Toronto in great uproar as U.S. seeks fugitive slave

John Anderson, a proclaimed fugitive slave in Toronto who escaped from Missouri to Canada on the Underground Railway, was wanted by the Americans in 1860. English engraving, from “The Story of the Life of John Anderson,” 1863. 

“It was an anxious moment, as the Chief Justice produced his papers and began to read. The life or death of a human being hung on a thread; the liberties of hundreds of freeman depended on the opinion of three fallible men. Was this fellow who had, after by desperate adventures, achieved his liberty and enjoyed with his wife the sweets of home for seven years, to be sent back to certain slavery, if not death? Were the hundreds of fugitives in the province, who have committed what the slave states describe as felonies in effecting their escape, to be henceforth at the mercy of the man-stealers?” From the Toronto Globe, Monday, December 17, 1860.

The Globe was clearly sympathetic in its report of Saturday’s extradition hearing of John Anderson, an escaped slave from Missouri who, seven years earlier travelled to Windsor on the underground railway, changed his name from Jack Burton to Anderson, and worked as a labourer and plasterer.

Before his escape, Anderson was sold to a new slave owner, and removed 30 miles from his wife, owned by another slave owner. He was on his way to join his wife on their flight to Canada when he was chased by slave owner Seneca P.T. Diggs, and four of Diggs’ slaves. Diggs promised his slaves they would share in the reward if they helped capture Anderson. Anderson turned on his pursuers and stabbed Diggs, who died, reputedly of his wounds, “two or three weeks later,” according to the Toronto Leader.

The year after his arrival at Windsor, the U.S. government requested Anderson’s extradition, but Governor General James Bruce (Lord Elgin) refused to issue the warrant. Another six years later, Brantford magistrate William Matthews had Anderson arrested on a charge of murder. He was moved to Toronto for extradition hearings before Canada West Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson, and Justices MacLean and Burns.

Their verdict was to be announced that Saturday at Osgoode Hall, 10 am. A crowd of about 200 awaited the opening of the court. The possibility that “violence would be resorted to by the less reflecting of the coloured people;” by a crowd inflamed by “designing politicians who hesitate at nothing” to serve “their own selfish ends;” and by “the violent and evil disposed,” was expressed by the Toronto Leader, which almost alone supported Anderson’s extradition.

The entire police force of 50 men—20 armed with rifles and bayonets—was on hand outside Osgoode Hall, while a company of soldiers was posted five minutes away, on ready standby.

The judgments were deferred until noon, when Osgoode Hall was again packed to capacity. There was a “profound silence” when the judgments were read, said the Globe. “The people could not believe that the judges would decide against the slave.” But Robinson and Burns did. Then, when Justice Archibald McLean finished reading his dissenting judgment, arguing for Anderson’s release, “there was a burst of applause.”

There was no violence. Anderson was escorted from the courthouse to the jail by soldiers with “bristling bayonets,” the police returned to city hall, the soldiers to their garrison, “and the crowd quietly dispersed.”

Yet feelings ran high. Next morning, reported the Leader, the “walls of the city” were plastered with an “inflammatory” placard calling on Torontonians to rally to an evening meeting called “to induce the government to prevent Anderson being returned to a state of slavery.”

“Show that you know what British Freedom is, and that no manstealer shall be permitted to defile Free Canadian Soil,” read the placards. “No surrender of a Freeman at the dictation of Slaveholders. Let death or Liberty be Your watchword.”

St. Lawrence Hall was crowded to capacity for the meeting, chaired by Mayor James Dougall. Twenty prominent Torontonians crowded the platform, five clergymen, the member of Parliament and a city councilor among them. In less inflammatory language, a parade of speakers echoed the call of the placards. The echo reached Britain where the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society obtained a writ of habeas corpus, widely denounced in Canada as British interference in the constitutional powers of Canadian courts, even though it was intended to help Anderson’s cause.

Anderson was spared immediate extradition by the court’s statement that it would vigorously facilitate any appeal that might be made to its split decision. William Draper, chief justice of Toronto’s Court of Commons Pleas, ruled on February 16, 1861 on the appeal, discharging Anderson to his freedom.

Anderson went to England that year, spoke before at least 25 anti-slavery meetings, spent a year studying at the British Training Institution, then sailed for Liberia, where “nothing more is known about him,” according to historian Robert C. Reinders.

Two constitutional changes resulted from the Anderson epic. An 1861 Canadian law prohibited magistrates from hearing extradition cases. And an 1862 British law ruled that habeas corps writs could no longer be sent to any British colony that had concurrent legal jurisdiction.

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