The little-known story of captured fugitive slave William “Jerry” Henry and his freedom gained by the efforts of abolitionist group Liberty Party members recounts how the daring event, also known as the “Jerry Rescue,” became a pivotal moment in the anti-slavery moment in the North. Taking place in Syracuse, N.Y., the rescue attempt happened on this day in 1851 during the Liberty Party’s state convention, prompting hundreds of abolitionists to fight to free Henry from his imprisonment.
Henry was a “copper” – a person who made barrels – and was arrested at his workplace on this date for theft. After some resistance, he was placed under arrest under the Fugitive State Law. Members of the Liberty Party were holding their convention meeting at a nearby church when word of Henry’s arrest was leaked.
Angered and motivated by the implications behind the strict law, the Party members stormed the police commissioner’s office, where Henry was being held for arraignment. After freeing himself while cuffed and immediately getting captured after the first attempt, Party members gathered in force later in the evening.
Hundreds of abolitionists took to the office doors with a battering ram, and although police fired guns at the crowd, the abolitionists were too much for the local authorities. The police would surrender their prisoner, and according to reports, a federal marshal broke his arm jumping out of the window to escape the crowd’s wrath. Abolitionists later offered to pay for the damage done to commissioner’s office, although he had already resigned by the time the offer came.
After securing Henry, who was injured in the fracas, he was hidden in the home of a local butcher and then the Orson Ames House as part of the Underground Railroad movement. He would later find his way to the Lake Ontario town of Oswego before crossing the great lake in to Canada. Syracuse became the epicenter of the North’s abolitionist movement, with a building erected in honor of the rescue in the 1850s. The building is no longer standing, but a monument (pictured) commemorating the event stands in Clinton Square.
Although Black abolitionists were plentiful, many involved in the “Jerry Rescue” event were largely White. Coincidentally, of the 26 persons who were charged for their actions, only one was convicted. Nine of the rescuers, including famed abolitionist and author Rev. J.W. Loguen, escaped to Canada as well.
While the “Jerry Rescue” didn’t beat back the looming aspects of slavery and racism, it did prove that the injustice of oppressive police tactics and wrongful arrest was frowned upon.