Oct.1, 1851

Monument in Syracuse, N.Y., now honors citizens’ rescue of William “Jerry” Henry, who had escaped slavery in the South. Credit: Onondaga Historical Association

Citizens of Syracuse, New York, broke into the city jail and freed William “Jerry” Henry, who had escaped slavery in the South and was now working as a barrel-maker. A monument now honors that rescue. 

Henry, who had been arrested, faced a hearing on whether he would be returned to Missouri and enslaved again. The Rev. Samuel J. May, a Unitarian minister and abolitionist, visited Henry in jail and told him to stay calm. 

“Would you be calm with these irons on you?” Henry asked. “What have I done to be treated so? Take off these handcuffs, and then if I do not fight my way through these fellows that have got me here, then you may make me a slave.” 

May whispered to Henry that they planned to rescue him. May, like others, had been moved by the sight of Henry “dragged through the streets, chained and held down in a cart by four or six others who were upon him; treated as if he were the worst of felons; and learnt that it was only because he had assumed to be what God made him to be, a man, and not a slave — when this came to be known throughout the streets, there was a mighty throbbing of the public heart; an all but unanimous uprising against the outrage. There was no concert of action except that to which a common humanity impelled the people. Indignation flashed from every eye. Abhorrence of the Fugitive Slave Bill poured in burning words from every tongue. The very stones cried out.” 

Henry’s case also drew support from prominent abolitionists Gerrit Smith and Rev. Jermain Wesley Loguen, A Methodist minister who had once fled slavery himself. 

At the ring of a church bell, thousands stormed the jail, where Henry was being held, and some began to pelt the jail windows with stones. After a marshal fired a shot, the crowd used a battering ram to break down the jail door and free Henry, whose wounds were treated and his shackles removed. 

Days later, men secretly transported him to an Underground Railroad stop in Mexico, New York, and from there across the border into Canada, where he lived for the next 41 years —free. Oct. 1 became a local holiday known as “Jerry Rescue Day,” the day when people stood up against slavery.

More on this day


Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.