- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
During the 1730’s forces leading toward fear and anger in New York began to coalesce. Slave uprisings broke out, both in the West Indies and in several of the English colonies. A rebellion in South Carolina resulted in the deaths of about twenty-five whites before it was crushed. And there were portents closer to home. In 1736 a schoolmaster in Ulster County became the talk of the New York colony by fraternizing with Irish Catholic servants and by openly proposing a toast to the king of Spain. He was put in jail but later escaped and disappeared. In 1740 rumors spread through New York town that slaves were conspiring to murder their masters by poisoning the water supply. For some time thereafter many New Yorkers bought their water from sellers who came by in the streets.
And then came the year 1741. At this time New York was still a town on the lower end of Manhattan Island, with a population of about twelve thousand, of whom more than two thousand were slaves. England was once again fighting with Spain, this time in the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Rumors of slave plots and uprisings were everywhere. To compound the unrest, the winter of 1740–41 was especially severe. Bread was scarce and expensive, and the misery of the poor—black and white—was intense. The town of New York was ready to explode.
Late in February, 1741, someone broke into the shop of Robert Hogg, a tobacconist, and stole “divers … goods and several silver coins … etc.” When questioned by city authorities, Hogg recalled that a sailor named Christopher Wilson, who had a reputation for consorting with slaves, had been in the shop a few days before the crime and had seen Mrs. Hogg counting coins.
Under questioning, Wilson admitted having told two slaves about the coins in Hogg’s shop but denied any knowledge of the theft. Wilson also said that he had visited a tavern on the morning after the crime and had seen the two slaves with a hatful of coins. The blacks—one named Caesar and the other Prince—were promptly arrested.
The tavern involved belonged to a man named John Hughson and had a poor reputation among the respectable citizens of New York. Like other taverns in the port, it had become a gathering place for blacks, sailors, prostitutes, and other types whom the townspeople considered unsavory. Hughson was detained but then set free when a search of his tavern failed to produce incriminating evidence.
Then Mary Burton entered the picture. Little is known about her except that she was a seventeen-year-old Irish girl indentured to John Hughson as a servant. While chatting about recent events with the wife of a New York constable Mary Burton suggested that she knew something about the theft in Hogg’s shop. She was questioned and, professing to be afraid of Hughson, was promised protection by the authorities. Thereupon she told her story, saying that Hughson had made a practice of receiving stolen goods from slaves. She also implicated Hughson’s wife, Sarah, his daughter, who was also named Sarah, and a prostitute named Peggy Kerry, who, said Mary, had been sleeping with the accused slave Caesar.
Hughson was confronted with these accusations and denied them, attacking Mary Burton as a good-for-nothing who was simply trying to make trouble for her master. But authorities refused to be put off and kept pressing. Finally Mary directed the constables to a cache of stolen goods buried under the tavern. It seemed as though the case of the missing coins had been solved, and authorities made ready to try both the accused blacks and whites.
At this point, however, New Yorkers found themselves distracted and distressed by even more pressing concerns. In late March and April a rash of mysterious fires hit the city, breaking out in military barracks and the King’s Chapel as well as in private homes. The mysterious origins of the fires and the fact that some burning buildings were looted led to thoughts of arson. Moreover, it was observed that some slaves actually seemed to be enjoying the spectacle of the burning buildings and were also, it seemed, becoming more arrogant toward whites. Distrust was further aroused in March, when a slave was captured as he looted a building that was on fire. Given these circumstances, suspicion hardened into conviction, and the town council offered a reward of a hundred pounds “for the discovery of the villanous conspiracy.”
As fear, doubt, and rumor agitated New York, Mary Burton appeared before a grand jury to testify about the Hogg case and the Hughsons’ role in it. With interest centered on the fires, her words drew little attention. Public attention quickly focused on the proceedings, however, when Mary Burton hinted at some knowledge about the fires. At first her testimony was hesitant, but under the prodding of the judges she charged Caesar and Prince, plus the Hughsons and Peggy Kerry, with plotting to burn New York. Not stopping there, she introduced two new names to the investigations, those of slaves called Quack and Cuffee. After the city had burned, testified Mary, all the whites were to be slaughtered, and Hughson was to be named king of the newly freed slaves. As a final touch, one sure to bring the case notoriety, Mary declared that any surviving white women were to be divided among the blacks.