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The trial and punishment of Samuel Burris, conductor on the Underground Railroad

December 13th, 2012

Samuel Burris, engraving from William Still’s Under Ground Rail Road Records

Samuel Burris was born in Kent County, Delaware in 1808. Although he was a free man, he left the slave state of Delaware for the free state of Pennsylvania and lived in Philadelphia with his wife and children. He became a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and a conductor on the Underground Railroad, traveling to Delaware and Maryland to help slaves escape to freedom. He made many successful trips until he was eventually caught in Dover, Delaware in 1847. Tried and convicted of aiding runaway slaves, he was sentenced to be sold as a slave himself.

As a slave state bordering on the free state of Pennsylvania, Delaware had harsh laws punishing those who helped slaves to escape. The Delaware law at that time provided for a fine of $500 for aiding runaway slaves.  The penalty for free blacks who aided runaways was even harsher. They would be sold into slavery for a period of seven years and then forced to leave the state forever. (Revised Statutes of the State of Delaware (1852), chap. 80, sec. 15)

Burris’s friends in the Anti-Slavery Society hatched a plan to rescue him. They had abolitionist Isaac Flint, a Wilmington grocer, pretend to be a slave trader. Flint went to Dover where he bought Burris at auction and helped him return safely to Philadelphia. According to William Still’s account, even Burris did not know of Flint’s true identity and was greatly relieved when Flint whispered the good news to him after the auction.

Burris never returned to Delaware (the penalty for returning was to be whipped with 39 lashes and sold as a slave again). In 1852 he moved with his family to San Francisco, where he died in 1869.

Sources:

William Still. Still’s Under Ground Rail Road Records. (Rev. ed.) Philadelphia, 1886.

William H. Williams. Slavery and Freedom in Delaware, 1639-1865. SR Books, 1996.

 

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