Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.
This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.
By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.
Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.
The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.
1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.
There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”
New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741
A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.
But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.
We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.
Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.
As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.
Suffice to say that, wherever one lays the reasons, London’s gravitational force drags the eyeballs.
For this week’s series, it’s time to do justice to the everyday criminals who plied their trades outside the Great Wen. Specifically, we’ll be off to the Welsh frontier to meet some Shropshire malefactors whose long-ago crimes waft the moldy bouquet of that West Midlands county’s distinctive cheese.
The sequence of March execution dates upon which this post series hangs (ahem) is more than coincidence, for the pattern of executions in Shropshire — as is generally true outside of London — tracks sittings of the intermittent assizes.
This juridical innovation predated the Magna Carta and somehow persisted until disco: traveling judges commissioned by the state to hold courts of oyer and terminer in six different regional circuits. Shropshire was part of the Oxford circuit with Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herfordshire, Monmouthshire, and Gloucestershire; typically, Shropshire’s assizes were held in its centrally located county town, Shrewsbury, twice per year — once during Lent, and again in the summer. At these assizes the mobile barristers would plop down, straighten their wigs, and in the course of a few weeks try all the pending felony cases that had stacked up since their last visit. Then they would pick up and move to the next county in the circuit.
When there were many capital cases in the queue, assizes could turn downright bloody — but in more normal times, their product was predictability. Thanks to the assize schedule, 18th and 19th century Shropshire hangings almost all take place in either March-April, or July-August. Head over to capitalpunishmentuk.org and browse their logs of historical executions: see what I mean?
With due appreciation to the court’s metronomic regularity, the next few days will be dedicated to a selection of Salopean March noosings … common crimes, to be sure, and maybe a bit out of the way — but for those who touched them every bit as rich with malice and majesty and madness as ever a London footpad could design.
** This fate befalls the titular tortured scientist in Frankenstein: he wastes three months in prison on suspicion of murdering his friend awaiting “the season of the assizes”, at which point “I was obliged to travel nearly a hundred miles to the county-town, where the court was held.”
For this month’s brief but quite graphic Corpses Strewn series (pair, really) concerning Irish outlaws who were hanged and cut apart in 1719, we are indebted to the curated collection of gallows broadsheets in James Kelly’s Gallows Speeches From Eighteenth-Century Ireland.
Gallows Speeches delivers what it promises to the tune of 61 broadsheets and one pamphlet transcribed from surviving originals; we’ll certainly have occasion to revisit some choicest morsels in future posts.
But Kelly really makes the book with a 58-page introductory analysis of this genre’s evolution through the 18th century, and the difficult job we have in posterity to situate such artifacts confidently in their own world: how accurate were they? how much did the genre’s formula and the demands of commercial publishers swallow up the convict’s “true” voice? how wide a readership did these broadsheets enjoy, and how did the general populace engage with them?
We don’t have answers in these specific instances or hardly any others, either. If nothing else, their discomfiting content — a performance of spectacular public butchery, preceded by the criminals’ own self-conscious performance of contrition — give us a window into the period of the death penalty as exemplary deterrence.
On January 20, 1970, the government of Iraq crushed a coup attempt … and in the days immediately ensuing it executed a reported 44 people.
From the vantage of the decades since passed, this must appear but a minor bloodbath — and an early harbinger of the lethal political orbit of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq at this point was a mere 18 months into the rule of the Ba’ath party, commanded for the moment by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, elder cousin to his number two, Saddam Hussein. Over the course of the 1970s, Saddam became ever more the essential man in Baghdad until by decade’s end he was able to usurp his kinsman in another bloody purge.
According to Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography, the coup that forms our concern this date was led by two retired senior officers, Abd al-Ghani al-Rawi, a loyalist of the Ba’athists’ Nasserite predecessors, and Salih Mahdi al-Samarra’i — and, Baghdad charged, backed by “Iran, the CIA, and the Zionists.”
According to the official account, the plotters formed “hit squads” that were supposed to kill Party and governmental officials. The zero hour was set for 10:00 pm. on January 20, but most of the plotters had been arrested beforehand. The hard core of the plot, some 50 armed men headed by al-Samarra’i, managed to set out for the Presidential Palace. Once they reached their destination, the gates were thrown open, and after entering without resistance, the grou pwas led into a large hall. As they weighed their options, the door was thrown open and Saddam entered the hall, accompanied by several officers. The plotters surrendered peacefully, after recognizing that they had been lured into a trap.
A snap tribunal chaired by Taha Yassin Ramadan — himself destined for hanging during the American occupation — instantly convened and began meting out death sentences by the fistful: for civilians, hangings; for military men, shootings conducted with the rebels’ own weaponry.
This site owes a fair few posts to the Newgate Calendar, a heap of crime stories collected higgledy-piggledy in the 18th and 19th century. For a time, it was one of the books most commonly found in English homes.
Though we have even seen fit to feature it in a series, the Calendar as a source is typically much more interested in moralizing than in journalistic accuracy. Botched years and dates are the least of it; there are stories created from whole cloth, or wantonly transposed from one malefactor to another, and filtered by way of some third-hand source that has completely twisted the details.
Inasmuch as our interest hereabouts runs to the social life of the hanging-tree, we often have reason to welcome the Newgate Calendar’s inventions. But it should be certainly understood that it’s a source requiring care … as the next three posts will underscore.
Though not exactly the capital of capital punishment, the Peach State has a foundational place in the modern death penalty regime.
It was through a case originating in that state, Furman v. Georgia, that the Supreme Court in 1972 scrapped the country’s existing death penalty statutes. Many states then scrambled to rewrite capital statutes to pass constitutional muster, and in 1976 it was the Georgia version that the justices blessed, clearing the way for executions to resume.
Since that time, Georgia has put to death 57 men and (most recently) one woman, and it feels for all the world like it’s manifested a disproportionate affinity for questionable and unusual cases: the recent execution of Troy Davis despite serious doubts about his guilt is only the most current example. Hey, this is the state that once executed Homer Simpson.
To take one example, the discomfiting 1986 execution of a grievously mentally disabled man led Georgia to implement one of the first laws to protect such prisoners from execution … a law which by its very novelty in the 1980s has lately made headlines because it’s subsequently aged into one of the flimsiest and most obsolescent protections in the country.
It was also through the case of Georgia inmate Warren McCleskey that the 1989 Supreme Court rejected racial proportionality review in capital sentencing — and by this rejection signaled the end of an era of judicial reticence for the death penalty. Executions accelerated through the 1990s all across the United States; Georgia’s special twist, it would later emerge, was keeping secret audio recordings of theirs.
As we dial the clock back to 1996, Georgia’s Supreme Court has not yet found the electric chair unconstitutional but aside from that artifact the period, the cases are not so different from those today. These are a far cry from the strangest executions in Georgia’s history, unless the strangeness lies in their very typicality.
Three years ago, we paused a moment to highlight the already-intrepid contributions made these pages by Meaghan Good.
Meaghan contacted me out of the blue back in June 2010 — so, roughly the neolithic in Internet time — to suggest some execution stories that her voluminous reading had made her aware of.
From her debut in July of 2010 until now, Meaghan has favored this site with more than 160 posts, plus enough additional ones pending future publication to make a clear double century. There are numerous guest authors who have a post here or there and to whom I am immensely grateful … still, only Meaghan has made herself a part of the impossible ongoing enterprise that is Executed Today. Her relentless historical crime research has even made news.
Nobody visits these pages to read about bloggers’ tribulations but it’s hard to overstate just what an gigantic difference it has made to the site and to myself personally to have a perspicacious writer carrying nearly 10% of the daily posting burden over such a protracted period of time. Meaghan has seen this joint through fat years and lean ones, and no exaggeration: absent Ms. Good, Executed Today would not now be nearing an eighth anniversary of every-single-day posting.
That Meaghan has been a godsend for these pages while also continuing her own excellent and heavily researched site, the Charley Project, speaks to a fathomless humane tenacity. Even while moonlighting on our execution beat, Meaghan’s site has made an important contribution to missing-persons investigations in the U.S. — more than 9,000 are profiled there. It’s an incredible project for one human to take on and maintain, as a glance at her log of recent updates to the Charley Project at any given moment will confirm.
Inhabiting though we do a world which promises an unending war on it, we have a devil of a time defining the word “terrorism”. Efforts merely to make a taxonomy out of the scores of interpretations scholars have given it resolve in the end to violence … violence by someone’s official enemies. One needs a number of caveats to rule in the good violence and rule out the bad since use of deadly force to cow people towards one’s political objectives is not so very distant from a definition of government itself — obviously including the hangmen that are this very site’s stock in trade.
Though deeds that meet the know-it-when-I-see-it standard of terrorism go back many centuries — remember, remember, the 5th of November? — the word terrorisme dates only to the French Revolution, when Jacobins self-described with it to position their implacability as a creditable necessity: Terror to the enemies of the Revolution, the armament of Virtue.
Those guillotine years inaugurated a long revolutionary age, arguably still underway now, during which thunderbolts have smote many a head, proud and otherwise; in spite of that or perhaps because, terrorisme never caught on as a laudatory and soon fixed its place amid the peals of 19th century dynamite and infernal machines as mostly a term of abuse.
One may be assured that every reader will have many present-day examples of the phenomenon ready to mind, though it is not unlikely that one reader’s perfidious atrocity might be the next reader’s righteous resistance. Whatever its form — whatever its definition — and whatever the exertions of the flying death-droid program — terrorism by now seems destined like the poor to be with us always. But as the next few days’ posts illustrate, ours is not the only era to have believed that.
They’re forerunners of today’s Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish, among others; to find these amiable sects numbered among civilization’s existential threats over the disputed timing of a proper Christian ablution is to remember that the past is another country.
To challenge infant baptism was to challenge the clergy’s power over the ceremony, and in turn to challenge the vertical hierarchy so essential to the period’s conception of the world.
If the polemical Catholic charge against what we might anachronistically term “mainline Protestantism” was that the Reformation opened the road for disordering everything, Anabaptists looked like that very reductio ad absurdum made flesh. (Martin Luther was certainly keen to dissociate himself, as was John Calvin, who termed Anabaptists a “nefarious herd.”) Anabaptists took to primitive, fraternal Christianity — the kind thought to have existed among the immediate heirs of the Apostles before the Church became another word for the Man. They rejected as un-Scriptural the authority ordained ministers claimed as God’s interlocutors. Many Anabaptists also worryingly disdained private property. To a greater or lesser extent, these critiques (cousins of which had long drawn official persecution) contradicted the power of established Christian elites both secular and ecclesiastical.
And though pacifism was a prominent part of Anabaptist thinking from the start, the movement’s idealism also fueled millenarian apostles bearing swords, and this too terrified Christendom.
The 1524-1525 Peasants War (idealized by a later era’s Communists) was led by Thomas Müntzer, who was influenced by proto-Anabaptist preachers and who himself rejected infant baptism. A decade later, Anabaptists seized control of Münster and briefly turned that city into a polygamous theocracy.
Surely Anabaptism, then being speedily reshaped by events, would connote a very different thing for us today absent the bloody defeats dealt to these revolutionaries — and absent the many executions that its persecuted adherents endured. We give this site over for the next several days to Anabaptist martyrs: not necessarily its most illustrious ones, but representatives of the many people stirred in those days to make a testament of faith on the scaffold.
* “Re-baptizer” is the literal Greek root of the term Anabaptist. Affixed by their enemies, the word was long rejected by the Anabaptists themselves on the theological grounds that infant baptism was an empty ritual — and therefore adults weren’t being re-baptized at all, but simply baptized for the first time.