Thomas Sims

Last updated

Thomas Sims was an African American who escaped from slavery in Georgia and fled to Boston, Massachusetts in 1851. He was arrested the same year under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, had a court hearing, and was forced to return to enslavement. A second escape brought him back to Boston in 1863, where he was later appointed to a position in the U.S. Department of Justice in 1877. [1] Sims was one of the first slaves to be forcibly returned from Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The failure to stop his case from progressing was a significant blow to the abolitionists, as it showed the extent of the power and influence which slavery had on American society and politics.


Portrait of Thomas Sims Thomas Sims.jpg
Portrait of Thomas Sims

Early life and family

Sims was born in Georgia to James Sims and Minda Campbell, both slaves under rice planter, James Potter. [2] The exact date of his birth is unknown, but is estimated to be around 1828. [2] He had several brothers and sisters, including James M. Simms, another notable African American of the time. [3] Before his escape, Thomas Sims worked as a bricklayer for Potter. [1] During this time he also married and had children with a free African American woman. [1]

Escape from slavery

Sims made his escape on February 21, 1851 by stowing away on the M. & J.C. Gilmore. [1] He was twenty-three at the time. [1] On March 6, right before the ship's arrival to Boston, the ship's crew discovered Sims. [1] Sims tried to convince them that he was a freed slave from Florida, but the crew did not believe him and locked him up in a cabin. [1] Sims escaped before authorities came [1] and from then until his arrest in April, he stayed at 153 Ann Street, a boarding house for African American sailors. [1] According to newspaper reports of the time, he “made no effort to conceal himself” while living there, [4] but was not caught until he sent his address to his wife asking for money. [1]

Arrest and trial

Once James Potter, Sim's owner, realized Sims whereabouts, he sent his agent, John B. Bacon, to capture Sims. Bacon coordinated together with Seth J. Thomas and the authorities of Boston, including U.S. Commissioner, George T. Curtis. On April 3, 1851 Sims was arrested. There was a struggle and one of the policemen assigned to the case, Asa O. Butman, was stabbed by Sims in the thigh. [1]

The actual trial took place three days after his arrest and garnered much attention from the abolitionists and people of the North. Extra precautions were taken at the Court House. Between 100 and 200 policemen were stationed and chains were placed around the courthouse to prevent the crowds from swarming the building. [1]

Unintentionally, however, the chains became a symbol of the influence of slavery in the North. Individuals who needed to enter the Court House had to crouch under the chains and as Henry Longfellow put it, "Shame that the great Republic, 'the refuge of the oppressed,' should stoop so low as to become the Hunter of Slaves." Chief Justice Wells was one of the few who refused to bend down to cross as he believed it lowered both his dignity and that of the city of Boston. [1]

The "trial" (Commissioner Curtis was not a judge) that followed was a matter of whether personal property or individual liberty prevailed in the end. Each side tried to explain why one was predominantly superior over the other, with differing viewpoints presented throughout the case. The prosecution produced the papers that showed that Sims was a former slave and called witnesses to attest to this fact. [5] The defense had a harder time as the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act favored the prosecution of the case. The Fugitive Slave Act stated that the testimonies of escaped slaves on trial could not be used as actual evidence in the hearing, but because the act also required a trial in a "summary manner," there was not adequate time for the defense to find their witnesses. [1]

In Robert Rantoul Jr.'s opening statement for Sims, he tried explaining that the Constitution did not allow for people bound by service to be sent back without full proof, which was not being given at the moment. [5] Sims' lawyers attempted to buy him more time, claiming that Sims was still a free man by being in Boston and questioning the Commissioner's authority to remand Sims, when he was not even a judge. [5] Commissioner Curtis gave them the weekend to continue preparing for the case, as he wanted be fair and allow them to present a more thoroughly fleshed out case for Sims. [6] Later, Rantoul argued the 5th Amendment to the court, claiming that Sims was being deprived of his rights to life, liberty, and property. He also attacked the constitutionality of the law itself, trying to find something to be able to let Sims go free. [5]

The Boston Vigilance Committee looked to find some way to help free Sims while outside of the courtroom, and tried to think of everything that they could in order to help at least give Sims more time. They attempted to submit a writ of replevin and to ask for habeas corpus, but neither succeeded, one because of problems with feasibility and the other because Chief Justice Shaw dismissed their calls for it. [6]

At the conclusion of the case, the court ruled that Sims would be sent back to the South. Commissioner Curtis stated that he would have liked to pass on the duty to an actual tribunal, but there were none available and thus, he had to do it. Sims was officially labeled a slave of James Potter and if the Georgia courts wanted to reexamine the case after Sims was returned, they were allowed to. [6]

Return to slavery

Following the court trial, Sims was sent back to Georgia against the strong protests of abolitionists. [7] The Boston Vigilance Committee, which had previously helped Shadrach Minkins, another fugitive slave, escape the custody of U.S. Marshals, [6] became desperate and came up with multiple plans to free Sims, including placing mattresses under Sims's cell window so that he could jump out and make his getaway in a horse and chaise. [6] The sheriff, however, barred the window before they could act. [6]

On April 13, Sims was marched down to a ship and returned to Georgia under military protection. Sims exclaimed that he would rather be killed and asked for a knife multiple times. [7] Many people marched in solidarity with Sims to the wharf. [6] Upon his return to Savannah, Sims was publicly whipped 39 times [8] and sold in a slave auction to a new owner in Mississippi. [7]

Later years

Afterwards, Charles Devens, the U.S. Marshal who was ordered to return Sims to Georgia, unsuccessfully tried to buy Sim's freedom. [7] Sims was able to escape yet again, and returned to Boston in 1863 during the Civil War. [7] Devens, however, did not forget about Sims, and when he became U.S. Attorney General in 1877, [9] Devens appointed Sims to a position in the U.S. Department of Justice in 1877. [10]


Broadside announcing the first anniversary of Thomas Sims' kidnapping in Boston 1852 ThomasSims Kidnapping Melodeon Boston4046905900.jpg
Broadside announcing the first anniversary of Thomas Sims' kidnapping in Boston

The "Sims Tragedy" was a major controversy among the abolitionists in Massachusetts and drew sympathy from many other abolitionists as well. The following year, in 1852, his arrest and trial were remembered in a church ceremony featuring Reverend Theodore Parker. [11]

Three years after Sims' arrest, Judge Edward G. Loring ordered another fugitive slave, Anthony Burns, back to slavery in Virginia. [11] Sim's and Burns' cases are often compared and similar to Sims, Burns was escorted by the U.S. Marines to a ship headed for Virginia. [6] By the time of Burns's deportation, his cause had become so famous that 50,000 people watched federal officers take him to the wharf. [11] Within two years, Burns was back in Boston after the abolitionists raised $1,300 to pay for Burns's freedom. [6]

See also

Related Research Articles

Underground Railroad network of secret routes & safehouses in 19th-century U.S. used by slaves to find freedom

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19 century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada. The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. Not literally a railroad but rather a secretly organized means of movement, the workers both black and white, free and enslaved, who aided the fugitives can also be referred to as the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, or overseas. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until Florida became a United States territory in 1821. One of the main reasons Florida was purchased by the United States was to end its function as a safe haven for escaped slaves. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 1700s. It ran north and grew steadily until the Civil War began. One estimate suggests that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped via the "Railroad".

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Act of the United States Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers.

Fugitive slaves in the United States

The phenomenon of slaves running away and seeking to gain freedom is as old as the institution of slavery itself. In the history of slavery in the United States, "fugitive slaves" were slaves who left their master and traveled without authorization; generally they tried to reach states or territories where slavery was banned, including Canada, or, until 1821, Spanish Florida. Most slave law tried to control slave travel by requiring them to carry official passes if traveling without a master.

In the context of slavery in the United States, the personal liberty laws were laws passed by several U.S. states in the North to counter the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. Different laws did this in different ways, including allowing jury trials for escaped slaves and forbidding state authorities from cooperating in their capture and return. States with personal liberty laws included Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Vermont.

William Wells Brown African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian

William Wells Brown was a prominent African-American abolitionist lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, near the town of Mount Sterling, Brown escaped to Ohio in 1834 at the age of 19. He settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where he worked for abolitionist causes and became a prolific writer. While working for abolition, Brown also supported causes including: temperance, women's suffrage, pacifism, prison reform, and an anti-tobacco movement. His novel Clotel (1853), considered the first novel written by an African American, was published in London, England, where he resided at the time; it was later published in the United States.

Fugitive slave laws in the United States

The fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of slaves who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The idea of the fugitive slave law was derived from the Fugitive Slave Clause which is in the United States Constitution. It was thought that forcing states to deliver escaped slaves to slave owners violated states' rights due to state sovereignty and was believed that seizing state property should not be left up to the states. The Fugitive Slave Clause states that escaped slaves "shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due", which abridged state rights because retrieving slaves was a form of retrieving private property. The Compromise of 1850 entailed a series of laws that allowed slavery in the new territories and forced officials in free states to give a hearing to slaveholders without a jury.

Ellen and William Craft Fugitive slaves and slavery abolitionists, from Macon, Georgia

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft were slaves from Macon, Georgia in the United States who escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling openly by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. She passed as a white male planter and he as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution.

Anthony Burns American escaped slave

Anthony Burns was a fugitive slave whose recapturing, extradition, and court case led to wide-scale public outcries of injustice, and ultimately, increased opposition to slavery by Northerners.

Edward Greely Loring was a Judge of Probate in Massachusetts, a United States Commissioner of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts and a Judge of the Court of Claims. He was reviled in Massachusetts and much of the North for his ordering the return of fugitive slaves Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns to slavery in compliance with the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. His action would result in his being removed as Judge of Probate.

Robert Rantoul Jr. American politician

Robert Rantoul Jr. was an American lawyer and politician from Massachusetts.

Jane Johnson (slave) American slave

Jane Johnson was an African-American slave who gained freedom on July 18, 1855 with her two young sons while in Philadelphia with her master and his family. She was aided by William Still and Passmore Williamson, abolitionists of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and its Vigilance Committee.

Shadrach Minkins American slave

Shadrach Minkins was an African-American fugitive slave from Virginia who escaped in 1850 and reached Boston. He also used the pseudonyms Frederick Wilkins and Frederick Jenkins. He is known for being freed from a courtroom in Boston after being captured by United States marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Members of the Boston Vigilance Committee freed and hid him, helping him get to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Minkins settled in Montreal, where he raised a family. Two men were prosecuted in Boston for helping free him, but they were acquitted by the jury.

Boston Vigilance Committee US abolitionist organization

The Boston Vigilance Committee (1841–1861) was an abolitionist organization formed in Boston, Massachusetts, to protect escaped slaves from being kidnapped and returned to slavery in the South. The Committee aided hundreds of escapees, most of whom arrived as stowaways on coastal trading vessels and stayed a short time before moving on to Canada or England. Notably, members of the Committee provided legal and other aid to George Latimer, Ellen and William Craft, Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims, and Anthony Burns.

Jerry Rescue

The Jerry Rescue occurred on October 1, 1851, and involved the public rescue of a fugitive slave who had been arrested the same day in Syracuse, New York, during the anti-slavery Liberty Party's state convention. The escaped slave was William Henry, a 40-year-old cooper from Missouri who called himself "Jerry."

Thomas James (1804–1891) had been a slave who became an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, abolitionist, administrator and author. He was active in New York and Massachusetts with abolitionists, and served with the American Missionary Association and the Union Army during the American Civil War to supervise the contraband camp in Louisville, Kentucky. After the war, he held national offices in the AME Church and was a missionary to black churches in Ohio. While in Massachusetts, he challenged the railroad's custom of forcing blacks into second-class carriages and won a reversal of the rule in the State Supreme Court. He wrote a short memoir published in 1886.

Robert Morris (lawyer) American lawyer, born 1823

Robert Morris was one of the first African-American attorneys in the United States, and was called "the first really successful colored lawyer in America."

Leonard Grimes African-American abolitionist and pastor

Leonard Andrew Grimes was an African-American abolitionist and pastor. He served as a conductor of the Underground Railroad, including his efforts to free fugitive slave Anthony Burns captured in accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. After the Civil War began, Grimes petitioned for African-American enlistment. He then recruited soldiers for the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Nathaniel Booth was an African-American escaped slave.

The Abolition Riot of 1836 took place in Boston, Massachusetts (U.S.) in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. In August 1836, Eliza Small and Polly Ann Bates, two enslaved women from Baltimore who had run away, were arrested in Boston and brought before Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw. The judge ordered them freed because of a problem with the arrest warrant. When the agent for the slaveholder requested a new warrant, the spectators—mostly African-American women—rioted in the courtroom and rescued Small and Bates.

Samuel Edmund Sewall

Samuel Edmund Sewall (1799-1888) was an American lawyer, abolitionist, and suffragist. He was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1831, lent his legal expertise to the Underground Railroad, and served a term in the Massachusetts Senate as a Free-Soiler.


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Levy, Leonard W. (January 1950). "Sims' Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851". The Journal of Negro History. 35 (1): 39–74. doi:10.2307/2715559. ISSN   0022-2992. JSTOR   2715559.
  2. 1 2 David, Robert S. (February 5, 2017). "Thomas Sim's epic struggle for freedom". Chattanooga Times Free Press. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  3. Martin, Susan (February 2018). ""They belonging to themselves": Minda Campbell Redeems Her Family from Slavery". Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  4. "Arrest of Another Fugitive Slave". Boston Daily Evening Transcript. April 4, 1851. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  5. 1 2 3 4 "Redirecting..." Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Schwartz, Harold (1954). "Fugitive Slave Days in Boston". The New England Quarterly. 27 (2): 191–212. doi:10.2307/362803. JSTOR   362803.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 "The Thomas Sims Case: Escaped to Freedom Only to Be Sent Back into Bondage | Black Then". 2017-09-23. Retrieved 2018-10-30.
  8. Levy, Leonard W. (January 1950). "Sims' Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851". The Journal of Negro History. 35 (1): 39–74. doi:10.2307/2715559. ISSN   0022-2992. JSTOR   2715559.
  9. Corporation, ComputerImages (2012-03-04). "The Trials of Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns". ComputerImages Corporation.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  10. Levy, Leonard W. (January 1950). "Sims' Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851". The Journal of Negro History. 35 (1): 39–74. doi:10.2307/2715559. ISSN   0022-2992. JSTOR   2715559.
  11. 1 2 3 Campbell, Stanley W. (1850–1860). The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 117–121.