Burns' arrest was made under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that gave allowances to federal authorities to aid southerners in pursuing and capturing slaves that had escaped from their possession. One of the leading abolitionist lawyers of the day happened to be at the courthouse when Burns arrived and agreed to defend him. Word of Burns' arrest in Boston spread quickly as local abolitionists and free Black men joined together in order to protest the Fugitive Slave Act and to help Anthony Burns.

A riot quickly ensued at the courthouse where Anthony Burns was being held as a group of over 2000 protesters tried to storm the jailhouse. The attempt failed and one man died as two companies of artillerymen were called in to quell the mob. The trial resumed three days later under heavy military supervision. Because Burns had recognized Charles Suttle and acknowledged him as his owner, the courts had all the evidence they needed to send him back to Virginia. Burns was led to the docks to return to the south by ship.

Over 50,000 residents lined the streets of Boston to protest the return of Anthony Burns to a life of slavery. The police, state militia and cavalry were all on hand to keep the massive crowd in check. The entire entourage needed to take Burns back to Virginia came at a cost of $40000. Once returned to the south, Burns was imprisoned and he endured one year of horrible punishment where every day he was displayed like an animal in the prison court yard.

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