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Shadrach Minkins

On Saturday morning, February 15, 1851, two officers posing as customers at Taft’s Cornhill Coffee House seized the waiter Shadrach Minkins, a “stout, copper-colored man,” who had escaped from slavery in Virginia and settled in Boston. Minkins was taken to the nearby courthouse for a hearing. Lawyers Robert Morris, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., Ellis Gray Loring and Samuel E. Sewall offered their services as Minkins’ counsel. They immediately filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Judicial Court seeking Minkins' release from custody.

Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, refused to consider the defense’s habeas corpus petition. Later, a crowd of black and white abolitionists entered the courthouse, overcame armed guards and forced their way into the courtroom.

In a chaotic struggle, black abolitionists arrested Minkins from his court officers, carried him off and temporarily hid him in a Beacon Hill attic. From there, Boston black leaders Lewis Hayden, John J. Smith and others helped Minkins escape from Massachusetts, and he eventually found his way to Canada on the Underground Railroad. On an order from President Millard Fillmore, nine abolitionists, including Robert Morris, were indicted. Charges against some were dismissed, while others, including Morris and Hayden, faced a jury in court. Utimately, each was aquitted.

Sale this Day
Advertisement of sheriff’s sale of Shadrach Minkins, 1849
Courtesy Gary Collison

Lewis Hayden (1815–1889) was an uncompromising abolitionist and civic leader who rallied the black community to support the fight against slavery. Lewis Hayden was charged with treason for aiding in the flight of Shadrach Minkins. He was later acquitted.
Courtesy Boston Athenæum

Attorney Robert Morris
Recently admitted to the practice of law, Robert Morris served as one of the attorneys representing Shadrach Minkins. Morris was accused of opening the courtroom door to admit Shadrach’s rescuers and charged with treason for his action. After a jury trial, he was acquitted.
Courtesy of the Social Law Library, Boston