April 3rd, 1851
Thomas Sims, Escaped Slave, Captured in Boston
In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which sought to force Northern officials to apprehend alleged runaway slaves and ensure their return to slavery in the South. Any official who would “hinder or prevent” the arrest of a runaway slave or “harbor or conceal” a fugitive slave faced a fine of $1000 or six months imprisonment. Captured fugitives – as well as the many free blacks who were erroneously captured under the law as runaway slaves – had no right to a trial by jury and could not defend themselves in court.
In early 1851, Thomas Sims, a slave from Savannah, Georgia, successfully escaped and fled to Boston, Massachusetts, where slavery had been abolished. Only a few weeks later, on April 3, 1851, Sims was arrested by a United States Marshal and members of the local police force and taken to the federal courthouse. Fearing riots or an escape attempt, authorities surrounded the courthouse with chains and a heavy police force.
The morning after his capture, attorneys for James Potter, the man who purported to own Sims, presented a complaint to the United States Commissioner. After a short proceeding in which several individuals testified that Sims was the slave who had escaped from Potter’s possession, the Commissioner issued an order remanding Sims back to Georgia. Sims sought review from both the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the United States District Court in Boston, but was unsuccessful. On April 12, Sims left Boston and was returned to Savannah, where he promptly received 39 lashes as punishment for seeking freedom. The marshals who escorted Sims to Georgia received praise and a public dinner for their service.
After the Emancipation Proclamation and in the midst of the Civil War, Thomas Sims again escaped from slavery in 1863, this time fleeing Vicksburg, Mississippi, to return to Boston.