- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
“Gentlemen, such a monster will this Hughson appear before you … he, murderous and remorseless he! … Infamous Hughson! … This is the man! This that grand incendiary!—that arch rebel against God, his king, and his country!—that devil incarnate and chief agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal pit and Geryon of darkness.”
Mary Burton’s testimony and Bradley’s invective did their work. All four of the accused, the three Hughsons and Peggy Kerry, were found guilty. Still protesting innocence of any conspiracy, the three adults were hanged within a week, and John Hughson’s body was displayed in chains along with that of Caesar. Sarah Hughson, the daughter, was spared so that authorities could induce her to talk in more detail about the conspiracy. She was locked up in a dungeon for the condemned and left to think things over.
While young Sarah languished the prosecutions went forward. There seems to be little doubt that high officials at this point sincerely believed in the conspiracy. On June 20, one week after the Hughsons were executed, the governor of New York province declared that “if the truth were ever known, there are not many innocent Negromen, and it is thought that some Negroes of the County are accomplices and were to act their part there.”
As usual, star witness Mary Burton was ready to support such fears. As the trials progressed judges and jurors seemed to take everything she said with utter seriousness, and her accusations began to broaden in scope. A number of whites as well as blacks were now incriminated and questioned. When pardons were promised to all who confessed by July i, the accused bore witness against other people, who, in turn, found culprits of their own. The conspiracy investigation became a chain reaction of fear feeding on fear and accusation building on accusation. The “epidemic of mutual incrimination” reached such proportions that officials were forced to suspend circuit courts for the rest of 1741. The jails simply could hold no more people.
Moreover, the webs of accusation had become so tangled that authorities found it impossible to keep track of them all. Influential men were also beginning to worry about the loss of so many slaves to the gallows or to the crammed jails. And besides, the suspicious fires had stopped. Believing that the conspiracy had been smashed, New York took a breather, and the wave of incriminations began to subside. It seemed as though the trials had run their course and that the panic was over.
In 1741 a letter reached New York from James Oglethorpe, governor of Georgia. Oglethorpe had been having trouble with Spanish agents along the border with Florida, who were promising freedom to runaway slaves and stirring anti-English feelings among dispossessed Indians. The governor convinced himself that Spain was trying to undermine English authority in all the colonies. He sent out a series of agitated messages to various colonial officials, one of them going to the lieutenant governor of New York. The letter warned that “the Spaniards had employed emissaries to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in English North America … and that [for this purpose] many priests were employed, under pretended appellations of physicians, dancing masters, and such like occupations. …”
Oglethorpe’s letter was taken at face value in jittery New York. Launching a hunt for undercover priests, authorities came up with a schoolteacher named John Ury. Ury had first appeared in New York a few months before the fires began. Furthermore, he was known to be skilled in Latin and to have a liking for theological debates. He accounted for his knowledge and tastes by claiming to be a nonpracticing clergyman of the Church of England, but authorities remained dubious. And then Mary Burton, who had said nothing about Ury in her previous testimony, announced that he was the real power behind the slave conspiracy.
Once more the servant girl’s word held sway. Ury was arrested, indicted, and brought to trial, and like the previous accused, he was not provided with any attorney to help in his defense. Also as in previous trials, Attorney General Bradley was quick to exploit his freedom from such inconvenient opposition. Perhaps having some misgivings about the flimsiness of his evidence, he opened his case before the jury with a diatribe against the “murderous … popish religion” that held it “not only lawful but meritorious to kill and destroy all that differ in opinion from them.” He included an attack on indulgences, the concept of purgatory, and the doctrine of transubstantiation—concluding with praise for “the great Dr. Tillotson,” who had exposed “these and many other juggling tricks they have in their hocus pocus, bloody religion. …”
After cultivating the emotional ground as he had in the Hughson case, the attorney general produced Mary Burton. In a short burst of testimony she affirmed that Ury was the chief conspirator and had performed Catholic rites for all the plotters at Hughson’s tavern. She added that “the English church was intended to be burnt on Christmas day last, but Ury put it off, and said that when the weather was better, then there would be a fuller congregation.”