- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Ury now had his chance to question the witness for the prosecution. Had he done so vigorously, he might have torn her words to tatters. The fact that she had repeatedly named Hughson as the head conspirator, the fact that she had never before suggested any kind of religious or political overtones to the alleged plot, the fact that she had made no mention at all of Ury until after the buzz caused by Governor Oglethorpe’s letter—all these things cast grave doubts on her charges and had already begun to cause outside observers to question her credibility.
Ury, however, did not seize his chance. It is probable that he did not know anything about Mary Burton’s testimony at the Hughsons’ trial. At any rate he did not attack the crucial inconsistencies and contradictions of her previous statements. His questions hit at lesser details:
Ury: You say you have seen me several times at Hughson’s. What clothes did I usually wear?
Mary Burton: I cannot tell what clothes you wore particularly.
Ury: That is strange, and [you] know me so well.
Burton: I have seen you in several clothes, but you chiefly wore a riding coat, and often a brown coat trimmed with black.
Ury: I never wore any such coat.
The exchange ended inconclusively, and the attorney general produced two supporting witnesses for the prosecution. One was a soldier named William Kane who had himself been implicated by Mary Burton and to save himself had agreed to cooperate with the authorities. Kane told of being let in on the plot by Hughson and Ury and of taking part, along with slaves, in a Catholic ritual that was supposed to bind the conspirators together. The second witness was young Sarah Hughson, who had been fetched from the condemned hole and who now was ready with sensational testimony. She told of seeing Ury “making a ring with chalk on the floor, which he made the negroes stand round and put their left foot in, and he swore them with a cross in his hand, to burn and destroy the town, and to cut their master’s and mistress’s throats.”
As before, Ury made no real attack on either Kane’s or Sarah Hughson’s stories but simply asked a series of inconsequential questions. Having presented his three witnesses, the attorney general read Governor Oglethorpe’s warning letter to the jury and rested his case.
Now Ury began his defense. He presented character witnesses who swore that his life was blameless and that they had seen no actions at all to justify the rumors of his being a Roman Catholic priest. Other witnesses testified to his whereabouts at the times when he was said to have been conducting secret rituals at the Hughsons’ tavern. In his summation Ury spoke eloquently of his innocence and reprimanded the attorney general for trying to prejudice the case with statements made at the opening of the trial. All to no avail. The jury convicted Ury after consulting less than fifteen minutes. On August 29, 1741, after making a speech in which he affirmed his innocence and forgave his prosecutors, he was hanged.
John Ury was the last man executed as a result of the presumed conspiracy. Some blacks continued to be arrested, but the panic had run its course, and New York began to return to normal. With the lessening of fear came a reaction to the trials themselves. Some prominent citizens, especially those who had lost slaves, became openly critical and put pressure on authorities to halt the trials. Judge Horsmanden commented that the owners joined in opposition against the prosecutions “when it comes home to their houses and is like to affect their own properties in Negroes.”
A further and most compelling reason for ending the trials was provided by Mary Burton herself. Apparently made reckless by the credulity with which her accusations were accepted, she turned her fire on several prominent whites. Attorney General Bradley was dumfounded by this new twist. His star witness was telling stories wild enough to suggest that the whole structure of her testimony was a fabrication built on imagination and perjury. Judge Horsmanden, who had been accepting the girl’s word all along, found himself admitting that her latest charges “staggered one’s belief.” He also managed to suppress the minutes of the investigating grand jury, an act that he might have explained as an attempt to protect the innocent, but an act that also protected Mary Burton’s previous charges.
At precisely this point the authorities found it wise, in Horsmanden’s words, to have “a little relaxation from this intricate pursuit.” It is not hard to guess why. If the trials had continued and had brought Mary Burton’s words to the point of open and obvious absurdity, doubt would have been cast on the justice of all the trials, the executions, and the imprisonments, and Attorney General Bradley and Judge Horsmanden would have had a great deal of uncomfortable explaining to do. They might conceivably have found themselves engulfed in a wave of reaction and revulsion created by many of the same citizens whose panic had helped cause the trials.
The proceedings dwindled to a halt, and the provincial council even proclaimed a day of thanksgiving “for deliverance from the conspiracy.” Seemingly untroubled by pangs of conscience, Mary Burton claimed the hundred-pound reward offered for exposing the plot. She got it, plus a note from the New York council thanking her “for the great service she has done.” She took her money and note and disappeared from the province of New York. The arrests, trials, and executions were over.