June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
Was there really a conspiracy to burn the town?
In January, 1708, a Mr. William Hallett, Jr., of Newton, Long Island, was murdered in his sleep with his pregnant wife and his five children. Two of Hallett’s slaves, an Indian man and a Negro woman, were tried for the crime and found guilty. They and two alleged accomplices, both blacks, were executed, being “put to all the torment possible for a terror to others,” according to a contemporary newspaper account. The Negro woman was burned alive at the stake. The Indian was hung from a gibbet and placed astride a bar of metal with a sharpened edge, “in which condition he lived some time, and in a state of delirium which ensued, believing himself to be on horseback, would urge forward his animal with the frightful impetuosity of a maniac, while the blood oozing from his lacerated flesh streamed from his feet to the ground.”
In that same year, 1708, the assembly of New York province reacted to the Hallett killings with “an Act for preventing the Conspiracy of Slaves.” Judges were empowered to prescribe the death penalty for any slave found guilty of murder or attempted murder, the method of execution being left to the sole discretion of the judge or judges concerned. Apparently no one questioned the fairness of this law.
Nevertheless, the preventive aspects of the law proved not entirely effective. In April, 1712, a number of slaves in the bustling port of New York resolved to win their freedom and to revenge themselves for “some hard usage they apprehended to have received from their masters.” Having first sworn themselves to secrecy by sucking the blood of each other’s hand, about twenty-five blacks and two Indians set fire to an outbuilding on the eastern side of New York and then, armed with muskets, clubs, and other weapons, waited in ambush. Whites were attacked as they rushed in to put out the fire, and at least nine were killed and seven wounded.
Reaction was swift. Robert Hunter, governor of the province, ordered a cannon to be fired to alert the town and sent troops of the local garrison to quell the uprising. These soldiers, helped by armed citizens, drove the slaves back and forced them into nearby woods on the island of Manhattan. Trapped there without food or water and exposed to the chills of early April, some of the attackers finally surrendered. Others, rather than be taken, shot themselves or cut their own throats.
Having been put “into no small Consternation,” according to the Boston Weekly News-Letter, New York reacted quickly and harshly. Within two weeks about seventy slaves were jailed, including some who had been arrested outside the city. Of these, although accounts vary, twenty-one appear to have been executed under the 1708 law that permitted any punishment considered necessary to suppress rebellion. In a report to England, Governor Hunter commented that “some were burnt, others hanged, one broke on the wheele, and one hung live in chains in the town, so that there has been the most exemplary punishment inflicted that could be possibly thought of. …”
Despite the tone of the words, however, the governor had a strong commitment to justice. He intervened to save many of the arrested slaves, observing that he could see “no manner of convincing evidence against them, and nothing but the blind fury of a people much provoked could have condemned them.” Faced with his firm opposition, the trials petered out.
However, the revolt was to have repercussions. Pennsylvania, by imposing a prohibitive duty, and Massachusetts, by outright prohibition, stopped the importation of slaves within their borders. New York province tightened its laws still more. Education for slaves was forbidden on the grounds that any learning “would be a means to make a slave more cunning and apter to wickedness,” according to one observer. Deciding that freed slaves made dangerous symbols for those in bondage, the state assembly passed an act requiring anyone who freed his slave to post a two-hundred-dollar bond guaranteeing that the freedman would never become a troublemaker. Also included was a rule forbidding any newly freed slave to own any kind of property.
Fear of slaves, however, was not the only concern of New York province and its chief town. There were also Spain and the Papacy. Many of New York’s most prominent citizens were of Dutch descent, and the Dutch had fought a long battle to free their nation from the rule of Catholic Spain. Now New York was English, and England had its own quarrels with Spain. Both nations were contesting spheres of power in Europe, and English colonial expansion grated against Spanish colonial expansion in the New World. England’s Protestant rulers resented Spain’s help to Scots who dreamed of restoring, in the person of the Stuart pretender, a Catholic crown to the throne of England. The result in New York was a mood that was both anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish. In 1700 the New York assembly passed a law that threatened life imprisonment for any Catholic priest who came to New York.
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
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.
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?”