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.

2007-08-18 OHA DSC01517 crop
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.

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.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ruth
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 09:39:24

    This is a great story about people who have the courage to stand up for what is truly right. It is great that a monument has been erected because I am sure there were people for many decades who felt the actions of the rescuers were wrong. Many African Americans did come into Canada, but unfortunately racism existed here too even though they were free.


  2. Pam
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 09:44:32

    Ruth – I’ve never really thought about racism in Canada. Every time I hear they made it to Canada I want to shout for joy, I never really thought about it. Thanks for that!


  3. Sandy
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 11:56:38

    Very interesting! I am so glad to read a story like this. My husband and I were talking the other day about all the history left our of our school books, and how one sided the information was. He attended school in Maryland, and I got my education in Oklahoma where I sat side by side with Native Americans, reading about about the Indian wars. How did they stand it?


  4. Pam
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 12:28:10

    Sandy – now that’s a very good question. I know the Native Americans that I went to school with were angry with white people, and I can’t blame them. I felt the impact of their anger in gym class with dodge ball, spikes in volleyball, etc.


  5. KGMom
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 16:54:42

    Oh what a wonderful story. The only thing that saddens me is that I am not sure we have the same sense of moral rightness these days–would we all come to the aid of a fellow human today? I would hope so.
    I have visited Syracuse, but never heard this story.


  6. mary
    Feb 03, 2008 @ 20:08:38

    Good story, Pam. Our history books aren’t as detailed as they should be. If they were, many of us would be more understanding and compassionate… I didn’t know that racism existed in Canada, either. Growing up in Baltimore City during the 60’s as I did – I thought it was world-wide.


  7. Pam
    Feb 05, 2008 @ 06:50:56

    KGMom – Now that is a very good question. . .

    Mary – I guess there’s so much history to learn maybe that’s why they leave out so much. I don’t know. But I do know there is more of a push, at least in Syracuse, for teachers to teach local history.


  8. Pat
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 00:05:33

    I stumbled upon The Jerry Rescue by accident. I would love to find more information on the subject. My daughter recently moved to Syracuse and when inquiring what Syracuse was known for, received no response. How wonderful it would have been to hear such a wonderful part of history that represents the generosity of a community that came together to rescue a fellow human being.


  9. Pam
    Aug 17, 2008 @ 08:01:50

    Hi Pat, I’m so sorry that your daughter received no response as to what Syracuse is known for! It is known for quite a few things! Off the top of my head, it was the typewriter city at one time, it is known for Syracuse China, Franklin Automobiles was there, the Erie Canal ran through it, the invention of the ferris wheel, some of the best half-moon cookies in the world, along with the Jerry Rescue, and much more. If your daughter is interested in history, a visit to the Onondaga Historical Association’s museum is fun!


  10. Melissa O'Connor
    Jan 04, 2009 @ 15:28:51

    What a fantastic story! Thanks


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