A group of Black and White abolitionists in Syracuse, New York, broke into a public building and released William “Jerry” Henry around 171 years ago, with the help of townspeople. Jerry, 40, had escaped slavery in Mississippi 17 years before and was working as a barrel maker in Syracuse when he was caught at work by U.S. Marshals on October 1, 1851, and hauled to the Townsend Block along the Erie Canal for a hearing.
He was initially accused of theft, but when he was placed in manacles, he was informed that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Act, which was part of the 1850 Compromise. Even if slaves were in a free state, the statute demanded that they be returned to their masters. The statute also stated that the federal government was in charge of tracking down, returning, and prosecuting fugitive slaves.
The anti-slavery Liberty Party was having its New York State Convention in Syracuse on the day of Jerry’s arrest. When members of the party and other members of the local community learned about Jerry’s arrest, they decided to have him released from the office of a local United States court commissioner, where he had been sent for arraignment. Their first attempt to liberate Jerry was unsuccessful, as he was quickly apprehended after escaping to the street in shackles.
Jerry was taken to the local courtroom jail by law officials after his failed effort at eluding capture. It was there that the abolitionists plotted their second strategy to free Jerry.
Thousands of people gathered in front of the building where Jerry was being held, including members of the Liberty Party who were in town for the anti-slavery convention. The crowd of roughly 2,500 people burst into the jail, liberated Jerry, and helped him flee to Canada after getting a signal from their leaders.
The plan to release Jerry was led by two preachers, according to the Onondaga Historical Association. Jermaine Loguen, a former slave from Tennessee who went on to become a Methodist clergyman in Syracuse, and Samuel May, a Unitarian minister, were the two men. After the initial attempt to release Jerry failed, they devised a new strategy.
“A large crowd assembled in the street, this time armed for a more serious rescue attempt,” according to New York History Net. The door was smashed in with a battering ram, and despite one of the deputy marshals firing pistol shots through the window, it became evident that the crowd was too numerous and determined to be opposed. One deputy marshal fractured his arm jumping from a window to flee the crowd after the prisoner was surrendered. The injured prisoner was brought to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada and secreted for several days at the home of a local butcher known for his anti-abolitionist sentiments.”
Jerry spent the remainder of his life as a free man in Canada. According to the Syracuse University Special Collections Research Center, his rescue was hailed as “one of the major achievements of the antislavery struggle,” and it “became a vital part of the lore and planning of abolitionists in the region.”
Rev. Samuel J. May gave the following speech to the Onondaga County Convention of Citizens two weeks after the legendary rescue, demonstrating how enthralled the public was to see Jerry released:
“But when the people saw a man dragged through the streets, chained and held down in a cart by four or six others who were upon him; treated as if he were the worst of felons; and learned that it was only because he had assumed to be what God made him to be, a man, and not a slave—when this came to be known throughout the streets, there was a mighty throbbing of the public heart; an all but unanimous uprising against the outrage. There was no concert of action except that to which a common humanity impelled the people. Indignation flashed from every eye. Abhorrence of the Fugitive Slave Bill poured in burning words from every tongue. The very stones cried out.”