Excerpts from Charles Emery Stevens’, Anthony Burns: A History (electronic edition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; originally published 1856), PP. 187-94. The short introduction about Anthony Burns was written by Matthew R. Laird, Ph.D.
James River Institute for Archaeology, Inc.
Anthony Burns was an African-American man who escaped from slavery in Virginia in 1854 and made his way to Boston. Two months later he was arrested and tried under the Fugitive Slave Law. Despite considerable popular protest, Burns was returned to Richmond, where he was held for four months in Lumpkin’s Jail. In February 1855, abolitionists raised sufficient funds to purchase him from his master. He returned to the North and became a pastor, and eventually moved to Canada, where he died in 1862 at the age of 28. This contemporary narrative of his ordeal was originally published in 1856.
Brent was accompanied to the jail by one Robert Lumpkin, a noted trader in slaves. This man belonged to a class of persons by whose society the slaveholders of the South profess to feel disgraced, but with whose services, nevertheless, they cannot dispense. He had formerly been engaged exclusively in the traffic in slaves. Roaming over the country, and picking up a husband here, a wife there, a mother in one place, and an alluring maiden in another, he banded them with iron links into a coffle and sent them to the far southern market. By his ability and success in this remorseless business, he had greatly distinguished himself, and had come to be known as a "bully trader." At this time, however, he had abandoned the business of an itinerant trader, and was established in Richmond as the proprietor of a Trader's Jail. In this he kept and furnished with board such slaves as were brought into the city for sale, and, generally, all such as their owners wished to punish or to provide with temporary safe keeping. He also kept a boardinghouse for the owners themselves. Lumpkin's Jail was one of the prominent and characteristic features of the capital of Virginia. It was a large brick structure, three stories in height, situated in the outskirts of Richmond, and surrounded by an acre of ground. The whole was enclosed by a high, close fence, the top of which was thickly set with iron spikes.
To the proprietor of this prison, Burns was now delivered up by Brent. He was ordered by Lumpkin to put his hands behind him; this done, the jail-keeper proceeded to fasten them together in that position with a pair of iron handcuffs. Then, directing Anthony to move on before, he followed him closely behind until they arrived at his jail.
Here he was destined to suffer, for four months, such revolting treatment as the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveholders can inflict. The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose. After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but, in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet. In this manacled condition he was kept during the greater part of his confinement. The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating. The gripe of the irons impeded the circulation of his blood, made hot and rapid by the stifling atmosphere, and caused his feet to swell enormously. The flesh was worn from his wrists, and when the wounds had healed, there remained broad scars as perpetual witnesses against his owner. The fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or night, and no one came to help him; the indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought. His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth. His food consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread and the parings of bacon or putrid meat. This fare, supplied to him once a day, he was compelled to devour without Plate, knife, or fork. Immured, as he was, in a narrow, unventilated room, beneath the heated roof of the jail, a constant supply of fresh water would have been a heavenly boon; but the only means of quenching his thirst was the nauseating contents of a pail that was replenished only once or twice a week. Living under such an accumulation of atrocities, he at length fell seriously ill. This brought about some mitigation of his treatment; his fetters were removed for a time, and he was supplied with broth, which, compared with his previous food, was luxury itself.
When first confined in the jail, he became an object of curiosity to all who had heard of his case, and twenty or thirty persons in a day would call to gaze upon him. On these occasions, his fetters were taken off and he was conducted down to the piazza in front of the jail. His visitors improved the opportunity to express their opinion of his deserts; having no pecuniary interest in his life, they were anxious that it should be sacrificed for the general good of slaveholders. When curiosity was satisfied, he would be led back to his cell, and again placed in irons. These exhibitions occurred ordinarily once a day during the first two or three weeks, and, though humiliating, furnished a relief to the solitude of his confinement. There were other slaves in the jail, who were allowed more or less intercourse with each other; but between them and Burns all communication was strictly prohibited. The taint of freedom was upon him, and infection was dreaded.
His residence in the jail gave him an opportunity of gaining new views of the system of slavery. One day his attention was attracted by a noise in the room beneath him. There was a sound as of a woman entreating and sobbing, and of a man addressing to her commands mingled with oaths. Looking down through a crevice in the floor, Burns beheld a slave woman stark naked in the presence of two men. One of them was an overseer, and the other a person who had come to purchase a slave. The overseer had compelled the woman to disrobe in order that the purchaser might see for himself whether she was well formed and sound in body. Burns was horror-stricken; all his previous experience had not made him aware of such an outrage. This, however, was not an exceptional case; he found it was the ordinary custom in Lumpkin's jail thus to expose the naked person of the slave, both male and female, to the inspection of the purchaser. A wider range of observation would have enabled him to see that it was the universal custom in the slave states.
In spite of the interdict under which he was laid, Burns found a method of communicating with other slaves in the jail. It has been stated that during his illness he was released from his fetters and supplied with broth. The spoon given him to eat with, on that occasion, he contrived to secrete, and when alone, he used it in enlarging a small hole in the floor. It was just behind the trap-door, by which, when thrown open, it was entirely hidden from view, and thus escaped discovery. Through this hole Burns made known his situation to some slaves in a room below, and at once enlisted their sympathies. The intercourse thus established was afterward regularly maintained. To avoid detection, it was carried on only at dead of night; then, throwing himself prostrate upon the floor and applying his mouth to the aperture, Burns whiled away hour after hour in converse with his more fortunate fellow bondmen. He filled their eager and wondering ears with the story of his escape from bondage, his free and happy life at the North, his capture, and the mighty effort that it cost the Government to restore him to Virginia. He was their Columbus, telling them of the land, to them unknown, which he had visited; inspiring them with longings to follow in his track; and warning them, out of his own experience, of the perils to be avoided. On their part, they communicated to him such information as their less restricted condition had enabled them to obtain. Conversation was not the only advantage that he derived from this quarter. His new friends furnished him with tobacco and matches, so that, during the long night watches, he was able to solace himself by smoking.
After a while, he found a friend in the family of Lumpkin. The wife of this man was a "yellow woman" whom he had married as much from necessity as from choice, the white women of the South refusing to connect themselves with professed slave traders. This woman manifested her compassion for Burns by giving him a testament and a hymnbook. Upon most slaves these gifts would have been thrown away; fortunately for Burns, he had learned to read, and the books proved a very treasure. Besides the yellow wife, Lumpkin had a black concubine, and she also manifested a friendly spirit toward the prisoner. The house of Lumpkin was separated from the jail only by the yard, and from one of the upper windows the girl contrived to hold conversations with Anthony, whose apartment was directly opposite. Her compassion, it is not unlikely, changed into a warmer feeling; she was discovered one day by her lord and master; what he overheard roused his jealousy, and he took effectual means to break off the intercourse.
In the search of Anthony's person at the common jail, some things had escaped discovery. He had concealed between the parts of his clothing a little money, some writing paper, and a pen, and these he still retained. Ink only was wanting, and this, through the aid of his prison friends, he also secured. Thus furnished, he wrote several letters to his friends at a distance; in all there were six, two of which were addressed to persons in Boston. To secure their transmission to the post-office, he adopted the following method: The letter was fastened to a piece of brick dug from the wall; then watching at his window until he saw some negro passing outside the jail fence, he contrived by signs to attract his attention and throw to him the letter. The passer-by was in all probability an entire stranger, as well as a person unable to read, yet Burns trusted, not unreasonably, that his wishes would be rightly interpreted, and that his letters would reach the post-office. No answers were expected in return, none would have reached him had they been written. The postmaster at the South, albeit an officer of the Federal Government, is not the less an obsequious servant of the slaveholder. If a letter addressed to a slave bears a southern post-mark, it is delivered to its laimant without question; but when the post-mark indicates a northern origin, the postmaster withholds it from the claimant, inquires his master's name, and then deposits it in the latter's box. If the letter is found to be objectionable, it is destroyed and nothing is said about it; if otherwise, the master reads to his slave such portions as he sees fit. One of the letters written by Burns was addressed to Col. Suttle, giving an account of his illness. Suttle immediately wrote to Brent upon the subject, and the confounded agent hastened to the jail for an explanation. Burns frankly told him of the manner in which he had dispatched his letters to the post-office, and enjoyed not a little his visitor's astonishment at the revelation. The consequence was that Brent deprived him of his pen in the vain hope of putting an end to his letter- writing.
After lying in the jail four months, his imprisonment came to an end. It had been determined to sell him, and the occurrence of a fair in Richmond presented a favorable opportunity.
-- Excerpts from Charles Emery Stevens’, Anthony Burns: A History (electronic edition, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; originally published 1856), PP. 187-94.