Anthony Burns' Story
The following was published in the Daily Pittsburgh Gazette on March 8, 1855. It is an account of Anthony Burns, a Freeman, who had been purchased by an abolitionist, the Rev. Mr. Grimes of Boston and then set free. Students should read it to learn his story and then read between the lines to gain an understanding of how Pittsburghers, both whites and free blacks, reading this story in their daily newspaper might have reacted to it and the plight of fugitive slaves.
…Anthony Burns is a man of medium height, not very dark skin, regular features, high forehead, a quiet, intelligent face, and a well-set and muscular frame. The only mark on him was a broad, deep scar on his left cheek. In a modest but firm and deep voice, he said:
My friends: I am very glad to have it to say, to have it to feel, that I am once more in the land of liberty; that I am with those who are my friends. Until my tenth year I did not care much what came of me, but soon after I began to learn that there is a Christ who came to make us free. I began to hear about a North where men of my color could live without any man daring to say to them, "you are my property;" and I determined, by the blessing of God, one day to find my way there. My inclination grew on me, and I found my way to Boston. You see I didn't want to make myself known, so I didn't tell who I was, but as I came to work, I got employment and I worked hard, but I kept my own counsel and I didn't tell anybody that I was a slave, but I strove for myself as I never had an opportunity to do so before.
When I was going home one night I heard some one running behind me; presently a hand was put on my shoulder and somebody said, ‘Stop, stop; you are the fellow who broke into a silversmith's shop the other night." I assured the man that it was a mistake, but almost before I could speak, I was lifted from off my feet by six or seven others, and it was no use to resist. In the Court House I waited for some time, and as the silversmith did not come, I told them I wanted to go home to supper. A man then came to the door; he didn't open it like an honest man would, (laughter), but kind a slowly opened it, and looked in. He said, ‘How are you Mr. Burns!" and I called him as we do in Virginia, ‘Master!" He asked me if there would be any trouble in taking me back to Virginia, and I was brought right to a stand, and I didn't know what to say. He wanted to know if I remembered the money that he used to give me, and I said, ‘Yes, I do recollect that you used to give me 12 1/2 cents at the end of every year I worked for you." He went out and came back next morning. I got no supper or sleep that night.
The next morning they told me that my master said he had the right to me; and as I had called him ‘master," the fear of God before my eyes, I could not go from it. Next morning I was taken down, with the bracelets on my wrists–not such as you wear, ladies, of gold and silver–but iron and steel, that wore into the bone. (He showed the marks the irons had made.) …He said he saw in a newspaper that he had said he wished to go back to Virginia. Had the devil himself said it, he could have told no greater lie.
He then described the scene of his rendition: how he a poor fugitive was made a great lion, and escorted out of the free city of Boston and on board of the revenue cutter (a boat), amid troops of men armed to the teeth. How they (the law and order men) promised to purchase him when he got to Virginia, and when he got to Norfolk they clapped him into jail, and put irons on his wrists, and kept him in a room without bed or seat and with but scanty food, for two days. He was taken to Richmond where he was kept in a little pen in the Trader's Jail for four months, with irons on his wrists and anclus [sic], so tight that they wore the flesh through to the bone, and during the month of August they gave him a hand pail full of water every two days. From this cell he was not allowed to come out once during four months. At the end of that time he was sold for $905 to one David McDaniel, who took him to South Carolina.
The remainder of his story is short: hearing of his situation, the money was raised and his purchase effected by Mr. Grimes.
The address was listened to with great interest and was much applauded.
The Rev. Mr. Grimes followed, after which a collection was taken up. Burns has gone on to Boston.