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.”
Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.
A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).
The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.
The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.
Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …
Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.
The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”
This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”
Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.
Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.
The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*
But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.
Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.
Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”
When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.
They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.
For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.
The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.
Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.
Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.
Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.
* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.
(Thanks for today’s guest post to Daniel Horsmanden, the former judge whose account of hunting down a slave conspiracy in New York in 1741 has been so crucial to our running series on the affair. This entry is Horsmanden’s record (in full) for the events of July 4, 1741.)
The Jail being now throng’d with Negroes committed as Confederates in the Conspiracy, many whereof had made Confessions of their Guilt, in Hopes of Pardon in Consequence of the Proclamation, and others who were pardoned and turned Evidence; it was feared, considering the Season of the Year, that such Numbers closely confin’d might be apt to breed an Infection; therefore the Judges thought it was proper to examine the List of them, and to to mark out such as should be thought proper to recommend to his Honour the Lieutenant Governor, to be pardoned, upon Condition of Transportation to be therein limited by a short Time, and to distinguish which of them who had been made Use of as Witnesses, might be necessary to reserve for some Time; and for this Purpose they associated to them Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Lodge, by whose Assistance the following List was accordingly settled, which the Judges reported to his Honour, and submitted to his Consideration.
A List of Negroes recommended this Day by the Judges to his Honour the Lieutenant Governor, for Transportation.
This Day Will, Ward’s Negro, was executed according to Sentence, and made the following Confession at the Stake.
He said, That William Kane, a Soldier belonging to the Fort, knew of the Plot; and he heard the said Kane say, he did not care if the Fort was burnt down: That since the Plot was discovered he told Kane he would make a Discovery; on which Kane gave him three Pounds in Bills, and told him, not to discover; Part of which Money his young Mistress found in his Chest.
That his Mistress lost a Silver Spoon, which he, Will, stole and carried to Kane’s Wife, who gave it her Husband in his Presence, and he sold it to Peter Van Dyke, a Silver-Smith, and gave him [Will] eight Shillings of the Money.
That Kane and Kelly asked Quack to burn the Fort, and said if that was done, they (the Soldiers) would have their Liberty; and Kelly said, you must do it with some wet Cotten, and that will make no Smoke.
That he has talked of the Plot with Kane and Kelly often, and has been at Kane’s House, and has heard that other Soldiers were concerned, but does not know them. That he has seen Quack (Walter’s) there, Ryndert’s Tom, Governour’s Jack, Cuyler’s Pedro; and John (Vanzant’s) went round, who received some Money in his Hat, collected at a Meeting at Kelly’s, which Money was to be paid to Hughson.
That Quack, Goelet’s, and Will, Tiebout’s, drew him in; and called on their Names to the last.
That Pedro (De Peyster’s) is innocent for what he knows.
That 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; 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.
That Pintard’s Caesar said much the same; and Comfort’s Jack advised Cato; but that Jack was a true Evidence.
The Pile being kindled, this Wretch set his Back to the Stake, and raising up one of his Legs, laid it upon the Fire, and lifting up his Hands and Eyes, cried aloud, and several Times repeated the Names, Quack Goelet & Will Tiebout, who he had said brought him into this Plot.
This Evening William Kane, Soldier, Quack, Goelet’s, and Will, Tiebout’s, Negroes, were apprehended and committed.
After we had several of the Fires mentioned in the Introduction to this JOURNAL, Quack, Goelet’s, was had up and examined before the Magistrates, for some suspicious Words overheard to be uttered by him, to another Negro, which seemed to import strong Hints as if he had been privy to the Occasion of them; but nothing could be made of it, and was therefore discharged. But this was long before we had the least Intimation of a Conspiracy.
On this date in 1741, according to Daniel Horsmanden’s relentless chronicle of his pursuit of the great New York slave conspiracy “Duane’s Prince, Latham’s Tony, Shurmur’s Cato, Kip’s Harry, and Marshalk’s York, negroes, were executed at the gallows, according to sentence; and the body of York was afterwards hung in chains, upon the same gibbet with John Hughson.”
Seventeen days have here elapsed since the most recent executions, but despite the lull in corpses New York’s high court has not rested its guard.
Those seventeen days consume 43 pages of Horsmanden’s journal. Roughly half of that space consists of confessions or “confessions”: it was by now obvious that this was the path to safety, and the colonial governor confirmed same by publishing on June 19th an amnesty “offer[ing] and promis[ing] His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon to any every Person and Persons, whether White People, free Negroes, Slaves, or others, who had been or were concerned in the said Conspiracy, who should on or before the first Day of July then next, voluntarily, freely and fully discover, and Confession make, of his, her or their Confederates, Accomplices, or others concerned in the said Conspiracy”
And so Horsmanden’s document grows heavy with lifesaving auto-denunciations. For late June and the first days of July alone we read
Confession of Mink, Negro of John Groesbeck, Before the Grand Jury.
The Confession of Tom, Ben. Moore’s Negro, Before the Grand Jury.
Confession of Wan, Indian Man of Mr. Lowe, Before the Grand Jury.
Confession of York, Negro of Marschalk’s.
Confession of London, Negro of Marschalk’s.
Confession of Pompey, Negro.(Mr. Peter De Lancey’s.) Before One of the Judges.
Confession of Caesar (Alderman Pintard’s) Negro, Before One of the Judges.
Confession of Cato, Col. MOORE’s Negro, Before One of the Judges.
Confessions of several Negroes, Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Starling, Mr. S. Lawrence’s Negro, Before one of the Judges.
The Confession of Quack, WALTER’s Negro. By an unknown Hand.
Confession of Dundee (TODD’s) Negro. Taken by a Private Hand.
Confession of London, (Mr. French’s) Negro, Taken before his Master by a private Hand.
Confession of Jack, (J. Tiebout’s) Negro, Before Alderman BANCKER.
Confession of London, a Spanish Indian (Wynkoop’s) Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Brash, Mr. PETER JAY’s Negro, Taken before one of the Judges.
Confession of Tom, (SOUMAIN’s) By a private Hand.
Examination & Confession of Jack, Mr. Murray’s Negro, Before one of the Judges.
Examination and Confession of Adam, Negro of JOSEPH MURRAY Esq;. Taken before one of the Judges.
Confession of Harry, KIP’s Negro, under Conviction. Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Cato, Mr. Shurmur’s Negro, under Conviction. Before one of the Judges.
Confessions taken this Day by Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Lodge, of the Fifteen following Negroes.
Confessions of the four following Negroes taken by Mr. George Joseph Moore.
Confession of Emanuel, a Spanish Negro, belonging to Thomas Wendover. Taken by a private Hand.
Confession of Cajoe, alias Africa, (GOMEZ’s) By a private Hand.
Confession of Tom, Mr. R. LIVINGSTON’s Negro: Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Pedro (DE PEYSTER’s Negro.) By John Schultz.
Confession of Jeffery (Capt. Brown’s) and Mars (Benson’s) Negroes: Before the Grand Jury.
Confession of Scotland, Mr. MARSTON’s Negro, Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Braveboy (Mrs. KIERSTEDE’s) Before one of the Judges.
Confession of Windsor (Samuel Myers Cohen’s Negro) Taken by John Schultz.
The Confessions of the seven Negroes following, taken by Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Lodge.
Minutes of Othello’s Examination & Confession, Taken before one of the Judges the 29th & 30th June.
Confession of Sam, Negro of Col. FREDERICK CORTLANDT, Before one of the Judges.
The eight following Negro Confessions were taken this Day by Mr. Nicholls and Mr. Lodge.
As each in turn named his names, the city hall’s cellar gaol grew overcrowded with plotters, some hundred or more in total as June ended. “Between the 19th and this day,” Horsmanden remarked in his June 27th entry, “there were upwards of Thirty Slaves more added to [the dungeon], insomuch that the Jail began to be so thronged, ’twas difficult to find Room for them.”
[W]e were apprehensive, that the Criminals would be daily multiplying on our Hands; nor could we see any Likelihood of a Stop to Impeachments; for it seemed very probable that most of the Negroes in Town were corrupted.
The Season began to grow warm, as usual; and … ’twas feared such Numbers of them closely confined together, might breed an Infection.
The spiraling investigation was not only a risk to public health: slaves were valuable property, too valuable to put to the torch without excellent cause. In New York Burning, Jill Lepore estimates that New York had perhaps 450 or so adult black men at this point, and about 200 of them were at some point implicated in the sedition. Horsmanden wasn’t kidding when he fretted “most of the Negroes in Town.”
Facing a potential bloodbath of truly horrifying expense, New York at this point began to pull back — it’s cold comfort to those still doomed like today’s quintet, but today’s mass hanging puts the affair onto the downslope.
On July 1 the colony’s chief justice, James De Lancey, returned from a mission mediating a Massachusetts-Rhode Island boundary dispute that had kept him away from New York for several months.
During De Lancey’s absence the entire progress of the arson scare and its subsequent investigations had unfolded. It had been spearheaded by a junior justice,* our correspondent Daniel Horsmanden.
Horsmanden compiled his The New York Conspiracy, or the History of the Negro Plot in 1742, and was keen to vindicate himself in an event that had obviously become controversial to his contemporaries — so Horsmanden’s account tends to efface the personal role of Horsmanden himself in preference to the institutional authority of the court as a whole.
Nevertheless, to a very great extent the judicial proceedings that turned New York upside-down in 1741 were Horsmanden’s own baby. He’s the chief investigator and interrogator; the confessions above taken “before one of the judges” were taken before Horsmanden. Others he won indirectly (“JOHN SCHULTZ made Oath, That whereas by the Judge’s Orders he took a Confession in Writing from the Mouth of Pedro …”) or secured for open court as a consequence of his private interrogations. A few times he even refers in the third person to actions of the “City Recorder”, which was a municipal office that Horsmanden himself also held.
Not incidentally, Horsmanden was also a man on the make: an arriviste English gentleman induced to try his fortune in the New World after meeting ruin in the South Sea Bubble. De Lancey, by contrast, was fruit of New York’s wealthiest family and an experienced hand in colonial politics. He’s too smooth to have given us a paper trail, but the space between the lines suggests that De Lancey may have returned to bring Horsmanden’s ship into the shore.
On July 2, the chief justice sat in court for the first time in this affair, ordering “Will, WARD’s Negro” to burn without wasting time on a trial. Indeed, although our series is not yet at its end, the negro plot trials are virtually finished once De Lancey returns; his court thereafter opens its daily proceedings only to adjourn, or to collect the pro forma guilty pleas and submissions to mercy of fresh batches of slaves — few of whom are now suffered to submit new confessions that would inevitably denounce new victims. The De Lancey court’s chief business becomes throttling down, emptying its docket, and arranging its inconvenient and unsanitary legion of basement prisoners for release or penal transportation.
But there were still loose ends to tie off, and the credibility of the court could scarcely admit abrupt reversals of what had already transpired.
Despite the amnesty, York (Marschalk’s),** Harry (Kip’s) and Cato (Shurmur’s) all happened to be convicted on the 19th. Discovering hours too late that the governor had extended his reprieve offer that very day, they immediately tried to clamber into safe harbor by admitting what they had already been condemned for — “THAT what was said against him at the Trial Yesterday, was true” — “That all that the Witnesses testified against him in Court on his Trial was true” — “THAT all the Witnesses who spoke against him at his Trial, spoke the Truth.” But that wasn’t good enough to save them, since their confessions post-conviction were not free and voluntary discoveries.
Tony and Prince, who shared their gallows but with whom this author would better share a foxhole, were proud and steely enough to venture a trial on June 26th in the midst of the amnesty window. It was a potential mass trial save that 12 other co-defendants opted out of simply by submitting confessions. Our two holdouts faced a cavalcade of slave accusations supplemented by the white arch-accuser Mary Burton and “asked the Witnesses no material Questions; upon their Defence, they only denied what had been testified against them.” New York executed these courageous men, of course.
According to Peter Zenger’s Weekly Journal (July 6, 1741), none of those executed on June 3 “acknowledg’d any Guilt; but by their Prevarications their Guilt appear’d too plain than to be deny’d” — a fine barometer of the prevailing climate — and one (unspecified) slave survived his execution and “after he had hang [sic] the common Time, or rather longer, when he was cut down, shew’d Symptoms of Life, on which he was tied up again.”
* Horsmanden was actually 12 years older than De Lancey, but outranked by De Lancey in stature and precedence.
** Another of Marschalk’s slaves named London was convicted along with York, Harry, and Cato — and subsequently confessed under exactly the same circumstances as his three hanged mates. It is unclear from Horsmanden’s record why London was spared but York was not merely hanged but gibbeted; one wonders whether the double financial hit to Mr. Marschalk might not have been the consideration — and if so, whether the master had to make an off-the-record Sophie’s choice between his men. Whatever the case, London was among a large number of slaves recommended on July 4 for transportation which had the effect of ridding New York of their seditious presence while also allowing their owners to recoup their sale value.
The Protestant martyr John Bradford, burned for his faith on this date in 1555, is the popularly reputed source of the idiom “There but for the grace of God go I” — a sentiment admirably fashioned for reckoning the scaffold.
Those who know their own hearts, will be ready to acknowledge, that the seeds of the worst and most aggravated wickedness which have been practised by other men, lie hid therein, (Matt. xv. 19,) and are only restrained from bursting forth by God’s grace. The pious Martyr Bradford, when he saw a poor criminal led to execution, exclaimed, “there, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford”. He knew that the same evil principles were in his own heart which had brought the criminal to that shameful end. (Source)
It was certainly apt for Bradford himself, who got religion as a student in the 1540s, left off law studies for theology, and was ordained an Anglican deacon by Bishop Nicholas Ridley just in time for the wheel of fortune to spin back to Catholicism.
Clapped in prison within the first weeks of Queen Mary‘s attempted Catholic restoration, Bradford for a time shared lodgings in the Tower with both Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.
Alas, be he ever so pious, our holy martyr’s temporal legacy — his authorship of the aphorism attributed him — remains impossible to substantiate. The remark is not known to have appeared in print until well over two centuries after Bradford’s cold ashes melted into the Smithfield market, and it was thereafter attributed in the 19th century to a variety of other figures as well as to Bradford. (The rivals on no better authority than Bradford could claim, it must be said.) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, puts the remark in the mouth of 17th century divine Richard Baxter. (“I never hear of such a case as this that I do not think of Baxter’s words, and say, ‘There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes.'” in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”)
But the mysterious provenance is only fitting, since that grace expired soon enough for John Bradford — as it does for all other flesh besides.
Hanged on this date in 1726, Joseph Quasson enjoys a minor distinction in the annals of the gallows press: according to friend of the blog Anthony Vaver, Samuel Moody’s account of Quasson’s long* jailhouse sojourn was the first published in the colonies as a standalone conversion narrative, without cover of an attached ministerial sermon.
And here it is:
* Quasson fatally shot a fellow enlistee serving during Father Rale’s War. There was no question about his guilt, but when the murder took place the next sitting of the court was nine months away so the man just got to cool his heels.
Despite the immense concourse, this gigantic hanging of miscellaneous thieves rates little better than footnote mention in the period’s press. England was gallows-mad; CapitalPunishmentUK.org makes it 56 hangings in 1784 in London alone. There would be an even larger mass execution (20 people) the next February!
The Prussian code had restricted capital punishment as early as 1743, and after 1794 only murderers were executed. Catherine‘s reforms to similar effect followed in Russia in 1767 and Joseph II‘s in Austria in 1787. Philadelphia Quakers dispensed with capital punishment after the American Revolution. In Amsterdam in the 1780s less than 1 a year were killed; barely 15 were executed annually in Prussia in the 1770s, and a little over 10 in Sweden in the 1780s. Towards 1770 about 300 people a year were condemned in the whole of France; over twice that number were condemned annually between 1781 and 1785 in London alone. [most were reprieved -ed.] Before the guillotine’s invention French punishments were crueller than English … even so, only 32 people were executed in Paris in 1774-7, against 139 in London.
By the time of the Bloody Code, what had once been an outlying village was being absorbed into the city, and as we come to our scene in the mid-18th century was a place of rising respectability decreasingly at home with the sordid task appointed to it — and with the disorderly revel thereby invited. Neighbors were pushing to send away the gallows.
William Hogarth, Industry and Idleness, Plate 11; The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn (1747). The execution itself is barely visible, swallowed up in a disordered throng.
In little more than a generation’s time, public executions would indeed be removed from Tyburn altogether. But the tree itself did not quite make it to the end of Tyburn’s famous run.
That evil structure’s last client emerged around midnight on the night of April 16. Returning home late from a night of boozing and/or whoring, one Richard Ireland rounded onto Drury Lane where — he told the court — Catharine Knowland
bid me stop, and asked me where I was going; I said, what is that to you; she took hold on the skirt of my coat, and catch’d hold of my watch and pull’d it from my pocket; I made a struggle with her; then up came a man and said, You scoundrel dog, what business have you with my wife, and down he knock’d me; I was sensible and got up directly and pursued her.
The watch was worth 40 shillings, which meant it was worth a thief’s life.
Knowland unsuccessfully tried to plead her belly, a common enough ploy, but it seems her situation excited some sympathy beyond the ordinary for on this day of her death, “When she came to Tyburn, all the Cross-Beams were pulled down; so she was tied up on the Top of one of the upright Posts, and hung with her Back to it.” (London Public Advertiser, Tuesday, June 19, 1759.)
By that summer, beams and posts alike had been demolished — replaced by a smaller, portable structure, to begin public hangings’ a century-long shrinkage from the raucous mobs under the Tyburn Tree until the spectacle at last vanished behind prison walls altogether.
On this date in 1714, “the Negroes Cato (Cowley’s) Fortune (Vanderspeigle’s) Cato alias Toby, Ben and Quash, were executed according to their respective Sentences.”
That’s the entirety of the text in Daniel Horsmanden‘s compenium to describe a quintuple burning of rebel slaves in New York, and as the dismissive treatment implies this was an occasion of little moment within the colony’s 1741 hunt for a great slave conspiracy.
We have by this point clearly reached the point in the story at which the trials feed on themselves.
To recall the action to this point: a series of fires in March and April had inflamed a popular conviction that servile arsonists were afoot, until “Many people had such terrible apprehensions … that several negroes (and many had been assisting at the fire at the storehouse, and many perhaps that only seemed to be so) who were met in the streets, after the alarm of their rising, were hurried away to jail.”
New Yorkers, to their partial credit, did not put these suspected blacks all to lynch law, but it is an open question whether the judicial proceedings extended to the 34 people eventually executed in the affair really uncovered any plot — or merely hammered the existing public paranoia into specious evidence.
Either way, the breakthrough in the law’s eyes was the deposition given on April 22nd by Mary Burton, a young and disgruntled servant, that her master and mistress, their boarder, and three slaves (and known thieves) “used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.”
Burton left herself some wiggle room for the purges she might have guessed might follow by mentioning up to “Twenty or Thirty Negroes at one Time in her Master’s House” but she only identified by name here six specific people. And by this point in our story, mid-June, they are dead every one of the six: the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee; her master John Hughson, his wife Sarah, and their Irish boarder Peggy Kerry.
Whether or not they were rightly accused or fairly prosecuted, one could easily imagine a world where their deaths are the end of the story.
But in our world, the dimensions and the participants of the plot so-called were already ballooning. Information wrung out by investigators who were by now convinced of the plot’s existence — from men at the stake teased with the prospect of pardon; from jailhouse snitches; and more from Mary Burton herself, who would repeatedly appear in Horsmanden’s pages to light the next passage forward — had already brought to the stakes another batch of slaves, on June 9.
This group had previously been stitched up thanks in part to a slave named Sawney or Sandy who gave evidence against them under the threat of being prosecuted with them. After five were condemned, one of their company, a slave named Jack,* dodged execution by offering the judges a copious affidavit confirming Sawney’s evidence and adding still more names to the plot.
These men’s charges would prove instrumental in the execution of June 16 — almost a sideshow as compared to the arc of the arson panic as a whole, but a melodrama that meant death for the blood offerings by which Sawney and Jack bought their lives.
Toby or Cato (Provoost’s) enters the documentary record on June 9, from the evidence that the condemned Jack gives while his four friends are burning to death.
Ben (Captain Marshall’s) and Quash (Rutger’s) appear as a unit in that same evidence of Jack’s, principal fellows in Hughson’s conspiracy in a scene that Jack coyly lays at a moment his fellow-witness Mary Burton “was above making a Bed.” In it, Ben
said, he could find a Gun, Shot and Powder, at his Master’s House: That his Master did not watch him, he could go into every Room: Ben asked Quash, What will you stand for? He said, he did not care what he stood for, or should be, but he could kill Three, Four, Five White Men before Night.
That Quash said, he could get two half Dozen of Knives in Papers, three or four Swords; and that he would set his Master’s House on fire, and when he had done that, he would come abroad to fight.
Cato (Cowley’s) and Fortune (Vanderspiegle’s) enter the paper trail on May 25, when they are named by Sandy. Both were arrested as a result, but we do not hear more about them for a fortnight, until Jack corroborates Sandy’s charges.
The cascade of accusations proved neatly self-affirming. Another slave named Will and bearing the winsome nickname “Ticklepitcher” was accused by Cuffee and Quack at the stake when they believed that it might save their lives. (It didn’t.) That was after Sandy had already given his evidence, but Jack, no fool, rolled Ticklepitcher too right into his (Jack’s) 40-point affidavit.**
This led Tickle himself to give evidence for the crown by naming 20 other participants in Hughson’s plot, among them Cato and Fortune. And yet another black man, named Bastian or Tom Peal, followed a similar path: first named by Mary Burton in one of her secondary examinations in May — and then confirmed in guilt by Sandy and Jack — upon his own conviction also went over to the inquisitors, “as was intimated by Somebody about the Jail he would.” Bastian named every member of the June 16 execution party save Fortune.
These, then, were the accusers presented in the June 13 trial that doomed our quintet: Mary Burton, and all the progeny of her first deposition two months before: Sandy, Jack, Ticklepitcher, Bastian, and yet two more slaves who had made themselves the same lifesaving bridge from accused to accuser.
Through their mutually corroborating — and mutually interested — evidence, the court was able to show to its satisfaction that
these stupid Wretches seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, and Hughson his Agent,† to undertake so senseless, as well as wicked an Enterprize; which must inevitably end in their own Destruction … are equally as guilty as if they themselves had devised it, by consenting to it, taking Oaths to proceed in it, and in the mean Time to keep it secret.
The jury, perhaps mindful that “[t]he Number of the Conspirators is very great … and we have still daily new Discoveries of many more” withdrew for but “a little Time” before closing this particular chapter with the preordained result. There would be yet another trial the very day after these five burned.
* Most slaves in the narrative are identified by a first name plus the possessive surname of their owner. The Jack in question belonged to a man named Comfort, so Horsmanden refers to him as Jack (Comfort’s) — in distinction from, for instance, Jack (Sleydall’s).
** No lie, Jack’s information runs to almost three full pages with 40 numbered bullets.
† Hughson’s narrative importance to the theory of a burgeoning servile rebellion will thrill the student of race in American history: “It cannot be imagined that these silly unthinking Creatures (Hughson’s black Guard) could of themselves have, and carried on so deep, so direful and destructive a Scheme, as that we have seen with our Eyes, and have heard fully proved they had prepared for us, without the Advice and Assistance of such abandoned Wretches as Hughson was.” Those are the prosecutor’s words; in sentencing, the court termed our five “inferior Agents.”