America in the 1850s


Who was Anthony Burns?

Born in Virginia in 1834, Anthony Burns was the youngest of eleven slaves born to his master’s slave mistress. Burns’ early life was no picnic—to say the least—but he does not appear to have been singled out for any especially negative treatment. In the winter of 1853, Burns escaped slavery and made his way to Boston, where he began working any number of odd jobs to survive. It was there, in Boston, that he was apprehended by a slave catcher on May 25, 1854.

A handbill went around Boston the next day with the words “A MAN WAS STOLEN LAST NIGHT” on its masthead. Thanks both to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel and to the terms of the Fugitive Slave Law, Boston had been on edge for some time. The arrest of Anthony Burns proved to be the explosion that set off the powder keg.


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