The Jerry Rescue, October 1, 1851

In honor of Black History Month, I’ve been thinking about the Jerry Rescue which occurred in Syracuse, NY on October 1, 1851. I first learned about the rescue at the Onondaga Historical Association when I watched a first-person video at their museum with my Dad in February of 2006. We also went through their museum exhibition “Freedom Bound: Syracuse & The Underground Railroad.”

I grew up south of Syracuse and I knew nothing about any of this until I went to the OHA museum. The teaching of local history, except for Native American history, was lacking when I went through school. As far as I know, this is being corrected now, I hope.

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Jerry Rescue building, 1954 watercolor by Nicholas Tadisco at OHA Museum

Instead of piecing together an article from various sources, I decided that the following article pretty much said everything I wanted to include. I don’t like the “n” word at all so I left it out in the article.

Abolitionists Stopped Slave’s Arrest

Rescuers Stormed Jail to Save Jerry

By Marilyn Marks

The mob of people at the police station the night of Oct. 1, 1851, was ready for a showdown.

The crowd attacked. Stones flew; iron bars, axes, and wooden clubs broke the building’s windows. At the front door, a gang of men with a battering ram ran forward and heaved.

The door came down. Next, the wall.

19911158-PS-1974-06-12-Jerry Rescue Bldg 1852_

On the other side of that wall was Jerry, held at the police station as a fugitive slave. These men were his rescuers.

“Get out of here, you n–, if you are making all this muss,” yelled the policeman guarding Jerry, thrusting him violently toward his friends.

Jerry was hurt. A flying stone had cut open one side of his head, and a rib was cracked in his struggles with police.

The rescuers carried Jerry outside to a waiting carriage which spirited him to his hiding place of four days, just a few blocks from City Hall. Traveling well-hidden, covered with hay under a wagon seat, Jerry fled to Mexico [NY] and then Oswego.

Ten days after the rescue, Jerry was on a boat quietly crossing Lake Ontario on his way to Kingston, Ontario.

Jerry’s arrival in Canada marked the end of what may be the most historic event in Syracuse’s history. The rescue signaled to the rest of the country that the controversial Fugitive Slave Law could not be enforced.

The events leading to Jerry’s rescue began like a fulfillment of the prophesy made by Daniel Webster here in May, 1850.

“The persons in this city who mean to oppose the execution of the Fugitive Slave Law are traitors,” Webster announced.

“The law ought to be enforced and it will be enforced: yes, in the city of Syracuse it shall be enforced,” Webster said, and then predicted “and that, too in the midst of the next anti-slavery convention.”

That convention came to Syracuse Oct 1, 1851. The morning found Jerry, whose legal name was William Henry, hard at work in his barrel-making shop.

Labor was especially difficult, as the sun shone brightly and visitors to the county fair thronged the streets.

Suddenly the door to the small shop swung open and federal officers entered. They forced Jerry’s arms to his sides and shackled his wrists. The charge, the officers said, was theft.

Almost immediately after the arrest, church bells began to ring – a pre-arranged signal of the city’s abolitionists. The anti-slavery convention adjourned for the day.

The federal officers took Jerry to the office of the U.S. commissioner.

Barely had the proceedings there begun when more than 30 men stormed the small courtroom, breaking windows and smashing furniture. And in the midst of it all, Jerry escaped.

“The n—made his escape into the street, and was followed by a crowd of persons, some desirous to assist in his escape, and other anxious to arrest him,” The Daily Standard reported.

“A carriage was procured, but the poor fellow was taken into custody before he got out of the limits of the city.”

Not to be dissuaded, Jerry’s rescuers tried again at 8:30 that night at the police station. This time they succeeded.

Jerry, three-fourths white, originally had planned to go to Canada when he escaped from a Missouri plantation in the winter of 1849. But upon arrival in Syracuse en route, he decided the city would make a safe enough home.

Relatively well-educated – on the plantation he had minded his master’s accounts – Jerry easily found a job in a cabinet-making shop. He soon opened his own barrel-making shop on North Salina Street, where he was arrested.

Syracusans were exuberant over his rescue. Several women packed Jerry’s shackles and sent them to President Millard Fillmore. The Daily Standard congratulated Syracusans as the “true friends of Freedom.”

And the old police station at Clinton and Water Streets was well known for decades as the Jerry Rescue Building, until it was demolished in 1974.

19911158-PS-1974-06-12_Jerry Rescue Bldg 1974

In keeping with the pride of Syracuse, no one was punished for the rescue.

Of the eight men arrested and 15 others indicted, only one man, Enoch Reed, was found guilty of treason. He died while his case was under appeal.

Then, as if to tell federal officials to keep their hands off Syracuse, the Onondaga Grand Jury handed up kidnapping indictments against an agent and a deputy marshal who arrested Jerry. Both men were tried and acquitted.

Not everyone was thrilled with the rescue, however. Newspapers around the country condemned Syracusans as traitors.

The Washington Union even suggested that Syracuse be placed in a state of siege by the army and be kicked out of the union until it repented for its sins.

Sources: Syracuse Post-Standard, June 12, 1974, pg 17, Jerry Rescue Building to Fall;
Syracuse Post-Standard, Thursday, Sept. 20, 1979, Page B-5

I was glad to hear that Mr. Henry made it to safety, along with many other people I’ve studied. In 1990 the city erected this monument to the Jerry Rescue at Clinton Square across the street from where the jail stood (which is a parking lot now). The monument includes the faces of Henry, Loguen and May.

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Jerry Rescue Monument in Clinton Square, Syracuse, taken on April 12, 2006.

I saw a pair of old shackles like the ones used on Mr. Henry and other African Americans while working on an exhibition at OHA and they made me want to throw up, seriously. Sometimes history does that to me.