1920: Gerald Smyth, Royal Irish Constabulary officer 1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

1741: Othello, Doctor Harry, and five other New York slaves

July 18th, 2016 Headsman


New-York Weekly Journal, July 20, 1741.

On this date in 1741, six slaves named Othello, Quack, Venture, Frank, Fortune, and Galloway were hanged, and a seventh, “Harry the Negro Doctor”, burned — all casualties of the ongoing investigation into the purported slave plot to torch colonial New York.

A truly horrific day in the city’s history. However, as we have noted in our entry about the last prior mass execution of this affair, these July bloodbaths surprisingly turn out to be all about the court extricating itself from a potentially limitless investigation into the servile classes.

With the return of the Chief Justice James De Lancey from New England on the first day of the month — taking control of the court from the implacable inquisition of his junior partner Daniel Horsmanden — the whole judicial momentum turns away from compounding arrests upon accusations and towards disposing of cases already in hand and tying up loose ends.

But there were a lot of loose ends … and some of them could only be tied up with hemp.

For some of the nearly 100 slaves in the city dungeon when De Lancey returned, the evidence was so scanty that they were outright released. Most of the rest were disposed of through an almost shameless wink-nod arrangement: the slaves pleaded guilty to the terrorist plot (vindicating the court’s diligence, and also the blood it had already shed), and in exchange were not executed but approved for convict transportation (sparing life and limb for the slaves, and financial injury for the owners).* Almost every weekday the court would open nominally in a proceeding against six or ten or twelve black men and women only to hear all plead guilty and promptly adjourn upon the court’s recommendation of mercy. Under “inbox zero” De Lancey, these people were not pressed to name more names, and when they did so those potential new arrestees were often left unmolested. (We shall arrive shortly at a notable exception.)

On July 15, 1741, De Lancey actually held court. True, there were 14 more Negroes, “most of which had been made Use of as Witnesses,” who were on this occasion recommended for pardon and sale abroad. But our doomed seven plus an eighth man, Tom, were the last ones in the jail who were refusing to plead guilty. (Tom was convicted with the rest, but his sentence was abated.)

It reads like a principled stand but if so, their integrity was unequalled by their trial strategy. They simply “said nothing material in their Defence, but denied all alledged against them.”

Unfortunately with everyone singing from De Lancey’s hymnal as the price of their own necks, there were a good many witnesses prepared to alledge. For this trial, six black slaves described the accused hanging around arch-plotter John Hughson, “talking about the Conspiracy to set the Town on Fire, and to kill the white People.” Besides the slave evidence, two white people also denounced the prisoners: Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ former servant whose ever-growing became the ubiquitous crown witness in all cases; and, William Kane, an Irish soldier who had been named as the plot’s inside man at the fort by the slave Will when the latter burned at the stake.

Kane was just the second white person in all this time to join Mary Burton on the prosecution’s witness list — and he was obtained with chilling ease.

The very night that Will burned, July 4, Kane was taken up. Examined the next day he denied knowing anything about the plot or even where Hughsons’ tavern was located.

But, Horsmanden recorded in his journal of the proceedings, “while Kane was under Examination, the Under-Sheriff came and informed the Judges, that Mary Burton had declared, that she had often seen him at Hughson’s, amongst Hughson, his Wife, &c. and the Negroes, when they were talking of the Conspiracy, and that he was one of the Confederates.”

A dramatic moment ensued, gut-wrenching even in Horsmanden’s few sentences.

Chief Justice De Lancey, “who was a Stranger to the Transactions concerning the Detection of the Conspiracy” and could therefore still be shocked by the casual way this teenager rolled into her conspiracy stories whomever some frightened prisoner had recently implicated, “thought proper to admonish the Witness in an awful and solemn Manner, concerning the Nature of an Oath, and the Consequences of taking a false one, more especially as it affected a Man’s Life.”

Would the girl fluster under this magisterial caution? Would De Lancey himself dare to press it so far as to discredit the one witness his court had depended upon for prosecuting the conspiracy thus far?

No. “She answered, she was acquainted with the Nature of an Oath very well, and that she would not take a false one upon any Account.” De Lancey dropped the point, and Mary Burton was sworn in, saying

That she had seen the said Kane at Hughson’s very often, talking with Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, Peggy Salingburgh alias Kerry, Caesar, Vaarck’s; Galloway, Rutgers’s; Prince, Auboyneau’s, and Cuffee, Philipse’s, Negroes; and the Discourse amongst them was, That they would burn the Town; the Fort first, the Governor and all his Family in it, and kill all the white People; and that she heard the said William Kane say, that he would help them all that lay in his Power.

Kane, “his Countenance changed, and being near fainting,” called for a glass of water. Kane was no fool, and when the court explicitly confirmed to him “the Danger he was in, and told [him] he must not flatter himself with the least Hopes of Mercy, but by making a candid and ingenuous Confession” he duly swallowed the draught prepared for him — albeit “after some Pause” and “tho’ at the same Time he seemed very loth to do it.” There was no way out — not for the court, not for Mary, and not for Kane — but for the soldier to corroborate her story. He numbly did so, although one would rather know how he spoke about this episode of his life under the seal of the confessional.

There is a deadening similarity to these stories, of course; it is not merely retrospective interpretation that surfaces the perverse incentives newly-arrested slaves faced — it is remarked a few times via the comments of slaves themselves in Horsmanden’s own record. “Moore’s Cato advised him and Pedro, to bring in many Negroes, telling Pedro, that he would be certainly burnt or hanged if he did not confess,” in one description … “but that if he brought in a good many, it would save his Life; for he had found it so himself; and must say, he was to set his Master’s House on fire, which would make the Judges believe him.” Why this day’s crop refused to take their out we don’t really know. Maybe they were stubborn — or had a care for their soul — or more than death feared being sold out of the place that had become their home, and onto some backbreaking sugar plantation in the West Indies.

But two of our group merit notice for more unusual profiles.

“Doctor Harry” was an unauthorized medical practitioner on account of his race and station, and so had been driven out of New York City years before. He made his home thereafter on Long Island, forbidden from venturing into New York on pain of flogging. The physician’s addition to the plot segued into the frightening prospect of a poison angle to the race war.

“A smooth soft spoken Fellow, and like other Knaves, affected the Air of Sincerity and Innocence” in Horsmanden’s words, Harry was already on the judges’ radar when a slave named Adam accused him. (Soon joined by the reluctant William Kane.) That he was on their radar as someone who was not allowed in the city does not seem to have counted a great deal. “He stifly denied all, and declared, that he never was at Hughson’s, nor had he been in Town since he was ordered out by the Magistrates.”

Othello had also been out of town during events — not by banishment, but because he was Chief Justice De Lancey’s own slave, and had accompanied his master’s New England mission during the spring when New York went arson-crazy.

Aptly for his name, Othello reads in Horsmanden’s narrative as a tragic figure who unlike Doctor Harry was ready to say what he had to say to save his own life but hanged because he couldn’t reconcile himself in time to the urgency of his situation.

Horsmanden, who also would have been Othello’s personal acquaintance, clearly respected the slave; in the judge’s estimation, Othello “had more Sense than the common Rank of Negroes” and was one of “the Head Negroes in Town.” Maybe Othello counted too highly the weight of his association with the judges, or maybe since he was out of town he simply did not have the right feel for the witch-hunt dimensions the arson investigation had taken. Reading bulletins from his city, De Lancey had questioned Othello about the plot and Othello had denied any knowledge of it. Did the slave suppose that a Head Negro in Town could be above suspicion?

De Lancey disabused him of any such hope in late June when the Chief Justice received word that Othello had been denounced in the investigation, and promptly shipped his slave back to New York in chains.

He arrived in the last days of the governor’s official amnesty window for slave confessions, having heard God knows what of proceedings from his distance. His accuser Adam gave him sound advice in the city hall’s then-teeming basement prison: “to confess … [as] a Means of getting him[self] off.” But Othello at first refused to do so, even when warned that he had little time remaining to take advantage of the amnesty.

Othello being asked, Why he so positively denied on Saturday, that he knew any Thing about the Plot; though he was warned of the Proclamation, and that the Time therein limited for the Confederates to come in and make voluntary Confession and Discovery, would expire as Tomorrow; and notwithstanding he was told, that there was full and clear Evidence against him, Why he did not take the Recorder’s Advice, and confess then what he had done now? He answered with a Smile,

Why, Sir, I was but just then come to Town.

The reluctance is easy to understand. Othello was the Man Friday to a colonial oligarch: it was worth a risk to defend that position against the loss in stature and comfort that would surely result from being sold abroad. Besides that, he needed time to get his bearings: who was accusing him of what? What cards did he hold?

Othello soon understood that advancing a strong claim of innocence would be a nonstarter, so on the eve of the amnesty’s expiration he tried to claim it by offering a “confession.” It’s the first of several that would be extracted from him; each is a noticeably minimalist contrivance to fit his circumstances of the moment — too cute by half, a cruel observer might say. In late June, Othello simply named a bunch of names that others had already named with few additional details. The judges could see very well that this was no better than a token submission.

Come July 12th, having been issued a summary death sentence upon the guilty plea he had committed to, Othello expanded that confession. Now he detailed a longer intimacy with John Hughson — but one in which Othello, although aware of the plot, repeatedly refused to swear hiimself to it. The plot as the court understood it required its adherents to promise to kill their own masters. By insisting he had never sworn, Othello wanted to avoid going on record with any intent to slay James De Lancey. He was a week from execution at this moment, and still he dreamed that maybe De Lancey would one day take him back.

But the privilege Othello clung to might have already begun to cut against him. As an appearance-of-propriety issue vis-a-vis his white neighbors, was De Lancey, the highest judge in the colony and the wealthiest man in the colony, going to spare his own property from the full rigor of the law when his court had so readily destroyed other men’s slaves? The judges considered where Othello stood with his late and cloying “confessions”, and on July 16 recommended against extending him a pardon.

Still Othello tried one last time — on the very morning of his execution. On that occasion, Horsmanden took down one last, expanded confession … and even at this desperate hour, Othello was trying to thread the needle where his master’s life was concerned.

That Adam persuaded him, since he came in Jail, to say, that he had agreed to kill his Master and Mistress; and that by saying so, he would get clear: But this was all false, he never engaged to do any such Thing, nor was it ever proposed to him by Hughson, or any one else; only Hughson told him, he must rise with the Mob, and kill the People in general, as the rest were to do.

No doubt poor Othello had invested many of his last hours going over this decisive confession, trying to calibrate it precisely. Unfortunately, it showed.

For Horsmanden and his fellow judges, what Othello had provided was “neither voluntary nor free, but came from them very unwillingly, and after much Persuasion” and Othello as with his fellow-prisoner Quack only “acknowledged their Guilt in general, by their Plea, and by their Confessions, in a few Particulars, thinking thereby, as it may well be inferred, to come off as cheap as they could.” Horsmanden does not seem far from the mark in this observation, much as posterity might doubt his certainty that “both had it in their Power to make very considerable Discoveries.” At any rate,

The Judges could by no Means think them proper Objects of Mercy; and had they recommended them to the Governor as such, and his Honour had pardoned them, such Lenity towards them, might have been deemed Cruelty to the People.

As ghastly as this was for Othello and his mates, this date essentially finished the court’s business with the Negro Plot.

Does that mean we have reached the end of our series? Alas, the court’s bloodthirst had not quite been slaked. … for in the course of winding down, Horsmanden et al had opened one last line of inquiry, in hot pursuit now for a true arch-villain to lurk behind the passe conspiracies of slaves, an enemy dread enough to equal the advertised danger to New York City.

“The Old proverb has herein also been verifyed,” a satisfied Horsmanden would eventually report of this last phase that was even then opening up “that there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.”

* This was also the explicit preference of acting governor George Clarke, who on June 20 wrote to London that he “desired the Judges to single out only a few of the most notorious for execution, and that I would pardon the rest … whereby their masters will transport them out of hand.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wrongful Executions

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