N OT all the slaveholders in the South were kind masters, nor were all the slaves treated properly; sometimes they ran away to places in the North. Then the law allowed them to be captured, and returned to their masters.
Jerry McHenry was an athletic mulatto, who had lived for a number of years in Syracuse, New York, working quietly and expertly as a cooper. No one inquired where he came from, or how he had reached the town, or who he was. The people were content to let Jerry alone, and not ask too many questions. If he was an escaped slave, it was the duty of the officers of the law to return him to his master. And no one wanted to do that.
One day, an agent came to Syracuse, and obtained a warrant for the arrest of Jerry, declaring he was a former slave, owned by a Mr. Reynolds, of Missouri; and that, under the Fugitive Slave Law, he must be arrested and sent back to his master.
Going to his place of business, the agent, accompanied by an officer, said, "Jerry, you are an escaped slave, and belong to Mr. Reynolds. You must come with us and stand trial."
Jerry was struck dumb with astonishment and dismay. He thought his hiding-place was still a secret. He said little, but, with despair in his heart, he laid aside his tools, and went with the agent to appear before the Judge.
The testimony was one-sided. The agent thus stated the case: "This man, Jerry McHenry, is by birth a slave. He belongs to Mr. Reynolds, of Missouri. He escaped from his master, and has been hiding in the North. The law requires him to be returned to his owner."
Jerry said nothing in his defense, and was not asked any questions. He sat looking on, and not very closely guarded, though his hands were manacled with hand-cuffs. The Judge and the agent were arranging some papers, and were talking about the case. A young man, standing near the prisoner, leaned over, and whispered, "Now, Jerry, here is a good chance for you to slip out of the court-room."
In a moment Jerry had risen from his seat, slipped through the bystanders, run down the steps, and was in the street below. The crowd cheered him, and made way for him. There was no vehicle for him to escape in, but Jerry was a swift runner, and disappeared up the street.
The police officers raised a great cry, and started in hot pursuit. Jerry had turned a corner, and was fleeing as fast as his manacled condition would let him. He had run about a mile, and was quite out of breath before his pursuers came near to him.
"Stop, and surrender, or it will be the worse for you," they cried.
"Never!" answered the fugitive, and made one last despairing effort before they closed in on him. Jerry fought like a tiger, against overwhelming odds. He was surrounded by the police and their followers, and struck from before and behind. He was thrown down, and bruised, his clothes being sadly torn.
In this condition, he was put in a wagon, four policemen guarding him. He was brought back to the city, and confined in the back room of the station, under a heavy guard. The crowd of citizens outside watched the proceedings with ill-concealed anger.
They proposed to rush in, and rescue the poor man. But one of their number advised them in this fashion:
"Wait a little while, and it will be quite dark. Proper arrangements can then be made for the poor fellow to be disposed of, after we rescue him. Stay nearby until all is made ready."
In the meantime, Jerry was in a perfect rage of passion. He beat his iron-bound hands on the table before him, and cried out in his fury, "Take these irons off my hands and give me a chance. I will fight my way through all the guard, and escape; if I do not, you can send me where you will."
One of his friends came in to quiet him, and told him, in a low voice, that a crowd was getting ready to rescue him when it was dark. He then sat down, with his head on the table, and said nothing else.
About thirty picked men met outside, and planned how to effect the escape of the prisoner. They did not sympathize with the Fugitive Slave Law, and were anxious to give Jerry a chance to get away. All arrangements were carefully made. At a given signal, the doors and windows were smashed in, and the rescuers rushed into the room. The officers were seized and held. There was little opposition, for the crowd was so determined that any show of force would have been useless.
Several men seized Jerry in their arms, and bore him outside to a waiting buggy, to which a swift horse was hitched and where a willing driver sat ready.
"Now, go for your life," was the order, and the horse started at a rapid pace. The driver managed to escape all followers, and, after about an hour's journey, he delivered Jerry into the hands of a kind woman, who gave him shelter for the night. His pursuers were off the track, and Jerry was safe for a while.
After a day or two, a covered wagon, with a pair of fleet horses, was seen standing in front of the house where Jerry had found lodging. An old and infirm man was noticed coming out of the house and getting into the vehicle, which started off at a rapid rate.
Several persons saw the unusual sight, and told the police that they were suspicious of the old man, and thought he might be Jerry. The police at once started in chase. The pursuit lasted for a short while, but they were not very eager to capture their former prisoner, and did not go very far. After ten miles, they gave up and returned to town.
The supposed old man was in reality Jerry, who was making his way into Canada. There, no person could be held as a slave, and, once there, all fugitives were safe. In fact, there were many provisions made for helping escaped slaves get over the border into Canada.
After several days, Jerry and his rescuers came to one of the Great Lakes, where a friendly Captain took him on board a boat. At dark, the boat sailed across the Lake, and Jerry was landed in Canada, where he soon established himself again in business as a cooper.