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Story ID:926
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Syracuse New York USA
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One of the most interesting and important events in the history of Syracuse, New York and in some ways, the history of our nation, and most certainly the history of civil rights, is unknown by most. When I was a child, it was taught in some, not all schools in New York State, but most likely not, in the rest of the country. Now, no one teaches or even mentions it. Most have never heard of it. It was known as the Jerry Rescue.

In September of 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law. The law made interfering with the slave owner’s right to recover his “property” a federal crime with severe penalties. All were forbidden to give an escaped slave food, shelter or even a drink of cold water.

Thousands of American people were sympathetic to the slaves who risked their lives to seek freedom in the northern states and Canada. A clandestine network was formed to help them and became known as the Underground Railroad.

Syracuse, New York became an important station on this Underground Railroad because of its central location on the Erie Canal and its connected waterways and travel routes. Central New York was also the home of some of the most outspoken and defiant opponents of slavery.

My great grandfather, Joseph Whitbread, lived in Syracuse in those days. He had worked on the railroad until severely injured in a train accident. After recovering from that, he could no longer work on the railroad, so he drove a horse and buggy cab in the city, and worked part time for other income at extra jobs. One of the extra jobs he worked at part time was barrel making in a cooperage on N. Salina Street in Syracuse.

In his work at the cooperage, he worked beside and came to know a man named William Henry, who called himself Jerry. Jerry was a black man who had run away from being a slave in the state of Missouri.

Around noon on October 1, 1851, federal marshals from Rochester, Auburn, Syracuse, and Canandaigua, accompanied by the local police, entered the cooperage and arrested Jerry at work. When arrested he was told the charge was theft, but after they had shackled him, he was told he was being arrested under the fugitive slave law. When he learned that, he resisted considerably, but was subdued.

Word of the arrest quickly spread. There was at the time an abolitionist convention being held in town and the participants were informed. Jerry was taken to the office of Commissioner Sabine, who was assigned to hear the case, for arraignment. An attempt was made by the crowd to free him and he escaped to the streets. He was rapidly recaptured. The arraignment was put off until the evening and arrangements made to relocate it to a larger room. A large crowd gathered in the street, determined to make another rescue attempt.

My great grandfather, Joseph Whitbread, had worked alongside of Jerry. They had become friends. Joseph knew him to be a good, gentle and honest man. He could not stand by and do nothing. At great risk, Joseph Whitbread obtained a wagon and a fast team of horses. He went to a wood on a farm he knew. The woods and the farm are now the property of Syracuse University, and the farm many years ago became a popular country club known as Drumlins, as it remains to this day.

In the woods Joseph selected a tree, cut it, and cut a log from it. He loaded the log in the wagon and drove back to down town Syracuse. That evening, Joseph Whitbread together with some other men, used that log as a battering ram to break down the door of the building where Jerry was being held. Pistol shots were fired out the window by one of the deputy marshals, but it became clear that the crowd was too large and determined to resist them.

The injured Jerry was surrendered to the crowd. One of the deputy marshals broke his arm jumping from a window to escape the crowd. Jerry was hidden for several days in the home of a local butcher, and later taken in a wagon to Oswego, where he crossed Lake Ontario into Canada.

Nineteen indictments were later returned against rescuers involved. Joseph Whitbread, as far as I know, was not one of them, but easily could have been for his participation. It is interesting to note that among those posting bail money for those indicted was a Senator and former governor of the state of New York, William H. Seward, who eventually achieved fame as the one who purchased the Alaska territory for the United States. In those days it was referred to as “Seward’s Ice Box.”

The proceedings against those indicted dragged on for two years, with only one conviction. The one convicted, died before his case could be heard on appeal. The abolitionists involved were not yet done. They managed to obtain an indictment against the federal marshal, one Marshal Allen for kidnapping, and used the case to argue that the Fugitive Slave Law was unconstitutional. Marshal Allen was of course, acquitted.

A few years later, John Brown accompanied by some of those involved in the “Jerry Rescue,” raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry and the civil war followed.

The police station was later demolished, replaced with another building, and that too was demolished in the early 1970’s. The space has since that time remained a parking lot. In 1990, the city of Syracuse erected a monument on the west end of Clinton Square. The monument depicts William “Jerry” Henry, flanked by abolitionist leaders, Reverend Samuel J. May and the Reverend (later Bishop) Jermain Loguen, himself an escaped slave.

Joseph Whitbread’s wife Mary died at a young age. He faithfully attended the First Methodist church of Syracuse, and in a few years met an Irish girl there. He married the girl, Helen Fanning, and began to raise a family. There were three girls, the youngest being Nettie Whitbread who was to become my grandmother. With the three girls, Joseph decided he needed more room and he found a small farm, across the road from the farm that became Drumlins, where he had cut the tree for a battering ram. The woods could be seen from a portion of the farm. The family moved into that farm on April 18, 1868. A fitting place, was it not?


The first photo is of the Jerry Rescue monument.

The second photo is of Helen Fanning, second wife of Joseph Whitbread.

The third photo is of Joseph Whitbread.


Please visit my website at: www.fredsstoryroom.com.