By Theresa St. John
He was 40 years old, a successful cooper-otherwise known as a wooden barrel and cask maker-from Missouri. More importantly, “Jerry” was considered a free man in the North.
Aside from The Fugitive Slave Act, passed by The United States Congress on September 20th, 1850, which considered him an escaped slave. Period. The law stated all runaway slaves were to be captured by any means necessary and returned to their rightful owners, their masters back in the South.
Designed to force everyday citizens into assisting in the apprehension of freedom seekers, the Fugitive Slave Act increased the fine for interfering. In what seemed like the blink of an eye, the already harsh penalty jumped from $500 to $1,000-with the added threat of six months in jail for anyone who did not comply. And while it certainly scared a few law-abiding folks, the Act served to spark a fire in the bellies of most.
Instead of quaking in their boots though, abolitionists redoubled their efforts to help runaway slaves. The Underground Railroad was very active in the Northern states by the 1850’s, and Syracuse, New York was no exception. In fact, communities were very open about their joint efforts to thwart the government and the new laws concerning slavery.
The Reverend Jermain Loguen was an escaped slave himself. Most referred to him as the “Underground Railroad King. “ He was brazen, placing notices in local newspapers announcing he was the stationmaster in Syracuse, that all runaway slaves could find safety under his roof.
At the time slaves were harbored for several days, sometimes weeks, moving from house to house along the vast network of Underground Railroad supporters. Eventually, they made their way to Canada, where they could enjoy the sweet taste of freedom without having to look over their shoulder every minute, waiting for re-capture.
When morning dawned in Syracuse on October 1st, 1851, the Liberty Party’s anti-slavery convention was in full swing. New York was a free state, which meant there was a never-ending battle with the government over slavery. Many prominent and wealthy citizens were sympathetic to emancipated slaves living in the area and did all they could to help keep them free.
Leaders of the local abolition movement had organized a committee, determined to derail the purpose of these new slave laws. At the same time, Secretary of State Daniel Webster vowed to beat them at their own game, proclaiming from a balcony overlooking Clinton Square that The Fugitive Slave Laws would be carried out in every city, regardless of opposition. Syracuse included.
William Henry was at his place of business when Federal Marshalls from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, along with local police, came to arrest him. They charged him with theft, a serious accusation for a black person in the 1850’s.
Placed in manacles, “Jerry” was marched before U.S. Commissioner Joseph Sabine for same day trial. By then he realized he’d been apprehended under The Fugitive Slave Act and was struggling in vain to break free.
Word of the false arrest spread quickly. With the help of abolitionists, Jerry escaped from the courtroom and made his way to a bridge over the Erie Canal. It only took only a short time for the law to catch up with him. He was captured again and dragged into the Police Justice offices, placed unceremoniously behind bars this go ‘round.
And then, around 8:30 pm, one of the most defiant anti-slavery acts in American history occurred. An angry mob, consisting of both black and white citizens numbering well over 2,000, took a battering ram and broke the jail doors down, rescuing the still-shackled Jerry.
Pistol shots rang out during the melee, but the threat was empty. The law was outnumbered by far. One deputy marshal jumped out of a window to escape the crowd, breaking his arm in the process.
Ultimately, an injured Jerry was handed over to his rescuers, and taken to the home of Lucy Watson, a sixteen-year-old African American girl. An empathetic locksmith was summoned to aid Lucy and her sister in freeing Jerry from his restraints. The young girls then dressed him in woman’s clothing and sent him over the back fence.
He hid in the home of Caleb Davis for four days, before making his way North to Mexico, New York. Orson Ames and the Asa and Minerva Wing Family both offered their helping hand to Jerry.
Jerry was also welcomed by well-known abolitionist Starr Clark and his wife Harriot before being spirited by wagon to Oswego and the last leg of his journey, which would bring him across Lake Ontario into the safe arms of Kingston, Ontario.
Many citizens celebrated Syracuse as “ A free state, The Canada of the United States.” And after Jerry’s dramatic rescue, The United States Federal Government never dared carry out another arrest of a freedom seeker. At least not in Syracuse.
Jerry died a few years later, a free man.
Today, a large memorial stands in the center of the city. Catching sight of it should encourage each of us to remember the tolerance and compassion of men and women from our past-those who weren’t afraid to stand up for what was right and good and decent in the world.