The Jerry Rescue in Syracuse, NY

Jerry Rescue Monument
In 1851, the city of Syracuse openly defied the Fugitive Slave Law by forcibly freeing William "Jerry" McHenry from custody. Why did such an explosivie event happen here?


Among the more interesting events in Syracuse history is the story of the Jerry Rescue. The event was originally commemorated with the renaming of a building (The Jerry Rescue Building) and now is now memorialized with a monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. The event occurred on October 1, 1851, while the anti-slavery Liberty Party was holding its New York State Convention.

Leaders of the local Abolition movement, including Underground Railroad Stationmaster Jermain Loguen and others, had organized a local committee to thwart enforcement of the recently adopted Fugitive Slave Law. The previous May, then Secretary of State Daniel Webster repeated his previous criticism of the Abolitionists and their promise to thwart the law. Webster proclaimed from a balcony facing Syracuse City Hall that the law "will be executed in all the great cities - here in Syracuse - in the midst of the next Anti-Slavery Convention, if the occasion shall arise." And so it did.

Around noon on October 1, federal marshals from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, accompanied by the local police, arrested a man who called himself Jerry. also known as William Henry. Jerry was working as a barrel maker, and was arrested at his workplace. He was originally told the charge was theft until after he was in manacles. On being informed that he was being arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law, he put up substantial resistance, but was subdued.

Word of the arrest quickly reached the Convention, then in session at a nearby church. There are reports that the wife of Commissioner Sabine, who would hear the case, had already leaked plans of the arrest. By pre-arranged signal, church bells began ringing, and a crowd gathered at Sabine's office, where Jerry had been taken for arraignment. An immediate effort to free the prisoner was unsuccessful, and though he escaped to the street in irons, he was rapidly recaptured [on the Lock Street Bridge near the Weighlock Building]. The arraignment was put off until evening and relocated to a larger room. A large crowd gathered in the street, this time equipped for a more serious rescue attempt.

With a battering ram the door was broken in and despite pistol shots out the window by one of the deputy marshals, it became clear that the crowd was too large and determined to be resisted. The prisoner was surrendered, and one deputy marshal broke his arm jumping from a window to escape the crowd. The injured prisoner was hidden in the city for several days in the home of a local butcher know for his anti-abolitionist sentiments, and later taken in a wagon to Mexico, where he was hidden by Orson Ames. Then he was secretly taken to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada.