he posed as a free man and began working in a clothing store belonging to Coffin Pitts, a well-known figure in the black community.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882