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VIII: Anthony Burns and the Underground railway

In the mean time the fugitive slave question was seething, and Mr. Higginson wrote to a friend, George William Curtis, whom he considered lukewarm, ‘Remember that to us, Anti-Slavery is a matter of deadly earnest, which costs us our reputations today, and may cost us our lives to-morrow.’

In May, 1854, three years after the return of Sims to slavery, the Anthony Burns affair occurred. Colonel Higginson was often called upon in his later years to tell the details of this exciting episode. After the escape of Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia, he had been, according to an old record, in the employ of a clothing dealer on Brattle Street, Boston. He wrote a letter to his brother in Virginia by the way of Canada, but as all letters to slaves were opened by their masters, his retreat was discovered. He was then arrested and imprisoned in an upper room of the court-house. A letter from Wendell Phillips notified Mr. Higginson of ‘another kidnapping case,’ saying, ‘you'll come of course,’ and signed, ‘in no hope.’ A placard was issued [143] headed, ‘A Man Kidnapped,’ calling a meeting in Faneuil Hall and asking, ‘Shall he be plunged into the hell of Virginia slavery by a Massachusetts judge of probate?’ Of this great meeting Mr. Higginson was one of the vice-presidents, and one of the few daring men who made the attack on the court-house with the hope of rescuing Burns.

The scheme for the rescue was known to only a few of those present at the meeting. It was decided that in the midst of the proceedings an alarm should be raised by announcing that a mob of Negroes was attacking the court-house, followed by a sudden dismissal of the audience. Meantime Mr. Higginson went with a few others to Court Square to await their allies. He had bought axes with which to break in the doors, and the hardware dealer had made out the bill to ‘Mr. Higgins,’ perhaps never knowing who his customer was. Unfortunately for the success of the plan only a crowd of curious spectators reached the court-house, the handful of men who were interested in the rescue arriving too late. A stout beam was procured and with this implement Mr. Higginson and one or two others proceeded to force an entrance to the court-house. When the door gave way, Mr. Higginson and a Negro sprang inside and were instantly attacked by several policemen. In this affray, the former received a cut on his chin [144] which left a permanent scar. While the policemen were hammering Mr. Higginson's head, a deputy marshal was killed. How and by whom was long a subject of controversy, for this was the first time a life had been sacrificed in an attempt to resist the Fugitive Slave Law.

Of the Faneuil Hall meeting, Mr. Higginson wrote to a Newburyport friend: ‘That meeting at Faneuil Hall was tremendous. I never saw such enthusiasm, and (though warned that it would be so) I could not possibly believe that it would exhale so idly as it did in Court Square. Still , twenty more men, in the right place, would have rescued the slave, that all acknowledge.’

From Mr. W. F. Channing's house in Boston, where he had taken refuge, Mr. Higginson wrote to his wife: ‘There has been an attempt at rescue and failed. I am not hurt except a scratch on the face which will prevent me doing anything more about it, lest I be recognized.’ From the following letter, written two days later, May 28, to Rev. Samuel May, Jr., it appears that there was still hope of rescuing the slave:—

The excitement in this city [Worcester] is tremendous; entirely beyond any imagination. . . . The wildest things are proposed, and by persons whom I have considered very “hunkerish.” For instance, [145] they talk of arming 500 men to go to Boston. But it would be perfectly practicable to arm and organize 100 if desirable. Shall we do it, and with what immediate object?

As it is, many will go to Boston to-morrow. There is an intense indignation at the failure of the Friday enterprise (though I call it a great success, and so do they, so far as it goes) and I think Worcester men, if they are at hand, may be relied on. If they send the poor man through Providence, we shall rescue him to a certainty. Any number could be sent from this place by an extra train.

But I have no idea that he will ever be taken from Boston, for I think that either the Kidnappers will be killed first; or else that Boston men will buy him to save the peace of the city. This, though not so good as a rescue, would come pretty near it, after the event of Friday night. . . . Finally, should not something be done by the Committee in the way of assistance to the family of the man shot, supposing it to be so arranged as to show no contrition on our part, for a thing in which we had no responsibility, but simply to show that we have no war with women and children.

I hear rumors of my arrest, but hardly expect it. If true, I hope no U. S. Officer will be sent up, for I cannot answer for his life in the streets of Worcester. . . . Send for me if you want me again. I am thankful for what has been done—it is the greatest step in Anti-Slavery which Massachusetts has ever taken. And I am ready to do my share over again.


Burns's master agreed to sell him for a certain sum, but after the money was raised, he changed his mind. The day on which Burns was returned to slavery, when he was marched through the streets of Boston guarded by United States troops, was known for many years after as ‘Bad Friday.’ The following Sunday Mr. Higginson preached a sermon called ‘Massachusetts in Mourning,’ in which he said, ‘The strokes on the door of that court-house that night.. went echoing from town to town... and each reverberating throb was a blow upon the door of every slave prison of this guilty republic.’

After the excitement had somewhat subsided, Mr. Higginson wrote:—

I do not think they can prove much against the men arrested—I have been repeatedly told that I was to be one of that number myself, and have patiently waited for the officers; but they have not yet appeared (though there was a hit at me in the Post this morning) and I cannot stay at home for them much longer.

To his Aunt Nancy he wrote:—

You will be especially glad to hear that it is considered quite doubtful whether our cases are ever tried—even in the United States Court.

Don't be frightened if you see in the paper that I have fled to parts unknown with other people's money in my pocket—for the Rev. Mr. Higgins of [147] this city . . . has done so, and I don't doubt that distant newspapers will contrive to get the name wrong.

Later he reported:—

I was arrested on Saturday June 10, 1854, and “bound over” to appear before the Municipal Court in Boston in April—on charge of “riot” committed on that Friday evening. But I had been expecting it for a week—and even if I should be convicted of anything and imprisoned a month or two (which is improbable) it would do so much good to the community, that I could bear it very patiently.

It was claimed that the early hour of this arrest at 6.30 A. M., a few minutes before the Boston train started, was chosen lest the ‘Freedom Club’ of Worcester should interfere and prevent the arrest. When Mr. Higginson was arraigned before the Boston Police Court, he was accused of assembling with five hundred others to disturb the peace of the Commonwealth and ‘did unlawfully and riotously attack the Court-House . . . did throw stones, bricks . . . did break the glass in the windows and did force in and break open one of the doors . . . [did] fire and discharge sundry firearms . . . did utter loud cries and huzzas . . . to the great terror and disturbance of divers citizens.’

A Boston newspaper, reporting this incident, said of the accused clergyman:— [148]

He is a man of talent, a great enthusiast, and though he stands within the pale of Unitarianism, he is regarded as a suspicious character, theoretically speaking. His appearance in Court excited no little sensation.

Some months later, in December, he wrote to his mother:—

I am to be tried before the U. S. Court with Theodore Parker and others. . . . I rather think therefore that the other process (before the State court) will be withdrawn. I don't think they will expect anything, on either charge—but of the two I prefer to be tried on charge of violating the Fugitive Slave Law than for “riotous and routous behavior.”

As the time drew near, his mother dreaded the ‘horrid trial,’ and fearing that her son would be shut up for a year, came herself to the rescue. ‘My impulsive young mother,’ he wrote, ‘came down for an unexpected night last week.’ This devoted visitor found her son somewhat the worse for his encounter, but she rejoiced that instead of joining in the ‘inflammatory’ speeches at Faneuil Hall, he was engaged in battering down the door of the court-house. ‘The indictment,’ to quote ‘Cheerful Yesterdays,’ ‘was ultimately quashed as imperfect, and we all got out of the affair, as it were, by the side door.’ Rev. Cyrus A. Bartol, in an article on ‘Boston [149] Tea Parties,’ written in 1874, said in reference to this event, ‘To-day, we honor the man that last let go his hold—I believe it was Thomas Wentworth Higginson—of the battering-ram against the court-house door.’

Somewhat later, a Boston policeman named Butman, who had been instrumental in Burns's arrest, went to Worcester to find evidence against those concerned in the riot. The Worcester people were so enraged by this uncalled — for visit that Butman's life was in danger, and the pastor of the Free Church risked his own by helping him escape. The event was thus described in a letter to a friend:

I was not seriously damaged in the Butman trouble. . . . It was a time of peril however, though it ended in nothing worse than frightening a bully into a coward. I wish the poor creature's face could have been daguerreotyped as he crouched into the bottom of the carriage when the stones came crashing in; I never saw such an image of abject fear. Our City Marshal had to drive him the whole way to Boston, too frightened to get into the cars; when they changed horses half way, he hid himself in the woods and could hardly be found again; he would not enter Boston till after dark, nor go to his house even then, but spent the night at a hotel. They have arrested a few persons for riot, chiefly those who were most instrumental in saving him!—so that not much will come of it. [150]

. . . There comes over me at times a strange wonder whether greater and better persons in times past have taken their life as quietly while it was contemporary, and forgotten all the hubbubs in the little events of every day. . . . No affairs in which I was ever engaged have excited me so much as it would have excited me to hear the thing well told in story or history. I can understand the client who cried when his lawyer told the tale of his wrongs— “he never knew how much he had suffered before.”

A newspaper of the time says:—

He [Mr. Butman] awards praise to those who defended him after the storm had been roused, especially Mr. Higginson. . . . Some of the crowd did not distinguish in their attacks between Mr. Butman and Mr. Higginson. The latter gentleman received a considerable share of the missiles, and one large stone was thrown into the carriage, narrowly missing his head.

Miss Higginson wrote an anxious letter of inquiry to her brother, expressing his mother's disapproval of the whole affair, but concluding, ‘It is evident you are going to be a real knight-errant, always on hand.’

Several years later, Mr. Higginson wrote to a friend, ‘Did you ever see an extravaganza of a novel, “Harrington,” of which I was said to be the highly melodramatic hero—though I never knew the author—and which certainly worked up some scenes [151] of my life, as the Butman riot in Worcester, with some power?’

It was a time when fugitive slaves frequently needed assistance, and the Underground Railroad was in full operation. Mr. Higginson was always eager to lend a hand to these escaping wretches. In the Boston ‘Liberator’ and Worcester newspapers of the period, communications over his signature frequently appeared, asking for financial aid, sometimes for a distressed family which was trying to buy its own freedom. ‘Now this sum must be raised speedily,’ he declared. ‘Let every man choose once for all, between his love for freedom, and for a full pocket; for, as far as I have observed, in this land of liberty it is difficult to combine both.’

In other cases he attempted to find work or hiding-places for the refugees. In one instance a home was sought for two boys who had been emancipated by their Kentucky master on condition that they should be cared for in a free State.

This note of introduction, written by Mr. Higginson to ‘Mr. F. B. Sanborn or Mr. R. W. Emerson,’ is given as a sample of the correspondence between the active abolitionists of that day:—

Worcester, Sept. 14, 1860.
The bearer, Capt. Stewart—sometimes known as Preacher Stewart—of Kansas, is leaving here [152] to-day and I have advised him to pass through Concord and call on you. He is the head of the Underground Railway Enterprise in Kansas and has just made a highly successful trip. Mr. Stearns and others are raising funds to assist him in his operations.

He brought on this trip a young slave girl of 15, nearly white, for whom some provision must be made.

There are many letters to Mr. Higginson from Rev. Samuel May, Jr., in reference to fugitives needing aid. One of these describes a young woman with babies whose master had threatened to move ‘earth and hell’ to get her back. Mr. May thought the fugitives would be searched for in Boston, and that Worcester would afford her ‘as much safety as this accursed Union can give to a class which has no rights that white men are bound to respect.’ Of this woman, Mr. Higginson wrote:—

We are expecting here an interesting person, young and beautiful, white and a slave. She escaped 4 months ago from North Carolina, disguised in deep mourning, bringing her child 3 years old, also white. She has also a baby born since her arrival; they are her master's children, poor creature; and she is coming here for safety. She has always been petted and waited on, and can do nothing except sew; but we shall probably get her into some family where she can do housework: and perhaps the elder child will be adopted, if she is willing.


It happened during these anxious days that Sumner bought a Negro family and gave them their freedom. One of the children was white, and Mr. Higginson conceived the plan of adopting her and thus filling the vacancy in his own family. He wrote:

I have made a new acquaintance, most fascinating to me—the dear little white slave girl whom Mr. Sumner purchased— “Ida May” they call her —but her real name is Mary Mildred something. Fancy a slender little girl of seven . . . with reddish hair, brown eyes, delicate features and skin so delicate as to be a good deal freckled. She came up to be shown at a public meeting here, and it was love at first sight between us, she was like an own child to me, and when in Boston this morning I restored her to her tall mulatto father and her handsome little dark brother and sister, it gave me a strange bewildered feeling. They were owned in Alexandria; the mother and grandmother are described as almost white. I am going to see them. There is a photograph of the little girl, but not nearly so good as a daguerreotype which was taken here, of her sitting in my lap—her face is lovely in the picture, but mine (my wife declares) is spoiled by happiness.

Later he added:—

When I was in Boston I went to see my darling little Mildred Williams Ida May: they, you know, are free. She is as gentle and refined as ever, with her delicate skin and golden hair. She may be adopted by a member of Congress.


In reference to this curious episode, Mr. Higginson's old Newburyport friend, Caroline Andrews (Leighton) writes:—

Mr. Higginson was much moved at the situation of this lovely child. He wished me to take her home with me and keep her for a while in my vacation, at Newburyport. While I was there he wrote me the most explicit directions in regard to her care and enjoyment. I thought he hoped at one time to adopt her, as after I had returned to my school, and given her back to her parents, he wrote sorrowfully to me, “My dream of Mildred is ended. I was not worthy of it.”

A saving sense of humor was needed in those grim days; and in the midst of tragedies Mr. Higginson wrote to his mother:—

One funny thing we have heard—a small child, endeavoring to describe a black man in the street, at last succeeded in stammering out, “It's a Tom-Cabin!” and was quite satisfied that he had said the right thing.

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