In the midst of other research, I kept coming across the story of Shadrach Minkins’ dramatic Boston court house rescue from slave catchers. I quickly became enthralled with the story and decided to try to retell it myself from contemporary newspaper accounts, directories and vital records. The drama and excitement of the story was compelling but the aftermath was even more significant for fugitives and Boston’s place as a safe haven,
Boston and Massachusetts are never far from the national discussion of race, rights, and tolerance. But in 1851, with the dramatic courthouse rescue of the fugitive slave Shadrach Minkins and its perhaps more significant aftermath, the abolitionist Massachusetts was the epicenter of opposition and resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Early on Saturday morning, February 15th 1851, Deputy Marshall Frederick Warren called on the assistant U.S. Marshall Patrick Riley at his Lincoln Street home to alert him that an alleged fugitive slave was to be arrested at 8:00 AM at Taft’s Cornhill Tavern. Charles Devins, U.S. Marshall for the Massachusetts District, was away on official business in Washington, so Riley told Warren to bring the suspect to the U.S. Court Room located the city’s courthouse. But identifying the man was an immediate problem.
The warrant had been presented the previous evening to another Deputy Marshall, Charles Sawin, who had no idea who the suspect might be among the numerous African-Americans working at the tavern, and the informer had not shown up to identify him as pre-arranged. Sawin set off in search of the informer, found him, confirmed the identity of the fugitive, and rescheduled the arrest for 11:00 AM. At the new time, Riley’s officers were arrayed around the .but the informer was still not there. Riley and Warren entered surreptitiously and ordered coffee, posing as ordinary patrons. After some time, assuming nothing would occur, they prepared to leave and paid their waiter, only to observe Sawin and fellow deputy Frederick Byrne intercepting the same waiter and carrying him out through the back and over the short distance to the courthouse.
Riley reports he hurried to see the City Marshall Francis Tukey at his office in City Hall by the courthouse to notify him that the local police would be needed to handle a possible disturbance, and then went upstairs to see Mayor John Bigelow to make to same request. The Mayor answered ambiguously, “Mr. Riley, I am sorry for it,” which Riley would interpret as indifference on the part of the Mayor. The Mayor however would later assert that Riley made no request for help and merely advised him, “We have got a negro, and I thought I would call and let you know.” Tukey would later characterize Riley’s notice as ‘a hint to look out for street disturbances, and would claim that Riley had declared, using a viler term, “We have got a [ ] — I merely notify you so that if they make trouble you may be about.”
Boston was already agitated. Just months earlier two southern slave catchers by the names of Willis Hughes and John Knight were arrested for conspiracy to kidnap William Crafts and his wife Ellen. Crafts was with Frederick Douglas on Southac (Phillips) Street when the conspirators first appeared in a suspicious carriage. The Crafts escaped the kidnapping and shortly thereafter left Boston for more security in Great Britain. News of this new event would spread throughout the city and its small African-American community. The waiter seized by Sawin and Byrne was brought before the United States Commissioner George Curtis still wearing his apron and coatless yet appearing “calm and confident.” Known as Frederick Wilkins, he answered the Commissioner that he did want counsel and that friends had sent for attorneys. The courtroom was quickly filling with a mixed crowd.
Detail, Salter & Callahan 1852 Map o the City of Boston
The warrant stated that Wilkins was the “property” of John DeBree, a purser in the Navy at Norfolk. De Bree’s representative, the Boston attorney Seth Thomas, was prepared to show through sworn affidavits that Frederick Wilkins was the fugitive Shadrach Minkins whom DeBree asserted he had purchased from John Higgins (who in turn had bought him at a Sherriff’s Sale). Wilkins’ impressive volunteer defense team of Samuel Sewell, Ellis G. Loring, Charles List, and Charles G. Davis (Richard H. Dana, Jr. was consulting from his office) motioned for a continuation to provide time for a more thorough review. The Commissioner granted them until the following Tuesday. Riley, anticipating a continuation, had already dispatched Deputy Marshall Warren to ask Commodore Downes at the Navy Yard in Charlestown to hold the prisoner there. Commodore Downes declined the request, saying he had no authority to hold the prisoner. Riley could not expect to place the prisoner in the Boston jail on Leverett Street, because an 1843 Massachusetts statute forbade holding alleged fugitive slaves in the state’s jails. Riley had reason to be anxious. Boston was openly hostile to the pursuit of fugitive slaves, as evidenced by the jail law, and crowds had freed prisoner at least twice before, as recently as 1836. Riley would need to hold the prisoner in the wide open, public courthouse and then only in the U.S. Court Room.
1836 Suffolk County Courthouse
Riley ordered the court room cleared but permitted defense counsels Loring and Sewell to remain to consult with Wilkins. At this point, an unknown man approached Wilkins and whispered in his ear quietly, after which Wilkins rose, doffed the coat he’d been given, rolled up his sleeves, and secured his neckerchief as if in preparation for something. At one point Deputy Marshall Byrne asked defense attorney Charles Davis if there might be something of a scheme in the wind. “Nothing that I know of; this is a damned dirty piece of business,” answered Davis. Deputy Byrne claimed that Davis grabbed his shoulder and said, “You are a damned pretty mess.” And then “you all ought to have your throats cut!”
Around 2:00 PM Elizur Wright, of the “Vigilance Committee,” and editor of the Commonwealth, a Free Soil and Abolitionist daily, entered the court room accompanied by a minister, most likely the Reverend Samuel Snowden. The excitable Wright harangued Wilkins: “Why didn’t you defend yourself when they came to arrest you? Where were your hands? Why didn’t you use any instrument you could lay your hand on? If I had been there and had pistols, you should have had them to shoot them down with; or I would have used them myself.” But Wilkins maintained his composure, understanding what Wright didn’t that the consequences of Wright’s urging would likely have fatal consequences for an black man.
Wright’s rancor was stoked further when Riley suggested, “You gentleman, who feel so much interested for the slave, may have an opportunity to prove it. Perhaps you may be able to buy him from his owner. I am not authorized by the owner or claimants that the man may be bought, but I am ready to put down $25 or even $50 towards making up the purchase money.” The incensed Wright replied, “I’d sooner give $50 to buy pistols for his release.” Riley order Wright out of the court room, but relented after learning that he was a journalist and let him stay.
The court messenger Ebenezer Noyes had been dispatched meantime to the City Marshall’s office to ask for “every man he could send” to control the growing crowd. Tukey replied that he had none at the moment but would send some when he could. Outside the courtroom the chemist William F. Channing – a future collaborator with Alexander Graham Bell – joined onlookers and shouted “You will have to answer to God for this!” Riley had posted one or two deputies at the door, but he had no authority to close the entire courthouse, since it was a city building. The courtroom was largely empty, with just Riley, the prisoner, two counselors and the deputies remaining inside, but outside the crowd had been growing steadily over the past hour and a half, and the corridor and stairs beyond were now packed with perhaps one hundred or more people.
The details of what occurred next would be debated in many more court proceedings over the following months. As Davis and Wright left, a cry was heard, “Take him out boys!” and “Come in! Come in!” The officers at the door struggled to hold their position, and Deputy Warren ran to the City Marshall’s office for help. Not finding the Marshall there, Warren hurried to the Mayor’s office, only to be told that the Mayor was out to lunch. Returning to Tukey’s office, he found the Marshall in his private office and asked for all available aid. When he offered to help round up officers, Tukey refused him. Riley claimed that no help arrived, and that the City Marshall and Mayor had made a deliberate decision not to intervene. Tukey claimed that an officer he did send was barred entry by a deputy marshall.
Soon the officers lost control of the courtroom door, and a crowd of twenty, thirty, or in some reports as many as forty men rushed the court room, collars buttoned up and hair down over their foreheads to evade identification, cheering and shouting “Take him away!” Patrick Riley was pinned behind the baize door and unarmed but later reported he turned towards Shadrach and told him, “Don’t move or I’ll shoot.” In the rush, William Riley, Patrick’s brother and also a deputy, unsheathed the Commissioner’s sword and waved it threateningly, if ineffectively, at the swirling, pressing crowd. He laid it on a table, and one of the rescuers snatched it and carried it out triumphantly to the street with the liberated Shadrach. A city constable relieved him of it outside as the crowd surged towards the West End. Shadrach was carried off to a cab on Garden or perhaps Belknap (Joy) Street but then taken from the cab (reportedly on-foot) to the Southac (Phillips) Street house of the abolitionist Lewis Hayden, an African American used clothes dealer. There Shadrach was purportedly dressed in women’s clothes and spirited out of the City. Some would later claim that the pantomime of the cab and women’s clothes was merely a diversion to throw off pursuers, and that Shadrach had walked safely to his freedom. He was soon settled in Montreal, where detractors claimed he was destitute. But others reported him established as a barber and later a saloon keeper with help from friends in Boston. In any event he married, had a family, and lived there until his death in 1875.
But Minkins’ dramatic non-violent rescue is merely a triumphant prelude to a much darker, tragic story and the aftermath for both Boston and the other fugitives. News of the rescue enraged supporters of the fugitive law. President Fillmore issued a proclamation calling for all law enforcement officers to aid in Shadrach’s recapture and ordering that all who assisted in the rescue be prosecuted. Daniel Webster, Fillmore’s Secretary of State and leader of the Massachusetts Whigs, threatened to resign if immediate actions weren’t taken in response to punish the rescuers and support the law, and it was rumored that the President was sending a company of Marines to the City. An irate Henry Clay on the Senate Floor would ask: “Who committed the outrage? Was it our own citizens? No. It was a band of blacks…”
But that outrage might have been more contrived than real. The contempt for and opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act in Massachusetts was well known. The Massachusetts Senate had recently elected the determined abolitionist Charles Sumner as United States Senator. “The Bostonians wink at these things because they sympathize with the fugitives…” crowed the Philadelphia Bulletin. Shadrach’s “value” was reportedly $1000, but the costs for lawyers in Virginia and Boston and the travel of agents and witnesses to Boston must have been significant. Although DeBree would sue the U.S. Commissioner for his loss, it’s been suggested that DeBree pressed his claim for Shadrach to test whether the Fugitive Slave Act “could be carried out in Boston.” For supporters and apologists of the act, a recalcitrant Massachusetts, defiantly and openly sheltering fugitives, was a bold challenge not only to the stability of chattel slavery but also to the law of the land. Massachusetts must do its “constitutional duty,” or the Georgia Citizen railed that the authorities should “batter down the walls of Boston and lay it in ruin… <and>hang the ring leaders of the riot…”
Compelled to respond, Boston Mayor Bigelow and the Aldermen issued an order directing the City Marshall to assist any officer, state or federal, who was obstructed in his lawful duty by a mob but the Boston officials had no taste or participating in slave-catching. Nonetheless, City Marshall Tukey would interpret the order very broadly in subsequent events. A defiant Massachusetts Senate would respond with resolves to Congress underscoring again “that Massachusetts protests against the Fugitive Slave Act; [it is] abhorrent to the feelings of the people of this Commonwealth and [never will have] support in the heart and conscience of the community…”
Over the next few weeks, U.S. courts would issue indictments for aiding the escape against Lewis Hayden, the attorney Robert Morris, John P. Coburn, Thomas P. Smith, J.K. Hayes (the Keeper of the Tremont Temple), Charles G. Davis Jr., and Elizur Wright. All but Smith would eventually be acquitted; Smith would escape in June to California, clearly fearing for his life after an assault in April by four men who smeared a “plaster of tar” over his mouth.
Less than two months after Shadrach’s rescue on April 3rd, another fugitive named Thomas Sims was apprehended under similarly deceptive circumstances. The arrest would have tragic consequences for him and for Boston’s principled resistance.
According to the New York Herald, “The eyes of the whole country have been riveted on Boston since the arrest of Sims. No one cares about the slave as a fugitive, nor his value. It’s the principle involved in the case which made it important. For the third time an effort was made to ascertain whether or not the people of that city and of Massachusetts would comply with their constitutional duties.” Thomas Sims had been in Boston for less than a month when he was grabbed on Cooper Street by two city constables falsely accusing him of the theft of a watch to throw off his suspicions and those of on-lookers. The city constables were actually working for the U.S. Marshall to recapture a fugitive slave. Even with the drummed-up charge, a wary crowd attempted to block the capture, and an officer sustained a minor wound. It was only in the carriage as it approached the court house that Simms kidnappers” as he was bundled into the building. His captors claimed that he had escaped in February from James Potter, a wealthy Georgia rice planter, by stowing away in Savannah on a ship bound for Boston. Twenty-three and quite handsome, Simms had telegraphed his wife, a “quadroon” free woman, and a great beauty learned the real reason for his arrest, and as he exited he managed to get out, “I am in the hands of the, to join him in Boston unknowingly revealing his whereabouts. Sims was held in the courthouse and guarded by Marshall Devins himself. Tukey, overstepping his authority, placed a great chain around the building, to the ire of Mayor Bigelow and justices. He claimed that the courts were open for all who had business there only “spectators and idlers [were] excluded.” The City Marshall posted sixty men around the building during the day and twenty-five at night. There would be no risk of a heroic rescue this time, and Tukey was eagerly collaborating with the federal officers.
The following day, a Friday, Sims was brought before Commissioner Curtis for an examination that would extend with continuations through to the following Friday. A defense team for Sims was quickly assembled composed of abolitionist attorneys Robert Rantoul, Charles G. Loring, and Samuel Sewell. Commissioner Hallett’s charge was to determine if Simms was the fugitive identified in the claim and if so to release him to the owner’s representatives. As in the Shadrach case, the Boston attorney Seth Thomas represented the alleged owner Potter, aided by Potter’s representative John B. Bacon. Witnesses were brought from Savanah, along with sworn affidavits to attest to Sims’s identity. The defense team would try various strategies, including seeking a habeus corpus from Massachusetts courts, seeking to have Simms transferred to the state’s custody because of the theft complaint, and challenging the identification itself. Bacon and one of the Georgia witnesses were even arrested for kidnapping, but all tactics ultimately failed. The Commissioner issued his finding in the early morning of Friday April 12th, giving cursory affirmation to the defendant’s identity but opining extensively on the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act. At 5:00 AM City Marshall Tukey and constables brought Sims to the brig Acorn at Long Wharf, and he was returned to Savannah, accompanied on the trip by Deputy Marshall Patrick Riley. All to show, according to the Whig paper the Boston Atlas, “the manner in which the law of the land will be hereafter enforced and vindicated.” The implications were clear, and the slave catchers were emboldened. A Baltimore writer for the New York Tribune expected six more arrests in Boston and within days another report said that forty or fifty fugitives had fled Boston.
The apologists, the Whig supporters of Fillmore, the “Great Compromise,” and the Fugitive Slave Act, would justify themselves by disparaging Sims. A correspondent for the Boston Courier wrote that Simms was an “idle, dissipated fellow.” Sims, “capable of earning a dollar and a half a day, had only paid $10 to his master in two years, being less than the amount of taxes paid for him.” They added, “…His reputed wife is a free woman who was much incensed at his desertion of her… and gave the information <on his location> to his master.” And in perhaps the greatest fiction, “Mr. Potter at first thought he would not trouble himself to reclaim so idle a fellow, but Tom’s mother told him it was his duty to do it, and endeavor to save him from becoming worthless to himself and everybody else.” But perhaps more honestly, “This … would give a fair test as to whether Boston would redeem her character and sustain the laws or not…”
The New York Tribune assured readers that, “Mr. James Potter is a high minded, humane, honorable man, and it is his extreme kindness and leniency to his slaves which had caused him a great amount of trouble.” The Boston Courier noted that Potter had “…done it without regard to expense.”
Reports that Thomas Sims was sold to a Havana sugar cane plantation for $1200 were untrue. In April of 1863 he escaped from Vicksburg with his wife and child along with four other men. He returned to Boston where he reportedly joined the Union forces.