- Historic Sites
Terror in New York—1741
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
But they were not forgotten. The events of 1741 have undergone a constant rehashing, some reviewers defending and justifying what happened and some attacking and condemning. Judge Horsmanden felt constrained to give his account of the trials in a book published in 1744 and titled The New York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot. In his preface the judge stated that the purpose of his book was to “put us upon our guard, lest the enemy should be yet within our doors” and professed to be amazed that some people should have doubts: “There had been some wanton, wrong-headed persons amongst us, who took the liberty to arraign the justice of the proceedings, and … declared with no small assurance … that there was no plot at all!” (The italics are the judge’s.)
Despite the judge’s self-serving outrage, historians have continued to question the evidence ever since. Woodrow Wilson mentioned the conspiracy in his History of the American People and speaks of a rumor of “a plot among the negroes.” Charles and Mary Beard in The Rise of American Civilization classify “massacres of Negroes in New York” as one of the “plagues of popular frenzy.” In his book A History of Negro Slavery in New York, dated 1966, Professor Edgar J. McManus, speaking as a lawyer, is certain about his verdict: ”… the conspiracy trials were judicial murders.”
The New York trials have often been compared to the witch trials that had taken place in Salem, Massachusetts, about fifty years earlier. Both grew out of fear. Both were based on words of key witnesses—adolescent girls in both cases—who appeared to be encouraged by the general acceptance of their testimony. Even the results were similar. In Salem: nineteen people hanged, one pressed to death, and fifty-five forced by torture to incriminate themselves. In New York: sixteen blacks and four whites hanged, thirteen blacks burned, and seventy blacks deported to Newfoundland and to various islands in the West Indies and the Madeiras.
Was there a conspiracy? History will probably never know for sure. Given the mood of the times, it is possible that a few slaves plotted to seize New York. At least they might have talked about it, whether serious or not. The fires that touched off the scare have never been explained, and we cannot say for certain how or why they started.
The Hughsons do seem to have been involved as receivers of goods stolen by slaves, if we can take Judge Horsmanden’s account at face value. Given the camaraderie and bravado supplied by a few tankards of rum, the Hughsons could have joked with bolder blacks about some idea of taking over the city and elevating John Hughson to a kingship. We can see him in his cups imagining himself in his crown. But was it a truly serious conspiracy?
In a book about the Sacco and Vanzetti trials Herbert B. Ehrmann tells how the American legal system was bent by judicial and social leaders of Massachusetts. And he draws a conclusion that could equally apply to the New York conspiracy trials of 1741 or to many other trials in many other times: “If the twin passions of fear and hatred can pull the Commonwealth of Massachusetts away from its historic standards of behavior, they can do this anywhere, in any country, at any time. … For us, therefore, the question is not what kind of men the defendants were, but what kind of people are we?”