Jerry Rescue Day

Jerry Rescue Day

Date Observed: October 1
Location: Syracuse, New York

This observance celebrates the rescue of William Jerry Henry. Known as "Jerry," Henry was a fugitive slave who was captured in Syracuse, New York, but freed from jail on October 1, 1851, with the help of abolitionists. Originally a protest against the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the "Jerry Rescue" was commemorated on that day each year from 1852 to 1859, and on occasion after that time.

Historical Background

William Jerry Henry was a runaway slave working as a barrel maker in Syracuse, New York, when a harsher version of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 (see also Emancipation Day). Black and white abolitionists operated a station on the Underground Railroad in Syracuse. Among them was Jermain W. Loguen, an escaped slave from Tennessee who became a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. They were adamantly opposed to the Fugitive Slave Law and vowed to thwart it, in spite of criticisms from then-U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster, who insisted the law would be carried out.

On October 1, 1851, U.S. marshals arrested Jerry at his workplace, charging him with theft. Once he was in shackles, marshals told Jerry the real reason for his arrest: the Fugitive Slave Law that required federal officials and citizens to capture runaways and return them to their owners or face steep fines. Jerry fought his captors but was restrained with chains and forced to face a U.S. commissioner in his office. Abolitionists managed to get into the office and free Jerry, but he was quickly recaptured.

While Jerry was being held, news of his arrest circulated quickly at the Liberty Party's Anti-Slavery Convention taking place in a nearby church. Following a pre-arranged signal, the church bells began to ring and about 2,500 people gathered in the street. With a battering ram, men broke down the door to the commissioner's office. Confronted with such a huge crowd, marshals surrendered Jerry to his rescuers. For several days, Jerry, who had been injured, hid in an abolitionist home until a wagon driver was able to take him to Lake Ontario, where he crossed by ship into Canada. Jerry died there a few years later.

Creation of the Observance

Gerrit Smith, a strong abolitionist who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1852, supported members of a Jerry Rescue Committee in initiating an annual event that became known as the "Jerry Rescue" in Syracuse. Each year between 1852 and 1858, Smith delivered speeches on October 1, or a day near that date, addressing abolitionist issues and praising those who had freed William Jerry Henry. The 1858 commemoration included a speech by famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In an earlier letter to Smith, Douglass had called the Jerry Rescue "one of the most important and honorable events in the history of American liberty" (see also Fred- erick Douglass Day).

In 1859, Smith declined an invitation to give a speech at the annual commemoration. He wrote to John Thomas, chairman of the Committee, that he was frustrated and disappointed with efforts to abolish slavery. He believed that there would be no end to it, because abolitionists had been unable to change the views of the majority of the public.


A reenactment of the "Jerry Rescue" took place in Syracuse on the 150th anniversary of the event in 2001. Since then, commemorations of the Jerry Rescue have included ceremonies at a permanent monument in Clinton Square in downtown Syracuse. In addition, the Onondaga County Historical Association Museum offers an audio-visual show that relives the Jerry Rescue and a permanent exhibit called "Freedom Bound: The Story of Syracuse and the Underground Railroad."

Contact and Web Site

Onondaga Historical Association Museum & Research Center 321 Montgomery St. Syracuse, NY 13202 315-428-1864; fax: 315-471-2133

Further Reading

Loguen, Jermain Wesley. The Rev. J. W. Loguen, as a Slave and as a Freeman. A Nar- rative of Real Life . Syracuse, NY: J. G. K. Truair & Co.: Stereotypers and Printers, 1859. Documenting the American South. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1999. . Smith, Gerrit. Letter to John Thomas, chairman of the Jerry Rescue Committee, August 27, 1859. Gerrit Smith Broadside and Pamphlet Collection, Syracuse University Library.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
Mentioned in ?
References in periodicals archive ?
A more deliberate attempt to keep the sentiments of the rescue alive in Syracuse occurred in the yearly celebration of "Jerry Rescue Day" on the anniversary of the event.