Historicist: "Not a Murderer but a Hero"
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Historicist: “Not a Murderer but a Hero”

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Portrait of John Anderson from Harper Twelvetrees, ed., The story of the life of John Anderson, the Fugitive Slave (W. Tweedie, 1863). From the Archives of Ontario.

The first wave of African-American immigration to Canada from the United States came after the War of 1812. Toronto gained a reputation as “free, safe, and a place where a person could live and prosper.” As Dan Hill wrote in a chapter of Robert F. Harney’s Gathering Place (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1985), “[f]or Black freedmen it was a journey within easy reach, and for escaped slaves it was far enough from the border to be out of reach of their former masters.”
In September 1850, the passage by President Millard Fillmore’s administration of the Fugitive Slave Act—which required northern states to return runaway slaves found within their borders to the slave owner—initiated another wave of immigration to Canada. By one estimate, between fifteen and twenty thousand African-Americans entered Canada in the 1850s. Reverend William M. Mitchell, who was active in the Underground Railroad during this period of its peak success, estimated that there were sixty thousand blacks in Canada by 1860.
Among this number was John Anderson, a runaway slave who’d killed a man while making his flight from servitude. An 1860 court case in Toronto that made headlines across the country decided whether Anderson would be extradited to Missouri to be tried for murder. It was widely known that in Missouri, a black man tried for the murder of a white man was as good as hanged.
In the fall of 1860, as an anxious public awaited a verdict, the Globe newspaper underlined the gravity of the case. If Anderson were extradited, the Globe estimated, it would mean that “no fugitive slave in Canada is safe on our soil…there is not a fugitive in Canada whose extradition may not be demanded upon evidence sufficient to put the accused upon his trial.”


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S. M. Africanus, The Fugitive Slave Law (Hartford, Connecticut: 1850). From the Library of Congress, Rare Book & Special Collections Division (33A).

John Anderson was born Jack Burton, ca. 1831. He was a slave owned by Moses Burton, a tobacco farmer in Howard County, Missouri. Anderson, by his own later account, was about ten years old when his mother was sold and separated from her young son as a result of giving some offence to her owner, so Anderson knew well the toll slavery could take on family life.
Nevertheless, he courted Maria Tomlin, a fellow slave and a widow with two children. They married in late 1850, although she lived on another Howard County farm two miles away. Their respective owners, it seems, were amenable to Anderson visiting his wife. The couple had at least one child together.
But in August 1853—according to the most detailed account of Anderson’s early life, found in Harriet C. Frazier’s Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves and Those Who Helped Them, 1763–1865 (McFarland & Company Inc., 2004)—Anderson was sold to Reuben E. McDaniel, who owned twenty-seven slaves on his farm located about thirty miles away in Saline County, Missouri. The new owner refused to issue Anderson a pass to visit his wife and child, suggesting instead that Anderson “marry” one of McDaniel’s slaves—any progeny would become McDaniel’s property. Anderson refused and quietly plotted his escape.
Like other fugitive slaves, he waited until mild weather came, then left on a Sunday because he wouldn’t be missed from work for a whole day. Anderson fled on September 25, 1853. Instead of immediately heading north along the Underground Railroad, he returned to Howard County. There, he stayed briefly with his father-in-law, a freedman working as a barber in Fayette, and visited his own wife and family. Before Anderson left Tomlin, she offered him a pistol, but he declined and carried only a dirk—a long, straight dagger—for protection.
On the fourth day of his flight, Anderson crossed an eastern Howard County farm where slave owner Seneca T.P. Digges (often misspelled “Diggs”) was supervising his slaves harvesting tobacco. According to Missouri law, Digges had the right to question any unknown person of colour; if the person were a fugitive slave, Digges could earn a twenty-five dollar reward for turning him over to county officials for return to his rightful owner. Digges asked to see Anderson’s pass.
Anderson ran and was pursued for several hours by an armed Digges and several of his slaves (to whom Digges had promised the reward for Anderson’s capture). In an ensuing confrontation, Anderson stabbed Digges twice with his dirk and eluded capture. Digges was taken to a local doctor’s house, where he died there thirteen days later. His death was unknown at the time to Anderson, who returned to visit his wife. She’d already heard rumours of the incident, and implored him to make for Canada.

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Theodor Kaufmann, Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law (New York: Hoff & Bloede, 1850). From the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division (33A.1).

For ten days, he made his way north by travelling at night, surviving off foraged nuts and vegetables, and pilfered chickens. “Very likely,” Frazier notes, “he traveled many extra miles as he dodged imagined and actual slave catchers.” He crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois late in the night of October 8, 1853. Working his way north with the help of abolitionists in Illinois and Michigan, he eventually crossed into Canada at Windsor in early November.
Immediately upon crossing the border, Anderson ceased to be a fugitive slave, and became a free man protected by the laws of Canada West. As historian Fred Landon noted in “Social Conditions Among the Negroes in Upper Canada Before 1865,” an essay in the anthology Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage (Natural Heritage Books, 2009), Anderson’s status in Canada West would have been no different from that of any other citizen: “The Black man had the same civil rights as the white man; he exercised the franchise, and could participate in politics.”
Anderson wrote to his father-in-law of his safe arrival. The letter was posted from Detroit, on the advice of local abolitionist friends. Anderson’s letter was likely opened and read by persons unknown, because Lewis Tomlin had already been tried and convicted of harbouring the fugitive, and had suffered five lashes and exile from the state. Yet a Michigan activist recalled receiving a response, according to “The Anderson Fugitive Case,” another essay by historian Fred Landon. The reply claimed that Anderson’s wife and family had escaped and were awaiting him in Detroit.

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Article from The Globe, December 3, 1860.

Anderson’s abolitionist allies were suspicious. Such ploys were common in Canada West as slave catchers tried to lure runaway slaves back across the border, where they would fall under the jurisdiction of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Provincial Freeman regularly warned its readers in the 1850s about similar ruses, like dubious offers of employment across the border:

We say to our people, listen to no flattering proposals of the sort. You are in Canada, and let no misplaced confidence in this or the other smooth-tongued Yankee, or British subject either, who may be mercenary enough to ensnare you into bondage by collusion with kidnappers in the States, deprive you of your liberty.

At the least, such letter-writing subterfuge might pinpoint a former slave’s whereabouts so a bold slave catcher might abduct and spirit him back to his owner. Vigilance committees warned newcomers of these dangers. And the activities of slave catchers or similarly suspicious characters were frequently reported in newspapers such as the Voice of the Fugitive and the Toronto Patriot.
Suspected slave catchers might also be harassed by city officials who might charge them with relatively minor offences, like carrying a weapon—which was punishable by a fine of five pounds.
As if to illustrate the determination of slave catchers, the Michigan activist also recalled meeting a New Orleans lawyer, D.L. Ward, in 1856. The lawyer was purported to have said: “We are going to have Anderson by hook or by crook; we will have him by fair means or foul; the South is determined to have that man.”
Therefore, some of his friends suggested that Anderson (then still known as Jack Burton) change his name and relocate. For the next few years, he went through several names before settling on John Anderson. Working for the Great Western Railway and as a mason and plasterer, Anderson moved from Windsor to Chatham and then to Caledonia, where he was prosperous enough to own his own house.
Wherever he moved, rumours seem to have followed that he was a fugitive from the law. He also appears to have confided his story—of tussling with and stabbing Digges—too freely. In the spring of 1860, when he had a falling out with one confidant, Wynne, he was betrayed to a magistrate in nearby Brantford.
The magistrate, William Mathews, jailed Anderson on a charge of murder in April 1860. As his lawyers and the court grappled with the lack of evidence, Anderson was released and re-arrested several times. Eventually, adequate evidence of the crime was secured from James A. Gunning, a Detroit detective who made his living locating and returning runaway slaves. Anderson’s lawyer, S.B. Freeman, later suggested that magistrate Mathews himself had corresponded with Digges’ family who, in turn, contacted Gunning with enough details to file an affidavit.
The U.S. government formally requested Anderson’s extradition on a charge of murder at the behest of the Digges family, and an extradition hearing was therefore held before magistrate Mathews on September 27, 1860. Witnesses for the prosecution, which had the burden of proof, included two of Digges’ children who travelled from Missouri, and a local constable to whom Anderson, during his current incarceration, had admitted to stabbing Digges.
In an additional and unusual circumstance, the court accepted a written affidavit taken in Missouri from a slave named Phil, who had witnessed Digges’ killing. This slave wasn’t allowed by his owner to testify in person because, upon crossing the border, he would have effectively become a free man.
Convinced by the evidence, Mathews and his two fellow magistrates granted the extradition order, which then only required the governor general’s assent to become official.
Freeman, with the support of local abolitionists, appealed the ruling to the Court of Queen’s Bench. Anderson was called before Chief Justice Sir John Beverly Robinson and Justices Archibald McLean and Robert Easton Burns at Osgoode Hall on November 24, 1860.

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Sketch of Osgoode Hall from John Ross Robertson, Landmarks of Toronto, Volume 1 (1894).

American slave-owners had long complained that British authorities did not return their property to them. As early as 1819, the James Monroe administration inquired to British officials about the return of some former slaves from Canada to Tennessee. But the British chargé d’affaires in Washington replied: “The Negroes have by their residence in Canada, become free…and should any attempt be made to infringe upon this right of freedom, these Negroes would have it in their power to compel the interference of the courts of law for their protection.”
The law regarding rendering runaway slaves in Canada back to the U.S. was clarified
through the late-1830s case of Jesse Happy. Happy had taken his master’s horse to escape from slavery in Kentucky, which, according to American law, made him a thief—even though he’d left the horse at the border for return to its owner. Runaway slaves could be charged in the U.S. with stealing their clothes, their chains, and even themselves from their masters.

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Article from The Globe, December 17, 1860.

An English court ruled that extradition should only occur if the alleged crime was also considered a crime if it had been committed in Canada. The court ruled that Happy had merely used the horse to effect an escape, rather than having stolen it, and he was freed. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, signed by the United States and Britain in 1842, outlined (among other clauses) a variety of crimes which were extraditable offences. Minor offences like theft were not included, but murder was.
Before the Court of Queen’s Bench, prosecutors Henry Eccles and R.A. Harrison admitted that Anderson’s actions, if committed in Canada, might not have been considered murder. Nevertheless, they argued that the extradition order should stand because the U.S. had requested Anderson’s return for murder, not as a fugitive slave or petty criminal. According to the prosecution, Anderson should fall under the purview of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty.
The Anderson case was a colony-wide sensation, with mass meetings supporting the former slave in many cities. Newspapers were unanimous in their vocal and vigorous defence of Anderson.
With the verdict anticipated on December 15, 1860, special police armed with muskets were on duty in the tense, packed courthouse, and a company of Royal Canadian Rifles were stationed at Government House. The justices ruled, 2–1, that although they might personally abhor slavery, a literal interpretation of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty required that Anderson be extradited to stand trial for murder in the U.S.
Justice McLean dissented and sought to discharge Anderson from custody. McLean reasoned that the Brantford court order was based upon unreliable evidence—particularly the affidavit of the slave Phil. Furthermore, McLean commented specifically on the role of slavery on the case. He argued:

The laws of Missouri, enacted by the white oppressors, while they perpetuate slavery, confer no rights on the slaves…Could it be expected from any man indulging the desire to be free which nature has implanted in his breast, that he should quietly submit to be returned to bondage and to stripes, if by any effort of his strength, or by means within his reach he could emancipate himself?

Among the crowd outside the courtroom, outraged at the majority’s ruling, there were whispers of taking violent action to free Anderson by force, but Freeman quelled such notions in a speech to the gathered throng. Quite likely, Freeman had already resolved to exhaust all avenues of appealing the decision.
“The city was in an uproar over Robinson’s decision,” Adrienne Shadd, Afua Cooper, and Karolyn Smardz Frost wrote in The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto! (Natural Heritage Books, 2002). “Blacks met in the churches and denounced the ruling, vowing to ensure that Anderson would not be returned to Missouri.”
Within days, a major rally was held at St. Lawrence Hall, which was the city’s centre of abolitionist and anti-slavery activities in the 1850s and 1860s. Among the evening’s speakers was John Scoble. As the long-time secretary of the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in the U.K., Scoble had regularly come into contact with the leading British politicians before his immigration to Canada in 1852. Scoble said that Ashburton had told him that British officials had specifically intended that the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was not be used to render former slaves back to their former masters.

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King Street looking West with St. Lawrence Hall on the left, 1860, from Wikimedia Commons.


Once again, across Canada petitions were circulated and newspaper articles were written condemning the court’s decision. Landon quoted the Montreal Witness:

Such a gigantic wrong cannot exist on the same continent with us without affecting the people of Canada in one way or another. Slaveholders long looked at Canada with evil eye. If the slavers get Anderson back they will execute him before the slaves. It would be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to them annually.

“The cry here is throughout the land,” the secretary of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, Thomas Henning, argued, “Anderson is not a murderer but a Hero and he must not be given up.” Henning convinced the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in London to appeal the court decision on Anderson’s behalf in the British court system. On January 14, 1861, the Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster issued a writ of habeas corpus that ordered Anderson released. By overruling the colony’s court system without clear jurisdiction to do so, the British court’s decision was criticized in Britain, and subject to great public controversy in Canada.
Even before the controversial writ could be served in Canada, however, Anderson’s counsel had appealed to Toronto’s Court of Common Pleas, which issued a writ to free Anderson on February 16, 1861. The court found that the crime of which Anderson was accused constituted not murder, but manslaughter (which was not covered by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty). Furthermore, Robert Reinders noted in a 1975 Canadian Historical Review article, the court ruled that “the [Brantford] magistrates had no jurisdiction over the case until the prisoner was charged with the crime in the foreign country in which the crime was alleged to have taken place; there was no formal charge from a Missouri court.”
After many months of incarceration, Anderson was freed to much rejoicing in the Toronto streets. Celebratory meetings and dinners were held, and Anderson made public speeches.
As a legacy of the Anderson court case, Britain and Canada West passed legislation to address legal shortcomings Anderson’s situation had revealed. In Britain, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1862 prevented British courts from sending writs of habeas corpus “to any dominion or possession where a concurrent legal jurisdiction existed,” as the Dictionary of Canadian Biography put it. The government in Canada West revised the extradition laws. Power was taken from local magistrates, and jurisdiction for extradition cases was secured in the colony’s superior courts, county courts and city recorders. In addition, evidentiary requirements for extradition were strengthened and the appeal process was clarified.
Three months after his release, Anderson went to England at the invitation of abolitionist and anti-slavery organizations. He addressed a series of rallies and meetings in the summer of 1861, and also attended some schooling in Britain. For a brief moment, Anderson’s court case was a lightning rod for abolitionist activism in Canada and Britain. Although he disappeared from the pages of history by sailing for Liberia on Christmas Eve 1862, his story has been told and retold through the years.
Other sources consulted: Patrick Brode, The Odyssey of John Anderson (University of Toronto Press, 1989); Karolyn Smardz Frost et al., eds., Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918–1967 (Natural Heritage Books, 2009).

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