- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
In January, 1708, a Mr. William Hallett, Jr., of Newton, Long Island, was murdered in his sleep with his pregnant wife and his five children. Two of Hallett’s slaves, an Indian man and a Negro woman, were tried for the crime and found guilty. They and two alleged accomplices, both blacks, were executed, being “put to all the torment possible for a terror to others,” according to a contemporary newspaper account. The Negro woman was burned alive at the stake. The Indian was hung from a gibbet and placed astride a bar of metal with a sharpened edge, “in which condition he lived some time, and in a state of delirium which ensued, believing himself to be on horseback, would urge forward his animal with the frightful impetuosity of a maniac, while the blood oozing from his lacerated flesh streamed from his feet to the ground.”
In that same year, 1708, the assembly of New York province reacted to the Hallett killings with “an Act for preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves.” Judges were empowered to prescribe the death penalty for any slave found guilty of murder or attempted murder, the method of execution being left to the sole discretion of the judge or judges concerned. Apparently no one questioned the fairness of this law.
Nevertheless, the preventive aspects of the law proved not entirely effective. In April, 1712, a number of slaves in the bustling port of New York resolved to win their freedom and to revenge themselves for “some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their masters.” Having first sworn themselves to secrecy by sucking the blood of each other’s hand, about twenty-five blacks and two Indians set fire to an outbuilding on the eastern side of New York and then, armed with muskets, clubs, and other weapons, waited in ambush. Whites were attacked as they rushed in to put out the fire, and at least nine were killed and seven wounded.
Reaction was swift. Robert Hunter, governor of the province, ordered a cannon to be fired to alert the town and sent troops of the local garrison to quell the uprising. These soldiers, helped by armed citizens, drove the slaves back and forced them into nearby woods on the island of Manhattan. Trapped there without food or water and exposed to the chills of early April, some of the attackers finally surrendered. Others, rather than be taken, shot themselves or cut their own throats.
Having been put “into no small Consternation,” according to the Boston Weekly News-Letter, New York reacted quickly and harshly. Within two weeks about seventy slaves were jailed, including some who had been arrested outside the city. Of these, although accounts vary, twenty-one appear to have been executed under the 1708 law that permitted any punishment considered necessary to suppress rebellion. In a report to England, Governor Hunter commented that “some were burnt, others hanged, one broke on the wheele, and one hung live in chains in the town, so that there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly thought of. …”
Despite the tone of the words, however, the governor had a strong commitment to justice. He intervened to save many of the arrested slaves, observing that he could see “no manner of convincing evidence against them, and nothing but the blind fury of a people much provoked could have condemned them.” Faced with his firm opposition, the trials petered out.
However, the revolt was to have repercussions. Pennsylvania, by imposing a prohibitive duty, and Massachusetts, by outright prohibition, stopped the importation of slaves within their borders. New York province tightened its laws still more. Education for slaves was forbidden on the grounds that any learning “would be a means to make a slave more cunning and apter to wickedness,” according to one observer. Deciding that freed slaves made dangerous symbols for those in bondage, the state assembly passed an act requiring anyone who freed his slave to post a two-hundred-dollar bond guaranteeing that the freedman would never become a troublemaker. Also included was a rule forbidding any newly freed slave to own any kind of property.
Fear of slaves, however, was not the only concern of New York province and its chief town. There were also Spain and the Papacy. Many of New York’s most prominent citizens were of Dutch descent, and the Dutch had fought a long battle to free their nation from the rule of Catholic Spain. Now New York was English, and England had its own quarrels with Spain. Both nations were contesting spheres of power in Europe, and English colonial expansion grated against Spanish colonial expansion in the New World. England’s Protestant rulers resented Spain’s help to Scots who dreamed of restoring, in the person of the Stuart pretender, a Catholic crown to the throne of England. The result in New York was a mood that was both anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish. In 1700 the New York assembly passed a law that threatened life imprisonment for any Catholic priest who came to New York.