The Trial











History 312: Civil War and Reconstruction Student Web Sites



With all rescue attempts having failed, Anthony Burns had to go through with the trial. At first, Burns was unsure if he wanted a lawyer for his defense. His reasoning was that he was going to be sent back anyway. If he had a defense lawyer and tried to form a defense, he would only be treated worse upon returning to Virginia. He finally, however, conceded and allowed Richard Henry Dana to represent him (von Frank 2).

The trial itself lasted three days. Several people gathered around the outside of the Court House. Entrance to the actual courtroom was limited. There were many armed guardsmen and soldiers present. "The whole building and it environs looked more like a fortress or military camp than anything befitting a court of law" (von Frank 127).

The evidence against Burns was as follows: William Brent, a slaveholding grocer and personal friend of Mr. Suttle, identified the man in question as being Anthony Burns and said he had been missing approximately since March 24, 1854. Brent himself had hired Burns for three years and felt qualified to make this statement (Stevens 85-86). In addition, one of the keepers over Burns while at the courthouse testified that Burns said he had been in Boston about two months and in Richmond, VA before that (Stevens 96). There was also testimony given of a conversation that took place between Suttle and Burns when at first reunited in Boston. Burns had addressed the man as Master Charles and gave the excuse of accidentally falling asleep while working on one of the vessels.

In response to this, Dana and junior counsel, Charles Ellis, made several points in defense of Burns. In response to the admissions Burns had supposedly made, Ellis presented an argument, ironically of Southern legal opinion, that slave testimony should be excluded as evidence. They also tried a defense that did not focus on Burns in particular, but in general stating reasons that the Fugitive Slave Laws were unconstitutional (von Frank 145). Two of those reasons were that it prohibited trial by jury and gave no protection against unlawful seizure (Pease 46). Finally, with what was perhaps their soundest argument legally, they had several witnesses testify to seeing Burns in Boston beginning March 5. This contradicted Brentís testimony that he had been missing since March 24 (von Frank 145). Burns obviously could not have been in Boston and Richmond at he same time.

After hearing each sideís witnesses and closing arguments, Commissioner Loring made his decision on Friday, June 2, 1854. Commissioner Loring addressed all arguments from both sides. He concluded by saying there were three facts that must be proven by Mr. Suttle. Two of these, said Loring, were removed from his jurisdiction. They were that Anthony Burns owed him service and that Burns had escaped that service. The only decision he had control to make was upon "the identity of the party before [him] with the Anthony Burns mentioned in the record" (Stevens 120). His final decision was that the man was in fact Anthony Burns and must be sent back to Virginia.


This page was created by Karen Livingood

This page was last updated on 02/02/00