The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An angry mob broke into a jail looking for a Black man—then freed him

This broadside was put up by abolitionists in 1854 when Anthony Burns, who had escape his enslaver and moved to Boston, was recaptured. A riot broke out in an attempt to free him. (Boston Public Library)

He called himself Jerry. He was a skilled cabinetmaker in Syracuse, N.Y., before he got a better-paying job making wooden barrels. He was a light-skinned Black man with reddish hair in his early forties, and as far as anyone knew, he didn’t have any family.

But in the eyes of the law, his name was William Henry, and he was another man’s property. On Oct. 1, 1851, the struggle against slavery in the United States centered on this man’s body, and his forceful liberation became a community holiday, “Jerry Rescue Day,” marked with poetry, song and fundraising.

Since 1843, Jerry’s life had been marked by escape. First he fled his enslavement in Missouri. He may have also narrowly avoided recapture in Chicago and Milwaukee, according to one account. During the winter of 1849-1850, he arrived in Syracuse, a city well known for its strong antislavery bent.

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Even with the high number of White and Black abolitionist leaders and supporters living there, Jerry was still met with at least some racism from co-workers, who saw him as competition. He also had a few run-ins with the law, getting arrested for theft and assault. It isn’t clear how much truth there was to the charges; in any case, he was always soon released.

In late 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making escape from slavery a federal matter and requiring assistance from local officials in any state, including ones where slavery was illegal. Daniel Webster, a Northern politician who supported the law, predicted a confrontation over its enforcement would happen in Syracuse, according to historian Angela F. Murphy, who wrote a book about the rescue.

“He gives this really thundering speech about how the Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced, even in Syracuse,” Murphy told The Washington Post. “He said even at the next national antislavery convention” — set for October in Syracuse — “it’s going to be enforced.”

As September gave way to October, the city was packed, not only with hundreds of abolitionists there for the convention but also with thousands of farmers and their families in town for the county fair.

Jerry was working through his lunch break when local police and federal marshals came to detain him. At first, he didn’t resist, probably figuring it would go like his other arrests. Then they arrived at a federal commissioner’s office, and he recognized a White neighbor of his former enslaver. Jerry had been sold in absentia, and the new owner had sent the neighbor up to collect his property.

By this point, a lot of Northern cities had “vigilance committees” — multiracial groups that kept an eye out for slave catchers. One of these committee members spotted Jerry on the way to the office and ran to the church where the convention was being held. Soon, church bells across the city were ringing to alert the whole town.

As a crowd gathered outside the office, prominent abolitionists like Gerrit Smith, Rev. Samuel J. May and Rev. Jermain Wesley Loguen — himself a fugitive slave — along with a handful of lawyers pushed their way inside to aid Jerry at a hearing.

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There isn’t much they could have done, legally speaking, and most likely everyone knew it. Before the hearing could even get going, members of the vigilance committee made a first attempt to free Jerry, taking advantage of the chaotic and crowded room to push him outside. He ran down the street, still handcuffed.

Authorities caught up to him, roughed him up and tried to take him back to the hearing. A fight broke out between police and the crowd, both sides pulling on Jerry’s body until his clothes were torn off. Eventually, police dragged him, bloodied, back into a cell, where they added leg irons.

The sight of the brutality “actually turn[ed] some people into supporters of the move to rescue him,” Murphy said. Many White residents at the time opposed slavery but preferred a gradual, legal approach rather an immediate emancipation that almost by definition required violence, or at least the threat of it.

Jerry began to scream. He shouted. He begged for the crowd outside to help him. He was “in a perfect rage, a fury of passion,” May, the abolitionist and a Unitarian minister, recalled later. May was allowed in the cell to calm Jerry, which didn’t work until May made it clear another attempt to free him was in the works.

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The hearing resumed at 5:30 p.m. Jerry’s attorneys began raising objections to anything they could to slow it down. Outside, the sun was low in the sky, and the crowd had grown to thousands. Rocks began flying through the windows. After a rock flew past his head, the commissioner adjourned the hearing until the next morning.

Still, the crowd did not disperse; it grew. Some arrived with weapons, others picked up an ax or iron rod from a nearby hardware store with an abolitionist owner. A battering ram appeared. At 8:30 p.m., someone shouted, “Now!”

They smashed windows, rammed the doors and pulled bricks right out of the building’s walls. The marshals inside got off a shot or two, hitting no one, before basically giving up. No one was killed, though one marshal suffered a broken arm when he jumped out of a second-story window. Another, hiding inside the cell with the prisoner, opened the door and pushed Jerry out.

The rescuers carried Jerry to a waiting carriage, which rushed him out of town to a safe house, where his chains were removed. Soon he was on the Underground Railroad to Canada, and safety.

Though it hasn’t been a feature of too many history textbooks, the “Jerry Rescue” was national news at the time. In general, Syracuse residents were happy about it, jokingly asking, “Where’s Jerry?” as they passed one another on the street. More than a dozen organizers were eventually indicted, including Loguen, who fled to Canada. He denied the charges and even said he would return to stand trial if authorities would promise not to send him back into slavery.

“Jerry Rescue Day” became a feather in abolitionist Syracuse’s cap — residents had defied the Fugitive Slave Act and won! — and the city still memorializes the incident with a statue.

This mob, which broke into a jail to liberate rather than lynch, was not unique. Harriet Tubman herself helped storm a jail to free Charles Nalle near Troy, N.Y., in 1860. In 1854 in Milwaukee, abolitionists stormed a jail and freed Joshua Glover, a formerly enslaved man who had been living in nearby Racine for years. And in Boston that same year, thousands rioted after a failed attempt to free a young man named Anthony Burns. His forced return to Virginia solidified opposition to slavery for many Bostonians, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

“We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists,” one observer wrote. (Burns was later sold to abolitionists and freed.)

Usually, the violence of the Civil War is said to have begun on April 12, 1861, with shots fired at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. But perhaps it really started with these battles in the North, where the fight for a man’s freedom could not have been more literal.

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