He called himself Jerry. He was a skilled cabinetmaker in Syracuse, N.Y., before he got a better-paying job making wooden barrels. He was a light-skinned Black man with reddish hair in his early forties, and as far as anyone knew, he didn’t have any family.
But in the eyes of the law, his name was William Henry, and he was another man’s property. On Oct. 1, 1851, the struggle against slavery in the United States centered on this man’s body, and his forceful liberation became a community holiday, “Jerry Rescue Day,” marked with poetry, song and fundraising.
Since 1843, Jerry’s life had been marked by escape. First he fled his enslavement in Missouri. He may have also narrowly avoided recapture in Chicago and Milwaukee, according to one account. During the winter of 1849-1850, he arrived in Syracuse, a city well known for its strong antislavery bent.
Even with the high number of White and Black abolitionist leaders and supporters living there, Jerry was still met with at least some racism from co-workers, who saw him as competition. He also had a few run-ins with the law, getting arrested for theft and assault. It isn’t clear how much truth there was to the charges; in any case, he was always soon released.
In late 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, making escape from slavery a federal matter and requiring assistance from local officials in any state, including ones where slavery was illegal. Daniel Webster, a Northern politician who supported the law, predicted a confrontation over its enforcement would happen in Syracuse, according to historian Angela F. Murphy, who wrote a book about the rescue.
“He gives this really thundering speech about how the Fugitive Slave Law would be enforced, even in Syracuse,” Murphy told The Washington Post. “He said even at the next national antislavery convention” — set for October in Syracuse — “it’s going to be enforced.”
As September gave way to October, the city was packed, not only with hundreds of abolitionists there for the convention but also with thousands of farmers and their families in town for the county fair.
Jerry was working through his lunch break when local police and federal marshals came to detain him. At first, he didn’t resist, probably figuring it would go like his other arrests. Then they arrived at a federal commissioner’s office, and he recognized a White neighbor of his former enslaver. Jerry had been sold in absentia, and the new owner had sent the neighbor up to collect his property.
By this point, a lot of Northern cities had “vigilance committees” — multiracial groups that kept an eye out for slave catchers. One of these committee members spotted Jerry on the way to the office and ran to the church where the convention was being held. Soon, church bells across the city were ringing to alert the whole town.