The Witch Hunt You Never Heard Of
Mr. Ferguson is profesor of anthropology, Rutgers University-Newark.
On May 11, 1741, two slaves, Caesar and Prince, were hanged in lower Manhattan. Caeser's body was hung in chains to decompose at the location of the new monument. The two were convicted of theft, but an agitated citizenry believed they were part of a plot to burn down the city and kill all the whites. Modern historians and even some contemporaries questioned whether the New York Conspiracy, as it was dubbed, ever existed, but the hysteria of persecution was all too real. By August 29, thirteen blacks had been burned at the stake, perhaps a hundred yards west of the monument. Sixteen blacks and four whites were hanged. Seventy blacks and seven whites were transported or banished. There is no historical marker to note these events.
The tale of the New York Conspiracy and its infrequent telling hold lessons for today, when many Americans fear insidious plots by stigmatized others. The year 1741 got off to a very bad start. England was at war with Spain, beginning as the War of Jenkins' Ear and going on to the War of Austrian Succession. New Yorkers felt vulnerable to sudden attack. The region had not fully recovered from the economic crisis of 1737, and money and jobs were scarce. A severe winter was aggravated by a shortage of firewood, and cattle died in the cold. High wheat prices led to a scarcity of bread. People were hungry. Then, just after noon on March 18, Fort George, the main defense of the colony and its administrative center, caught fire and burned to the ground, with grenades exploding. Only driving rains kept the conflagration from spreading. Over the next two-and-a-half weeks, numerous fires, large and small, broke out around town. A few seemed to have been set. Some New Yorkers began to suspect that the fires were started by slaves.
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There was reason for concern. Old New York was a tinderbox. In 1712, a genuine slave uprising began by setting a barn on fire, then killing those who arrived to put it out. Slave conspiracies, real or imagined, were frequently reported throughout the colonies, one on May 2 across the river in Hackensack. New York had more slaves--some 2,000--than any place north of Maryland. White New Yorkers numbered about 9,000. Among the slaves were black seamen recently captured on Spanish ships, who had been free but were sold in New York as slaves. They were the first to be suspected of arson.
The "discovery" of the plot was described by a judge in the trials, Daniel Horsmanden, in his book, The New York Conspiracy. (The definitive modern account of all this is A Rumor of Revolt by Thomas J. Davis, who also describes the social and political tensions that fueled the panic.) Horsmanden is revealed in his own book as a model of prejudice. Unlike other judges he was without fortune, too poor to even take a wife in the style befitting his position. But he had power, and along with several other officials, he used it.
The trail began with a burglary of linen and silver. Investigation led to John Hughson's waterfront pub, a block or two south of the World Trade Center site. Slaves would congregate at Hughson's, drinking in violation of the law. Caesar regularly spent the night there with a lodger, a white woman called Peggy Kerry. Evidence seems clear that Caesar and Prince had stolen the goods, and Hughson, along with prominent citizen John Romme, were in league to fence them.
A grand jury investigating the burglaries pressed Hughson's indentured servant, Mary Burton, a 16-year-old girl of "warm and hasty spirit" and "remarkable glibness of tongue," to tell anything she new of the fires. When she said that she would tell them about the thefts but not the fires, this was taken as an admission of knowledge. They gave her a choice of either jail or immunity, freedom and a reward of 100 pounds. She agreed to testify, and told of secret meetings at Hughson's and a plot to burn the city. Her tale was quickly confirmed by an imprisoned thief, who volunteered that Peggy Kerry and others had admitted everything to him in jail.
The unlikely couple of Horsmanden and Burton were now locked in a deadly embrace. Horsmanden and like-minded inquisitors pushed for more, and Burton provided. Given a new name, Burton would "remember" that person as a conspirator too, her stories becoming progressively more elaborate and embellished. Accusations began to snowball as arrested slaves were forced to choose between confessing and naming others, or suffering a horrible death at the stake. It became a classic witch hunt, compared even at the time to Salem. Now the conspiracy was pictured as nightly cabals, where drinking and dancing were followed by oaths sworn on a book. The slaves were seen as organized into companies with officers, in a developed plan for full-scale rebellion. They would kill the white men and take their wives for themselves. Soon it seemed that every slave in town would be named. The investigators began to suspect the plot had to involve an even greater conspiracy.
In late June, the hysteria took an anti-Catholic turn. Several Irish soldiers were implicated, including one William Kane, who almost talked his way out of it until Mary Burton put the finger on him. More central however was an odd, little, newcomer to town, John Ury, who always seemed to keep to himself. Burton now "remembered" Ury at Hughson's, encouraging the slaves and swearing them to the conspiracy. Ury taught Latin, and the investigators concluded that he was a Catholic Priest, undercover in a town where they were banned by law. It was he, they were convinced, who was leading a Popish plot, to further the cause of Spain and the Church of Rome-- "that murderous religion" as the chief prosecutor called it. One slave claimed that more whites than blacks were involved. Some twenty whites, mostly Irish, were arrested. Ury was tried, convicted, and hanged.
Finally, slave owners concerned about protecting their property, and others worried about the spreading accusations, brought the prosecutions nearly to a halt. When Mary Burton then named some of New York's leading citizens as conspirators, the investigation stopped, and remaining charges were dismissed. The fears would flare up again the next February, after another fire. One more slave was hanged, but Horsmanden's attempt to rouse another investigation failed. New York had had enough, and in a very few years, seemed to have forgotten all about it. Aside from occasional, brief historical discussions, this amnesia continues down to today. While the Salem witch hunt is visited again and again in books and dramas, who pays attention to the New York slave hunt?
Was the conspiracy real? Were the slaves plotting to burn the city? Most historians have concluded that it was all a grim fantasy. Thomas Davis, however, believes that some slaves did start fires. Evidence supports a suspicion of arson in a few cases, some slaves did talk of rebellion, and as a group, they certainly had reason to revolt. But arson was a problem in New York for centuries, as fire gave thieves the opportunity to loot burning and neighboring buildings. I am more skeptical than Davis of the coincidences of slaves being seen near fires, and of all the testimony given to convict them. Even if Davis is correct and some slaves started fires, he and all other historians agree that the spread of accusations to an ever-widening circle of slaves and then to suspected Catholics was solely the product of zealous investigators using the threat of hanging or burning to extract more names in unrelenting pursuit of a "villainous confederacy of latent enemies among us."
I teach a course on the cultural history of the New York Police at Rutgers University-Newark. Every year I take my students on a walking tour of lower Manhattan. The walk used to begin at the south side of the World Trade Center, where I pointed out the location of Hughson's. In late September of 2001, my wife and I were privileged to do volunteer work at the site of the 9/11 catastrophe. When I first approached "ground zero," I could not immediately recognize the spot where I had talked to students a few months before. I found myself triangulating between points of reference, just as I had done years earlier to locate Hughson's. With the smoking ruins in front of me, I gave the connection no further thought. Then I started to hear disturbing stories from my Muslim students, of verbal and even physical attacks because of how they looked or dressed. While such prejudice lingers on today, New York came to its senses. It not only survived, but came together as a community. New Yorkers, on the whole, understand that the actions of a few fanatics do not justify prejudice and persecution of others. That's real progress, and that's why, regardless of the skeletons rattling in our collective closet, I am proud of New York.