- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Such sensational charges could not be ignored, and the grand jury found cause for prosecution. Caesar and Prince were the first to stand trial and were quickly convicted of theft in the Hogg case. They were hanged on May 11. The court had considered trying them also as conspirators but abandoned the idea in favor of speedy executions, hoping to frighten other suspected plotters into revealing confessions. Until the last both men denied any knowledge of a conspiracy. Because of his stubbornness Caesar’s body was hung in chains for public display.
Next in line came Quack and Cuffee, who, it was decided, would be prosecuted separately on charges of conspiracy and arson. The two blacks were brought before a jury and a panel of three judges, one of whom was a Daniel Horsmanden, recorder of the city of New York. Judge Horsmanden would later put out an account of the conspiracy trials, giving history its most detailed, if not most impartial, description of what took place.
As Quack and Cuffee came to trial they had no lawyers to defend them for the simple reason that no lawyer in New York would do so. The “several gentlemen of the law that were in town” were called in by the trial judges as consultants and “agreed to bear their respective shares in the fatigue of the several prosecutions.” They did not, apparently, feel any need to arrange for protection of the accused, nor did the judges, nor did Richard Bradley, attorney general for the province of New York and the chief prosecutor during the trials to come. Quack and Cuffee were left to defend themselves as best they could, and Attorney General Bradley was left free to use any stratagems that might help the prosecution.
The attorney general wasted little time in building his case. To support Mary Burton’s story he used a convicted thief named Arthur Price to spy on Quack and Cuffee while all three were in prison. Although convicted felons were forbidden by law to bear witness against anyone on trial, Price took the stand and was allowed to tell the court that blacks had admitted setting several fires on the orders of John Hughson. With no defense attorney present Price’s testimony went unchallenged.
Quack and Cuffee denied the story told by Price. They maintained that they had neither set any fires nor admitted anything to Price while in prison. Their denials counted for little. As Judge Horsmanden himself later commented on the trouble of questioning slaves, “Many of them have a great deal of craft; their unintelligible jargon stands them in great stead, to conceal their meaning; so that an examiner must expect to … grope through a maze of obscurity … before he can be able to fix those creatures to any certain determinate meaning.”
The two slaves were not the only ones to defend their innocence, however. A John Roosevelt, Quack’s owner, and Cuffee’s master both swore under oath that their slaves were at home when the alleged arson occurred. Even though they were respected whites, their testimony was ignored. The two blacks were found guilty on all charges and were sentenced to be burned alive at the stake.
The executions did not take place right away. Anxious to obtain more information about what they took to be a massive conspiracy, authorities held out offers of clemency to Quack and Cuffee if they would confess all they knew about the plot. But the two men insisted that they had no information because they had not been involved in a plot and were completely innocent.
They were executed on May 3o “according to sentence.” Judge Horsmanden would later describe the scene in his book: “About three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder.”
Both slaves “shewed great terror in their countenances,” and authorities made one last effort to extract information. Roosevelt took Quack aside while an official questioned Cuffee, and each slave was told that the other had begun to confess and that each would be spared if he told all he knew. This strategy, reinforced by the slaves’ terror, produced results. The men broke down and named Hughson as “the first contriver of the plot.” But the confessions did not save them. When the sheriff tried to return the condemned to jail, the crowd became unruly. Fearing a riot, the sheriff delivered Quack and Cuffee to the stake, and the executions were carried out.
The Hughsons and Peggy Kerry stood trial next. Despite the way in which the confessions of Quack and Cuffee had been obtained, several white witnesses were allowed to testify about the blacks’ last statements implicating John Hughson. Such testimony was all the more questionable because slaves were forbidden by law to bear witness against whites and because the introduction in evidence of Quack’s and Cuffee’s “confessions” was inadmissible under legal safeguards barring hearsay. However, there was no defense attorney to protest such tactics by the prosecutor.
Once again Arthur Price was brought in, this time to swear that Mrs. Hughson and Peggy Kerry had confessed their guilt to him in prison. Once again, while John and Sarah Hughson wept and embraced their daughter, Mary Burton repeated her story about the planned rebellion and massacre. The Hughsons’ fears could hardly have been calmed by the tone of Attorney General Bradley’s words to the jury: