Archive for June 9th, 2016

1741: Cook, Robin, Caesar and Cuffee

Add comment June 9th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1741, four black men were burned in New York City.

This is the third execution date in that year’s great suppression of a purported slave conspiracy, and it is here that its wantonly inquisitorial character clearly comes to the fore. Accusations under the gallows (or in this case, the pyres) topple like domino-tiles into fresh arrests and new accusations, until from a couple of luckless thieves there are 30-plus souls in the grave.

Eleven days prior, when two slaves named Cuffee and Quack had burned at the stake for this sensational plot, a sham offer of clemency had been extended them with the very fagots beneath their feet. Under this extortion the men had owned the plot, a confession the court privileged as the truth of dying men (for they were burnt anyway, despite their compliance), they duly named as co-conspirators several of those we find in the next tranch of slaves tried before the colony’s highest court.

(We must do Cuffee and Quack the justice of noting that by the time they burned, all those who were to be tried next were already in jail with them, arrested upon the information of another fellow-slave informing to save his own skin. Perhaps the men at the stake supposed their fellows already burnt flesh, and their own accusations strictly ornamental.)

By this point in events, the court was convinced past arguing that a white barkeep named Hughson (whose own Executed Today entry is fast approaching) had played host to large meetings of New York’s Negros, where they drank together and leered at the white servant and toasted one another’s plans to destroy the city. When slaves were wrung for information about the “plot” it was largely to name those who had participated in these supposed meetings. But since a master conspiracy against white New York was now presumed — its alleged leaders had been the first to die — little was required to damn a man but to place him at one of these slaves’ sabbaths. Trials could now become quite perfunctory on any one person’s actual role or misdeeds: just tie him to the satanic cabal.

Even the crown’s own opening statement to the court on June 8 basically promised to mail it in.

It will, I doubt not, appear to you, upon hearing our Witnesses for the King on this Trial, that these six Negroes are some of the Conspirators who combined with those principal Incendiaries, Hughson and his Family, to set on fire the King’s House, and this whole Town, and to kill and murder the Inhabitants.

But as I have already, upon the Trial of the Negro Quack, for burning the King’s House, and of another Negro called Cuffee, for burning Mr. Philipse’s Storehouse, and likewise on the last Trial of Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, and Kerry, endeavoured to set forth their Heinousness of so horrible and detestable a Conspiracy; and the Dangers this City and Province may still be exposed to, until Examples are made of all such as have been concerned in this most wicked Plot; I think I have no Need upon this Trial, to say any Thing further on either of these Heads; not doubting but when you have heard the Crimes which these Criminals stand charged with, proved against them, you will find them Guilty.

The six in question were appended to the horrible and detestable Conspiracy as bullet points in depositions full of denunciations: namely, by the white servant Mary Burton, who was the Abigail Williams character of this particular witch hunt; by Cuffee’s and Quack’s tricked confession at the stake; and by three other slaves — Sandy, Sarah,* and Fortune — who had all been arrested themselves and gave their evidence under the pall of their own probable execution for any failure in cooperation.**

The court would surely reply here that such a society can rarely be penetrated but by dirty hands and compromised witnesses.** Seen in such a light, the roles imputed to these six would have been terrifying.

  • Jack was a “captain” in the cell and resolved “his Knife was so sharp, that if it came a-cross a white Man’s Head, it would cut it off” (according to Sandy); he with Cook “used to be at the Meetings at Hughson’s, when they were talking of firing the Town and murdering the People” (Mary Burton)
  • Cuffee and Caesar “fired Van Zant’s Storehouse” (according to the dying confessions of both Quack and the previous Cuffee) with Caesar declaring for good measure that “he would kill the white Men, and drink their Blood to their good Healths: This about a Fortnight or Three Weeks before the Fort burnt.” (Sandy)
  • Robin “had a Knife there, and sharpened it; and consented to help kill the white Men, and take their Wives.” (Sandy)
  • Jamaica “(being a Fidler) said, he would dance over [white New Yorkers] while they were roasting in the Flames; and said, he had been Slave long enough.” (Mary Burton)

There is at times a suspicious confluence of language — and a repeated fixation on black men seizing white women — that suggest the interrogator’s influence. Nevertheless, depositions overlapping on a number of key points have persuaded not only the slaves’ jurors but some of their latter-day interlocutors that they truly were party to a most audacious design. Every one of them was condemned to death. Jamaica, the fiddler, received the liberality of a three-day wait; the other five were all to burn the very next afternoon — June 9, 1741.

Their actual execution is a one-sentence afterthought in a record already by the morrow speeding along to the next proceedings: “This Day also, The Negroes Cook, Robin (Chamber’s) Caesar (Peck’s) Cuffee (Gomez’s) were executed according to Sentence.” The reader will notice that where five were doomed, only four have died. The fifth, Jack — that fell captain whetting his sharp blade for white throats — was busy that morning saving his own neck by supplying evidence for the crown, straight from the center of the plot. So Jack instead remained in the courtroom, detailing for his prosecutors (soon to be his pardoners) a fresh roster of prey, even as his comrades were wrenched from the courthouse’s basement jail and set alight in downtown Manhattan.

* Our very partial compiler Daniel Horsmanden admits that this witness “was one of the oddest Animals amongst the black Confederates, and gave the most Trouble in her Examinations; a Creature of an outragious Spirit: When she was first interrogated upon this Examination about the Conspiracy, she absolutely denied she knew any Thing of the Matter … her Conduct was such upon the Whole, that what she said, if not confirmed by others, or concurring Circumstances, could not deserve entire Credit.”

** In fact, the court did make this argument (“if Pagan Negroes could not be received as Witnesses against each other … [then] the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity”), for it was also defending itself as early as July of 1741 against contemporary whites who doubted that any actual terrorist conspiracy existed among the slaves. The anonymous New England critic whose letter surviving to us compares New York in 1741 to Salem in 1692 noticed “that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appears to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtained by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to die an easier death.” This was a soul ahead of its time.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,USA

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