Shadrach Minkins escaped slavery in Virginia in 1850 and made his way to Boston, where he began work as a waiter. In April 1850, he was captured by federal marshals using the authority of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Several attorneys (including Robert Morris, one of the first black lawyers in the United States) filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Minkins, but it was refused by the judge. In a dramatic rescue, white and black activists, including Lewis Hayden, stormed the courtroom and forcefully removed Minkins, hiding him in an attic on Beacon Hill until they were able to arrange his passage to freedom in Montreal.
Minkins’s rescue was widely celebrated in abolitionist circles. The Fugitive Slave Act was wildly unpopular among both black and white residents of Boston and they celebrated Minkins’ escape as a success for freedom and a protest against federal overreach. However, in response, President Millard Fillmore sent federal troops to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and nine people involved with Minkins’s escape were indicted, including Hayden. However, all nine saw the charges dropped or were acquitted, and Fillmore’s actions resulted in even greater antislavery sentimen in the city.