“A mighty throbbing of the public heart.” — Rev. Samuel J. May (1851)
by James P. Hughes
On the evening of October 1, 1851, a storm brewed at the Erie Canal’s edge in Syracuse’s Clinton Square. Years later, regional historian Arch Merrill would write, “Nature did not spawn the storm. It came from the hearts of men.” Restlessly milling about the square, an incensed throng of abolitionists had gathered to defy what they considered a heinous decree.
Just a year earlier, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had become U.S. law. As part of a congressional compromise, it required that all slaves, upon capture, be returned to the slaver, and demanded cooperation of all free state officials and citizens. The ruling inflamed antislavery sentiment in upstate New York, a region with a substantial abolitionist movement and a history of aiding escaped slaves by way of the Underground Railroad.
Syracuse and Jerry
Syracuse became a “great central depot” of the Underground Railroad as slaves passed through the city to locations along Lake Ontario and subsequent passage to freedom in Canada.
William Henry, who would call himself “Jerry,” was born into slavery in 1811. Over the years he acquired skills as a carpenter and a cooper, and in 1843 he fled from Missouri on a circuitous escape route that is now lost to history.
Arriving in Syracuse in 1849, Jerry found the city a place to call home, a community where a substantial part of the citizenry expressed antislavery sympathies – so much so that in May 1851, orator Daniel Webster went to Syracuse to defend the Fugitive Slave Act. Disparaging the city, he labeled Syracuse as a “laboratory of abolitionism, libel, and treason.” Among local leaders of an abolitionist “vigilance committee” were influential Gerrit Smith of nearby Peterboro, Unitarian minister Samuel J. May, and A.M.E. Zion minister Jermain Loguen, himself a former slave.
Federal marshals, aware of Jerry’s presence in Syracuse, seized him at work on October 1, 1851, and delivered him to the U.S. Commissioner’s office for arraignment. Word of Jerry’s capture promptly reached a fiery abolition convention being held just blocks away, one zealously overseen by Smith, May, Loguen, and others. A large, angry crowd assembled. For security reasons, Jerry was moved to the police station just west of Clinton Square. Whether or not the timing of Jerry’s arrest had been purposefully designed to tweak convention participants remains a matter of speculation.
The crowd at the police station, some of whom were armed with clubs and axes, grew in size and strength. At around 8:30 p.m., men wielding a battering ram broke down the door and breached the building, seizing the shackled Jerry. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the intruders, defending officers quickly backed off and released their prisoner. Jerry was rushed from the building to a waiting carriage.
A local blacksmith removed his manacles and for the next few days Jerry was kept undercover in Syracuse, moving from safe house to safe house. Once the post-escape atmosphere calmed a bit, he traveled by way of the Underground Railroad to the Lake Ontario shoreline and on to freedom in Canada. William “Jerry” Henry settled in Kingston, Ontario, where he continued work as a cooper and carpenter.
Jerry Rescue Remembered
Twelve men were eventually arrested for aiding in Jerry’s rescue with only one convicted, and that on a minor charge. In succeeding years leading up to the Civil War, Jerry Rescue Day was celebrated in Syracuse each October 1st. The emotional events included spirited speeches, songs, and resolutions affirming citizen rights to resist slavery laws. Famed social reformer William Lloyd Garrison and abolitionist Frederick Douglass were among the featured speakers at those yearly rallies.
In 2001, a short distance from where the incident occurred, a permanent Jerry Rescue monument was erected at Clinton Square in memory of the landmark event, a fitting memorial to a historic moment.