Posts filed under 'New York'

1920: Rickey Harrison, Hudson Duster

Add comment May 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1920, Rickey Harrison of the Greenwich Village “Hudson Dusters” went to the electric chair for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery.

As befits a gaggle of old time New York hoodlums this crowd was rife with colorful nicknames — Goo Goo Knox, Circular Jack, Ding Dong — and hired out its thrashings in service of Tammany Hall‘s rude electoral manipulations. Their signal achievement was earning a popular doggerel tribute that rang in the streets in its day, by beating senseless a beat cop who’d had the temerity to arrest some of their number.

Says Dinny [patrolman Dennis Sullivan], “Here’s me only chance
To gain meself a name;
I’ll clean up the Hudson Dusters,
And reach the hall of fame.”*
He lost his stick and cannon,
and his shield they took away.
It was then he remembered,
Every dog had his day.

At their peak the Hudson Dusters could rank as one of the brighter stars in the dizzying constellation of Big Apple crooks. Herbert Asbury’s classic The Gangs of New York notes that “perhaps fifty small groups … operated south of Forty-second street [and] owed allegiance to the Gophers, Eastmans, Five Pointers, Gas Housers, and Hudson Dusters … Each of these small gangs was supreme in its own territory, which other gangs under the same sovereighty might not invade, but its leader was always responsible to the chieftain of the larger gang, just as a prince is responsible to his king.” Allegedly future Catholic social justice activist Dorothy Day, then a teenage radical journalist just moved to New York City, enjoyed carousing with the Dusters in the 1910s.

Despite political pull through Tammany (and heavenly pull through Dorothy) arrests and gang wars dusted the Dusters over the first two decades of the 20th century.

Our man Rickey Harrison, a pipsqueak Irishman with a substandard nickname (“Greenwich Village Terror” … lame), led a gangland raid on a high-stakes poker game at the Knickerbocker Waiters Club on September 7, 1918, and shot dead a Canadian soldier who refused to give up his boodle. Harrison would go to his grave insisting that it was not he who fired the fatal shot, although he was markedly less scrupulous about accounting the undetected and unprosecuted crimes of his career.

As a last indignity, Harrison and another murderer named Chester Cantine — who preceded the gangster to the electric chair — had to brace themselves for eternity within earshot of a raucous Sing Sing vandeville show where prisoners and 800 visitors were “applauding and roaring with laughter in an improvised theatre a few feet away … comic sketches [and] jazz music resounded throughout the prison.” (New York Times, May 14, 1920)

Harrison’s last sentiment — “Let us hope and pray they will never do this thing to another man, innocent or guilty” — still awaits fulfillment a century later.

* The apparent allusion is to the Hall of Fame for Great Americas, a civic pantheon opened in 1900 that is now part of Bronx Community College. This outdoor colonnade, still extant but largely forgotten, imported its busts-of-great-men concept from Bavaria; the Hall’s popularity in its time makes it the ancestor of the innumerable Halls of Fame that have since come to litter the North American civic landscape.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Organized Crime,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Theft,USA

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1821: Tommy Jemmy executes Kauquatau

Add comment May 2nd, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1821, a chief of the Seneca Native American nation slit the throat of a woman named Kauquatau, who had been condemned as a witch.

As Matthew Dennis explains in his book on the Seneca of the early American Republic, Seneca Possessed, the rapid march of European settlement and the Seneca’s recent and ambiguous incorporation into the newborn United States had strained the indigenous society in complex ways.

One of those reactions was a period of gendered witch-hunting in the early 19th century, especially growing out of the religious movement of the prophet Handsome Lake.

“Handsome Lake pinpointed the dangers the Seneca faced, the threats that they faced, the source of those threats, and a way … of purging his society of those who were most likely to resist his changes,” Dennis explained in this New Books Network podcast interview.

The “threat” for the instance at hand was a tribal healer who had become suspected of bewitching a man to his death — and her guilt in the same voted on by the Seneca elders. One of their number, Chief Soonongise — known as Tommy Jemmy to whites — went to her cabin on May 2, 1821, and killed her. It’s anyone’s guess whether Kauquatau realized what was happening — whether she took it as a social call or recognized her angel of death from the outset. But to New Yorkers, it was murder plain as day — and Tommy Jemmy was soon confined to a gaol to stand trial for his life.


Another reaction occasioned by the upheaval of those years, a reaction destined to emerge dramatically in this instance, was a feeling-out of the Seneca people’s position within the Anglo Republic that had engulfed it. “If the Senecas were a conquered people, as some tried to allege, the terms of their conquest were ill defined, their sovereignty, though diminished, still recognizable,” Harris writes. In these very pages we have met this ill-defined sovereignty several times: a few years on from the events of this post, the state of Georgia would defy a Supreme Court stay and execute a Cherokee man in a case turning on disputed sovereignty.*

Here in New York, Tommy Jemmy’s trial would open a different contest over the same underlying question.

Rather than attempting to deny or minimize his “crime,” Tommy Jemmy defended it as a legal execution conducted by the proper jurisdiction of Seneca laws — no matter for the interference of New York. It’s a position that appeared to have ample sympathy among Anglo New Yorkers,** who gingerly kicked the argument to a Circuit Court and thence to the New York Supreme Court which found itself thereby obliged to “a very thorough examination of all the laws, treaties, documents and public history relating to the Indians” going all the way back to the Dutch. (Cherry-Valley Gazette, Aug. 21, 1821)

What musty old scrolls could supply by precedence, the luminous Seneca orator Red Jacket brought to life in his forceful defense. Red Jacket had an expert feel for the pangs in the Anglo conscience, as one can appreciate by his retort against one obvious line of condescension.

What! Do you denounce us fools and bigots because we still believe what you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black-coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formality of law; and would you now punish our unfortunate brother for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours? Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that thousands have been executed for the very crime which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn upon her the arm of vengeance. What have our brothers done more than the rulers of your people? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way the laws of his country and the command of the Great Spirit?

It was by no means certain that Tommy Jemmy’s argument would prevail here; a literally simultaneous case in Michigan saw a native defendant make a similar jursidictional argument and still wind up on the gallows. The question in the end stood outside any existing grant of law — and it was resolved in a legally questionable way, too.

Accepting the merits of Tommy Jemmy’s position but also unwilling to render Indian power over life and death into the statutes, Tommy Jemmy was set free without any judgment and subsequently pardoned by the legislature — the pardon reversing no conviction. He was an executioner, after all.

* U.S. President Andrew Jackson vigorously supported the state in this separation-of-powers dispute: it’s the case of which he alleged to have remarked, “[Chief Justice] John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it.”

** In an essay appearing in New World Orders: Violence, Sanction, and Authority in the Colonial Americas, Dennis notes the precedent here of an 1802 trial involving a Seneca man named Stiff-Armed George. Although Stiff-Armed George murdered a white victim and not on Seneca land, Red Jacket also urged a defense, successfully: “Did we ever make a treaty with the state of New-York, and agree to conform to its laws? No. We are independent from that state of New-York … we appeal to the government of the United States.” (The Seneca did have treaties with the federal government.)

They finessed the issue in the end: Stiff-Armed George was convicted, but immediately pardoned.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,USA,Witchcraft,Women

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1896: Carl Feigenbaum, the Ripper abroad?

Add comment April 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896, New York City electrocuted Carl Feigenbaum.

He’d been convicted of slaying the widow from whom he rented a room at eight cents per day … but many at the time suspected his homicidal exploits might also have traced to Whitechapel, under the dread sobriquet Jack.

We can only really be sure of the one murder: on September 1, 1894, he attacked 56-year-old Julianna Hoffman in her room on East Sixth Street, for the possible reason of robbing her. One ferocious slash with his long bread knife nearly decapitated the landlady; the disturbance roused Hoffman’s 16-year-old son who burst in on the assailant — reportedly just as Feigenbaum had his blade poised to begin horribly gouging the corpse. Both killer and witness grappled briefly and then fled from each other; Feigenbaum was arrested before the day was out.

Today you’d call the part of town East Village but back in the 1890s it was Klein Deutschland, with one of the world’s largest concentrations of Germans abroad.

Probing his client for material to use for an insanity defense,* Feigenbaum’s attorney elicited his client’s self-diagnosis that “I have for years suffered from a singular disease, which induces an all-absorbing passion; this passion manifests itself in a desire to kill and mutilate the woman who falls in my way. At such times I am unable to control myself.” That seems interesting.

It emerged that Feigenbaum had left Germany as a merchant mariner, and that profession had possibly seen his boats tied up in the Thames during the pivotal months when the Whitechapel murders took place.

In the Big Apple, the idea of modern crime’s great bogeyman throwing his demonic shadow across their very own dungeons appealed irresistibly, to nobody moreso than Fiegenbaum’s own attorney William Lawton, who reveled in his hypothesis of proximity to evil and made a silly bid for celebrity on that basis. Lawton claimed to have hit upon the Ripper idea as he pondered the meaning of Feigenbaum’s professed impulse to mutilate women.


From the St. Albans (Vt.) Daily Messenger, April 28, 1896.

The very day after his client’s electrocution, Lawton explicated the suspected connection to the press, “stak[ing] my professional reputation that if the police will trace this man’s movements carefully for the last few years their investigations will lead them to Whitechapel.” (Lawton is also the sole source of Feigenbaum’s alleged self-incrimination, quoted above: to everybody else Feigenbaum insisted on his innocence far past any possible stretch of plausibility, and even carried that insistence to the electric chair.)

Regrettably, Feigenbaum’s pre-Hoffman movements are obscure to the point where Lawton’s theory is essentially immune to corroboration (or refutation). Even when Lawton dropped his intended bombshell did his hypothesis come in for some public ribbing; the New York Tribune scoffed on April 29 of that year that Feigenbaum now being indisposed to object, all the city’s most troublesome unresolved homicides ought to be attributed to this empty cipher.

Despite the surface similarities of his aborted disemboweling to the infamous London crime spree, Feigenbaum’s case for Ripper immortality doesn’t enjoy much of a constituency today. (Trevor Marriott’s 2005 Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation is a notable exception to the skepticism.)

* Feigenbaum, who had been literally caught red-handed, ultimately did not pursue the insanity defense that was probably his only hope of avoiding the chair because he did not have enough money to hire the expert alienists who would be required to present such a case to the jury. But for a guy supposedly resource-constrained, Lawton does seem to have gone to some trouble to research the possible Ripper connection.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1702: Not Nicholas Bayard, anti-Leislerian

Add comment March 30th, 2017 Headsman

March 30, 1702 was the date colonial New York spared Col. Nicholas Bayard from undergoing a hanging scheduled later that same day.

A “puzzling affair, made so by frustratingly incomplete documentation,” in the estimate of Adrian Howe, whose William and Mary Quarterly article (January 1990) “The Bayard Treason Trial: Dramatizing Anglo-Dutch Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century New York City” is a key source for this post: it was certainly blowback for the execution a decade earlier of the Dutch merchant Jacob Leisler who seized control of New York in a populist rising to cement its adherence to the Glorious Revolution. Bayard, a colonial elite related to Peter Stuyvesant himself, was Leisler’s superior in the militia but abhorred the Leislerian intervention on behalf of the usurping Dutch king William III.

Bayard got his by helping to manage Leisler’s prosecution all the way to the gallows, even reputedly hosting the new royal governor at his own house while his party plied him with alcohol in a (successful) bid to overcome his reluctance to sign Leisler’s death warrant — a triumph Bayard celebrated by gaily hanging a flag from his window on the day Leisler hanged.

For a man who had recently found it necessary to flee the city for his own safety, he was a reckless provocateur of a foe that grew to hate him. Anglican clergyman John Miller surveyed the city during the intervening years and noticed that the Leisler party “have vowed revenge & Some Say want but an opportunity to effect their purpose.”

As the 18th century dawned, the Leislerian party — more think artisans, against the magnates — was back in control of the New York’s Provincial Council, and could finally see a way to that purpose. It seized on an intemperate petition that Bayard had drawn up against the late, pro-Leislerian governor Bellomont* and turned a 1691 anti-Leisler law-and-order statue against it.

The resulting eight-day trial in early March was a nakedly political operation although New York’s Dutchmen fell a bit short of the Robespierrian standard: it’s not clear whether they really meant to hound Bayard all the way to death or whether the last-minute pardon was the plan from day one. To get it, Bayard had to submit himself as far a very grudging apology for the offense — “which by the said sentence he finds and is convinced he has committed.” Apparently this sullen abasement was enough to satisfy Team Leisler, who cut here a picture of moderation and restraint that would do their countrymen’s latter-day stereotypes proud; when a new governor arrived, Bayard’s condemnation was fully reversed and expunged, “as if no such trial had been.”

This escape and restoration left Leisler to publish a pamphlet against his treatment, An Account of the illegal prosecution and tryal of Coll. Nicholas Bayard, in the province of New-York, for supposed high-treason, in the year 1701.

* Among other things in his venturesome life, Bellomont sponsored William Kidd when he was a somewhat legitimate privateer, but eventually orchestrated Kidd’s capture as a pirate.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,New York,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,USA

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1641: Not Manuel de Gerrit de Reus, chosen by lot, saved by hemp

Add comment January 24th, 2017 Headsman

Dutch New Amsterdam’s council minutes give us today’s remarkable story, of the chance condemnation and chance deliverance of an Angolan

Our Manuel — his “de Reus” surname came from his Dutch owner — appears to have been among the very earliest slaves imported into New Amsterdam when the Dutch West India Company first introduced this institution in 1626.

By every indication apart from this brush with the scaffold he was a respected man who prospered about as well as his situation permitted. Manuel received (partial) freedom in 1644 along with nine other slaves, prominently including several others charged in this same fracas. These freedmen and their families would thereafter form the nucleus of create Manhattan’s first black community by settling (post-manumission) neighboring farming plots north of Fresh Water Pond.*

We can continue to track Manuel, fleetingly, through colonial records as late as 1674 — by which time his place was no longer New Amsterdam at all, but New York.


Anno 1641. In the Name of God

On Thursday, being the 17th of January, Cornelio vander Hoykens, fiscal, plaintiff, vs. little Antonio Paulo d’Angola, Gracia d’Angola, Jan of Fort Orange, Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, Anthony the Portuguese, Manuel Minuit, Simon Conge and big Manuel, all Negroes, defendants, charged with homicide of Jan Premero, also a Negro. The plaintiff charges the defendants with manslaughter committed in killing Jan Premero and demands that Justice be administered in the case, as this is directly contrary to the laws of God and man, since they have committed a crime of lese majesty against God, their prince and their masters by robbing the same of their subject and servant.

The defendants appeared in court and without torture or shackles voluntarily declared and confessed that they jointly committed the murder, whereupon we examined the defendants, asking them who was the leader in perpetrating this deed and who gave Jan Premero the death blow. The defendants said that they did not know, except that they committed the deed together.

The aforesaid case having been duly considered, it is after mature deliberation resolved, inasmuch as the actual murderer can not be discovered, the defendants acknowledging only that they jointly committed the murder and that one is as guilty as another, to have them draw lots as to who shall be punished by hanging until death do ensue, praying Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, to designate the culprit by lot.

The defendants having drawn lots in court, the lot, by the providence of God, fell upon Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, who shall be kept in prison until the next court day, when sentence shall be pronounced and he be executed.

On the 24th of January, being Thursday The governor and council, residing in New Netherland in the name of the High and Mighty Lords the States General of the United Netherlands, his highness of Orange and the honorable directors of the Chartered West India Company, having seen the criminal proceedings of Cornelio vander Hoykens, fiscal, against little Antonio, Paulo d’Angola, Gracia d’Angola, Jan of Fort Orange, Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, Antony the Portuguese, Manuel Minuit, Simon Conge and big Manuel, all Negroes and slaves of the aforesaid Company, in which criminal proceedings by the fiscal the said Negroes are charged with the murder of Jan Premero, also a slave, committed on the 6th of January 1641, which said defendants on Monday last, being the 21st of this month, without torture or irons, jointly acknowledged in court at Fort Amsterdam that they had committed the ugly deed against the slain Premero in the woods near their houses; therefore, wishing to provide herein and to do justice, as we do hereby, in accordance with the Holy Scriptures and secular ordinances, we have, after due deliberation and consideration of the matter, condemned the delinquents to draw lots which of them shall be hanged until death ensue. And after we had called upon God to designate the culprit by lot, finally, through the providence of God, the lot fell upon Manuel of Gerrit de Reus, who therefore is thereby debarred from any exceptions, pleas and defenses which in the aforesaid matter he might in any wise set up, inasmuch as the ugly murderous deed is committed against the highest majesty of God and His supreme rulers, whom he has deliberately robbed of their servant, whose blood calls for vengence before God; all of which can in no wise be tolerated or suffered in countries where it is customary to maintain justice and should be punished as an example to others; therefore, we have condemned, as we do hereby condemn, the afore­said Manuel of Gerrlt de Reus (inasmuch as he drew the lot) to be punished by hanging until death follows, as an example to all such malefactors.

Thus done and sentenced in our council and put into execution on the 24th of January of this year of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ anno 1641.

On the 24th of January 1641 Manuel of Gerrit de Reus having been condemned to be executed with the rope so that death would follow, standing on the ladder, was pushed off by the executioner, being a Negro, having around his neck two good ropes, both of which broke, whereupon the inhabitants and bystanders called for mercy and very earnestly solicited the same.

We, therefore, having taken into consideration the request of the community, as also that the said Manuel had partly under­gone his sentence, have graciously granted him his life and pardoned him and all the other Negroes, on promise of good behavior and willing service. Thus done the day and year above written, in Fort Amsterdam in New Netherland.

* Also (and better) known as Collect Pond. Although the body of water itself has long since gone the way of urban infill, we touched on its interesting proximity to Gotham’s criminal history in a footnote to this post.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Hanged,History,Murder,Netherlands,New York,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,USA

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1881: A day in the death penalty around the U.S.

Add comment October 14th, 2016 Headsman

Four hangings from the four corners of a continental empire darkened American jurisprudence on this date in 1881.

Sageville, New York

Edward Earl hanged in this Adirondacks hamlet for stabbing to death his wife (never named in any press account I located) four years before

Earl attempted (and obviously failed) an insanity defense, which was an interesting tidbit since Charles Guiteau was at this moment gearing up to do the same after assassinating President Garfield earlier this same year.

Dawson, Georgia

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Oct. 15, 1881:

ATLANTA, Oct. 14 — Frank Hudson, colored, was hanged at Dawson, this state, to-day, for the murder in August last of David Lee, Mrs. Lee and a negro girl. His purpose, according to his confession, was robbery. He was taken to the gallows under guard of a military company and appeared calm and unmoved. He acknowledged his guilt and the justice of his sentence, and hoped he had been forgiven. He was dead in ten minutes from the time the trap was sprung. This is the first execution that has taken place in Kerrell county.

Ukiah, California

For the background of this murder in the heart of hops country, we’ll crib the meandering but compulsively specific testimony of the event’s only third-party witness in original old-timey cant, as quoted by an appellate court:

Harvey Mortier was speakng angry to Richard Macpherson about a wedge ax that Harvey Mortier accused him with stealing, accused him for taking a wedge ax, and Richard Macpherson says to him, he didn’t do it. He says he would go to Hi Stalder and find out who took the ax. The ax belonged to a man named Hi Stalder.

Well! says Harvey Mortier to him, why don’t you come down now and find out who took the ax? Now, says Richard Macpherson, I won’t go till this evening. He says, you had better come now. He says no, he won’t.

“I will find somebody down in the woods that will put a good head on you; give you a good licking.” This last was said by Mortier to Macpherson. Macpherson didn’t go down to Hi Stalder’s to find out who took the ax. He remained with me chopping, and I was chopping at the time and Richard Macpherson was working with me.

He started to work and Harvey Mortier (the defendant) went away, passing where we were. He went on a little, small trail. Before he left he asked me if I see any deers? I said, yes sir. I says, I seen some deers over there in that direction; so he passes along that little trail going that way, towards that way, and I was chopping wood. Didn’t pay no attention to it.

In a few minutes the gun was fired and I looked and seen Macpherson and Mortier. I saw Harvey Mortier shooting. I seen the smoke and the gun in front of him, and he taking the gun down from him. He was standing in bushes that were chopped down, about two feet high.

(The witness here showed the position of Mortier when the shot was fired, which was a stooping one.)

I saw the smoke in front of his face, and he was trying to hide himself. Mortier was thirty-four yards from Macpherson at the time the shot was fired. I measured in the next day with a six-foot pole.

The smoke was right at the end of the gun. I saw Mortier’s face distinctly and recognized him. I had known him five or six years.

After the shot, Macpherson and I ran away. He ran two hundred and thirty-five steps after he was shot. We ran as soon as the shot was fired.

The last I saw of him he was leaning against a fence. He fell down. I then went after help to bring him home.

At the time the shot was fired Macpherson was standing in front of Mortier and I was standing on one side. Macpherson was chopping a tree about six inches through. Macpherson lived about half an hour after the shot was fired.

Silver City, Idaho

We cannot improve on the correspondent who reported Henry MacDonald’s hanging* in Silver City’s local Owyhee Avalanche the very next day:

* Note that the findagrave.com link misdates this hanging as of this post’s publication. In 1881, October 14 (not the 15th) was the Friday, and I trust that the article reproduced here will constitute evidence that “October 15″ did not appear in the original text of the story.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Georgia,Hanged,Idaho,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1791: Whiting Sweeting, who slew the first U.S. cop to die in the line of duty

Add comment August 26th, 2016 Headsman

In a drama of curious names, Albany, New York hanged a gentleman named Whiting Sweeting on this date in 1791. He had slain Darius Quimby in the first recorded killing of a U.S. law enforcement officer in the line of duty.

Showing that needlessly aggressive police tactics are no modern innovation, Quimby put himself in harm’s way by doing the post-colonial equivalent of a no-knock raid.

He was not a regular policeman, but was deputized as part of a small ad hoc posse who attempted to arrest Sweeting on January 3 of that year on a warrant for possessing a stolen kettle.* Because 18th century, the bunch pregamed en route to the encounter by stopping to throw back some rum with buddies; at last arriving at Sweeting’s house in the evening they discovered the man absent and so followed his snowbound footprints into a dark wood.

This Cornell library page preserves several similar versions of original 1791 pamphlets about the case, which consist heavily of Sweeting’s own erudite writings. The testimony of the other constables themselves unanimously agrees that when they found Whiting they started yelling at him to surrender but never announced themselves as officers of the law conducting a legal arrest.

So to sum up, a howling drunken gang surprised Sweeting in an unlit wood, and he for some unaccountable reason resisted them. Brandishing a knife, he vowed to kill anyone who touched him. An empty threat, he would later claim, for he could perceive that he was completely outnumbered — but they would soon be words he would have preferred to take back.

As his pursuers closed in, Sweeting leaped from or was knocked off a rock where he’d been cornered — attempting to flee towards a nearby road, he said — and careened headlong into Quimby, with whom he grappled in the snow as the remainder of the posse piled on him. By the end of it, Quimby had a mortal wound from Sweeting’s knife. Say, didn’t you just threaten to do exactly that?

One might well look askance at Sweeting’s claim that Quimby conveniently fell on the knife that he was clutching as the two tussled; it would probably stand more consistent with the rest of his story had he fought back desperately believing he was being attacked or robbed. One of the arresting party claimed to have perceived, in the moonlit melee, Sweeting making a stabbing motion, an observation that led Sweeting in the commentary remarks he published about the trial to declaim against the shoddy and provocative performance of John Law in terms that would stand up awfully well for many a present-day encounter. Noting that the other posse members who appeared against him were self-interested to vindicate their own rum-buzzed behavior, they had dubiously claimed to have clearly seen and heard events “in a dark night, at some distance, in a hurry, pursuing a man, in a deep snow.”

I think it was said in court, I flew upon Quimby, tho’ it has been said by them he was upon me. If then they saw the arm of the uppermost man move, it was not mine. If they saw either move it must be difficult, if not impossible to determine which … considering we were both buried in the depth of the snow.

Would it not have deserved a moment’s thought whether a party of men having a lawful warrant and though cloathed with the authority of law, getting drunk and committing a riot, ought not to leave a doubt on the mind whether full faith and credit ought to be placed upon their testimony in a cause of life and death … Is it the common practice of a constable to collect such a number, to execute a trifling warrant — to come in such a riotous manner, with an intention to break doors, to take a man prisoner dead or alive?

If this is law, yet it must leave a suspicion, that those persons when called as witnesses respecting their own transaction, do not feel that coolness and calmness which witnesses ever ought to feel in matters of such importance.

Maybe this apt critique got someone chewed out behind closed doors, but it didn’t acquit him with the jury.

Sweeting did earn some public sympathy via a show of conspicuous piety and forgiveness in the weeks leading up to his execution. His remarks from jail dwell mostly on Scripture; while he insisted on his innocence to the last, the printed artifacts left for us evince little bitterness. According to a correspondent’s “Letter from Niagara” that circulated in the young states’ papers, the hanging took place “in the presence of a vast concourse of people” whom Sweeting exhorted “to avoid sin, and to take warning by him whose end was a consequent thereof, and strongly recommended obedience to magistrates, a disobedience of whom was a breach of the law of God … then addressed himself to the throne of grace in an admirable well-adapted prayer, which closed with ‘Jesus receive my spirit.'” (Vermont Gazette, September 5, 1791)

* Whiting would say to the very end that the kettle was not stolen.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New York,Public Executions,USA

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1741: Juan de la Silva, Spanish Negro

Add comment August 15th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 saw the hanging of Juan de la Silva for the slave plot to torch New York.

This second-last execution in that bloody affair takes us to a side plot we have not yet explored in our running series: the “Spanish Negroes”.

New York in 1741 was a distant outpost of the British empire, which itself had seized the colony from the Dutch not eighty years before. The ongoing Atlantic war that Britain was then fighting against Spain and France, winsomely christened the War of Jenkins’ Ear, was serious and frightening business out on the fringe of the wilderness.

The prospect of slave rebels doubling as a fifth column surely helped to stoke the coals under the stakes in 1741. When the Irish soldier William Kane was forced by the threat of execution into giving obviously specious testimony about the plot, he reported that the conspirators’ “design was to wait for the French and Spaniards, whom they expected; and if they did not come in six Weeks, then they were to try what they could do for themselves.” In fact, Spain had even published an offer of “Freedom to all Negroes, and other slaves, that shall Desert from the English Colonies.”

And it just so happened that there were men in New York at that very moment whose own persons straddled the threats within and without.

The previous year, a New York privateer named John Lush had gone adventuring in the Caribbean and returned home with two Spanish prize ships, the Nuestra Senora de la Vittoria and the Solidad … along with about 100 Spanish prisoners.

Among them were 19 dark-skinned men whom Lush described as Negroes or mulattoes and auctioned accordingly. The slaves or “slaves” protested in vain that they were free Spanish subjects, but having no evidence they could produce to that effect they were sold off to various households around the city, and obviously nonplussed about it.

On April 6, 1741, no fewer than four New York homes caught fire, and one of them was the next-door neighbor to one of those Spanish Negroes — to our man, in fact, Juan de la Silva. Someone put two and two together and by evening a cry “Take up the Spanish Negroes!” echoed around Manhattan. A mob descended on de la Silva and hauled him to jail, along with a number of other Lush imports.

Accusations against these Spanish Negroes have more than the usual ration of absurdity, and not only because of the language gap with the witnesses who “overheard” them. At one point, nine of them were brought in turn before two of the major crown witnesses, the slaves Sarah and Sandy, who variously described each as present or not present at the committee meetings; in only three instances did Sarah and Sandy produce the same answer about a Spaniard. They’d have done better flipping pieces of eight.

Investigation of the “Spanish Plot” angle would ultimately zero in on six of these prisoners-made-slaves.

One luckless fellow, named Francis, was tried among an early batch of (non-Spanish) slaves and wound up burned at the stake on June 12, an undercard attraction that day to the hanging of the supposed arch-villains John and Sarah Hughson. Francis spoke little English but this did not inhibit the Hughsons’ monolingual serving-girl Mary Burton from impeaching him: in Daniel Horsmanden‘s account, she tells the court that “She saw [Francis] often at the Meetings at Hughson’s when they were talking of burning the Town and killing the People; and he seemed to be consenting; he spoke a little English, and some other Language she did not understand.”

The very next day after Francis burned, the main body of “Spanish Negroes, lately imported into this City as Prize Slaves, were put to the Bar; and arraigned upon an Indictment for the Conspiracy.”

Though strangers in an enemy kingdom, Juan de la Silva, Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito would fight their corner as ably as any who came before New York’s courts in that terrible year, and four of the five apparently lived to tell the tale.

Brought to trial on June 15, they ferociously renewed their protest against their enslavement. Horsmanden, who was both junior judge and senior investigator in this matter, noticed what a savvy approach this was. The bulk of evidence was slave testimony, and by the court’s rules slaves could only testify against other slaves. Getting themselves ruled free would be the colonial equivalent of having the DNA evidence suppressed.

They complained (as ’tis supposed, they were advised) that they had great Injustice done them by being sold here as Slaves; for that, as they pretended, they were Freemen in their own Country, and gave in their several Sir-names.

The Indictment was grounded upon an Act of Assembly which enumerated several Offences; and Conspiracies amongst the rest; and made one Slave Evidence against another; so that this Fetch might probably be calculated to take off the Negro Evidence: The Prisoners all protested they could not speak English; and as Mary Burton was the only white Evidence against them, and should it be credited that they could speak only in a Tongue which she did not understand, how could she tell what passed between them in Conversation at Hughson’s? Thus their Advisers might think they would stand the best Chance for the Jury to acquit them.

This was indeed an awkward argument. New York’s Supreme Court took a two-day adjournment to mull how to counter the gambit.

Its solution was quite bizarre. In a single trial, with a single jury, it would try the five men on two different indictments for the same crime: one indictment charged them as slaves; the other, as free men. Even their names varied with their station: from “Juan, Sarly’s” the slave locution indicating Juan’s owner, into the more dignified “Juan de la Sylva”.

This did allow the jurors to hear all the Negro evidence, from the several slaves who (like the Irishman Kane) were made to name whatever names the prosecutors demanded as the price of escaping a gallows of their own — plus, of course, Mary Burton, that ubiquitous accuser who said her late master had informed her that the Spanish Negroes “would burn Lush’s House, and tie Lush to a Beam, and roast him like a Piece of Beef.”

Still, the Spaniards mounted a resourceful defense.

They summoned no fewer than twelve witnesses, all white men and women; each also had his New York owner speak in defense. Four of those owners positively insisted that after a brutal winter their man had been confined at home with an ailment of some kind at the time he was alleged to be out making revolution. The fifth, Juan de la Silva’s master Jacob Sarly, could not posit an ailment but noted that Juan was not permitted out of the house at night and that Juan himself had discovered one of the fires and faithfully called the alarm to Salary’s wife. Sarly even acknowledged “that he heard that his Negro was free.”

Through an interpreter, each man also spoke in his own defense, generally insisting that they were not slaves and had not kept slaves’ company in New York.

The jury convicted them all just the same — “in about half an Hour,” as Horsmanden recalls it.

And then … something happened.

The Spanish Negroes all but disappear from the record for two months, months when New York conducted numerous additional executions but seemingly did not lay a hand on these condemned foreigners. What was afoot?

Two weeks after their conviction — during which time an offer of executive amnesty came and went — we catch sight of them again when they are brought out of the city dungeon for sentencing. The court’s translator was instructed to advise them to this effect:

1st. THAT they were taken with some Spaniards by an English Privateer; were brought into this Port, and condemned as lawful Prize, being suppos’d to be Slaves belonging to the Subjects of the King of Spain; and Nothing appear’d to the Court of Admiralty (which is the Court, to which Jurisdiction concerning Things of this Nature does properly belong) to shew that they were Freemen; and they having made no Pretence or Claim in that Court to be such, they were therefore adjudg’d to be Slaves.

2dly. That the Court of Admiralty having so adjudg’d them to be Slaves, they had been severally sold and disposed of; by which means they were discharged from Confinement in Prison; and thereby have had the Opportunity of caballing with other wicked, mischievous and evil disposed Persons, as well White-Men as Slaves, and have confederated themselves with them, in a most diabolical Conspiracy, to lay this City in Ashes, and to murder and destroy all the Inhabitants; whereas had they appear’d to have been Freemen, they would have been prevented this Opportunity of venting and gratifying the Rancour of their Hearts, by being closely confined as Prisoners of War.

3dly, If notwithstanding they were Free-men, they ought in all Reason to have waited the Event of the War, and suffer’d patiently under their Misfortune; and when Peace should have been concluded, they might have made the Truth of their Pretensions appear, and then Justice would have been done them.

But now, as they are found Guilty of this most horrid and villainous Conspiracy, by the Laws of our Land, Nothing remains but to pronounce Sentence of Death against them.

Accordingly they were Sentenced to be hanged.

Had they been offered the amnesty, but refused it — whether pridefully or tactically? How comes it that these are the very last words, in Horsmanden or anywhere else, that we have of Pablo Ventura Angel, Augustine Gutierrez, Antonio de la Cruz and Antonio de St. Bendito? One infers that these four must have been pardoned and transported out of New York like scores of other condemned slaves in that period, though these pardons are themselves extensively recorded by Horsmanden. Perhaps they were quietly handled another way — able to buy their freedom or return to Spanish hands in some prisoner swap. Maybe their anonymous helper was able to orchestrate something.

Only Juan de la Silva makes it from sentence to execution, and he with unnervingly little comment. Six more unwritten weeks after his condemnation, he was brought back to court for a pro forma hearing to order his hanging, his comrades now nowhere to be found.

He was supposed to join John Ury on the gallows; our series will meet this man in its next post. But Ury was respited, leaving “Wan” to a strange, lonely death far from his kith and kin — and one single sentence from Horsmanden to dispatch the strangest sub-plot of a sordid story.

Juan, alias Wan de Sylva; the Spanish Negro, condemned for the Conspiracy, was this Day executed according to Sentence: He was neatly dressed in a white Shirt, Jacket, Drawers and Stockings, behaved decently, prayed in Spanish, kiss’d a Crucifix, insisting on his Innocence to the last.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore speculates that the attorney James Alexander might have given the Spanish Negroes advice. Although he would have been seated at the prosecutors’ bar in this trial — defending any of the accused terrorists was politically impossible for any of the city’s lawyers — Horsmanden never records Alexander speaking or taking any other active part in the prosecution, and Lepore thinks that might indicate that he was becoming silently disenchanted with events.

Alexander did have the dissident chops to play this part: it was he who “anonymously” penned the scathing attacks on the previous governor that led to the arrest of the man who printed them, Peter Zenger, and thence to Zenger’s acquittal in a landmark freedom of the press case.

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

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1741: Not Sarah Hughson, “stubborn deportment”

Add comment July 29th, 2016 Headsman

Supreme Court: WEDNESDAY, 29th JULY.

PRESENT, The Chief Justice, The Second and Third Justices.

The KING, against Sarah Hughson, the Daughter.

THIS Criminal Convict being set to the Bar, the Court demanded of her, What she had to say, why Execution of her former Sentence should not be awarded against her? She thereupon produced and pleaded His Majesty’s most gracious Pardon; and the same being read, was allow’d of.

-Daniel Horsmanden‘s The New York conspiracy: or A History of the Negro plot

On this date in 1741, Sarah Hughson finally bought her life.

Sarah was the daughter of John Hughson, the white supposed mastermind of the supposed slave plot to fire New York, and she had originally been condemned to death along with both her parents.

Her father and her mother (the mother’s name was also Sarah) hanged on June 12, but the girl, “this miserable Creature” in Horsmanden’s recollection, got a stay. “The Judges wished that she would have furnish’d them with some Colour or Pretence for recommending her as an Object of Mercy; but they waited for it hitherto in vain,” he complained. But still her short lease on life was extended by a week, “in Hopes, that after her Father and Mother had suffered, she might be molified to a Confession of her own Guilt, and raise some Merit by making a further Discovery; or at least, confirming what had hitherto been unfolded concerning this accursed Scheme.”

One week later, she was respited again: “a mere Act of Mercy; for she yet remained inflexible.” But mercy was not a predominant characteristic of Horsmanden’s court: it wanted Sarah Hughson’s evidence.

A single white accuser — the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton — was the keystone to the entire succession of cases alleging a slave insurrection plotted at John Hughson’s tavern and (as prosecutions unfolded) elsewhere. It was Burton whose claims had hanged Sarah Hughson’s parents.

The court took evidence from slaves, a number of whom turned witness for the crown and bought their own lives by denouncing others. But the evidence of “pagan Negroes” was controversial in its own time, and for courts was officially second-class relative to what a white person said.

This was the racial privilege that Mary Burton wielded against luckless black men and women throughout the spring and summer of 1741.

But for Sarah Hughson, that privilege was worth her life. The court figured it could use the death sentence dangling over her to force her to join Mary Burton as a star white witness.

Curiously, Sarah took a belligerent attitude towards the court and the witness that had hanged her mother and father. We have only the faintest impression from Horsmanden’s journal of his battle of wills this young woman demanded, but she appears to have given her persecutors nothing for nearly a month and in so doing to have risked at least four hanging dates. The court in its “mercy” kept kicking the can down the road.

Was it grief or pride or bitterness that led the condemned orphan to risk following her mother and father to the scaffold? Was she calculating and cool enough to bargain with her life in the balance?

On July 5, Mary Burton’s accusations finally forced another white person, an Irish soldier named Kane, to turn crown’s evidence. This, perhaps, was finally it — for now Sarah Hughson’s currency was devalued, and Kane himself was accusing her an active participant in the plot. On July 8, Horsmanden records

THE Sentence of Sarah Hughson the Daughter, having been respited for upwards of three Weeks since the Execution of her Father and Mother, and she in that Time often importun’d to confess what she knew of the Conspi|racy, did always peremptorily deny she knew any Thing of the Matter, and made Use of many wicked Impreca|tions, in order to move Compassion in those that mov’d it to her, after the Manner of her Parents, whose constant Practice it was, whenever spoke to about the Plot: And this being the Day appointed for Sarah’s Execution, she was this Morning brought up to Mr. Pemberton, who came to pray by her, and after all his Admonitions, still denied her Guilt.

She had steel in her heart for sure. But July 8 was the day it finally cracked.

A condemned slave in the dungeon whose name was also Sarah reported that Sarah Hughson had blabbed the whole plot to her. The slave Sarah saved her own life with this revelation and finally forced Sarah into a terse and token confession of her own.

“This Confession was so scanty, and came from her after much Difficulty, with great Reluctance, that it gave little or no Satisfaction; and notwithstanding, (it was said, after she return’d to Jail) she retracted the little said, and denied she had any Knowledge of a Conspiracy,” Horsmanden wrote. “So that after all, the judges thought themselves under a Necessity, of Ordering her Execution, as the last Experiment, to bring her to a Disposition to unfold this Infernal Secret; at least, so much of it, as might be thought deserving a Recommendation of her, as an Object of Mercy.”

Throughout June, Sarah Hughson had survived hanging date after hanging date by refusing to confess. Now in July, she would navigate them by bartering her confession. “From her stubborn deportment, it must be owned, very small service was expected of her,” Horsmanden allowed. “For she discovered so irresolute untractable a temper, that it was to be expected she would recal again and again, as she had done already, what she seemed to deliver at times.”

Only a heartless observer could complain of Sarah’s shifting stories in these weeks, as she is repeatedly brought to the brink of death. Two days later, on the eve of her “last Experiment” hanging, Sarah confessed to Horsmanden; the next day, before the other judges of the court, she attempted to repudiate that confession until the judges “exhorted [her] to speak the Truth” whereupon she retracted the retraction. This bought her another week.

Finally, after two additional postponements, Sarah Hughson’s story and her part to play in this tragedy had been fixed: to accuse the man in the story’s last installment, a Catholic priest named John Ury.

Her evidence really ought to have been useless. In a footnote, Horsmanden concedes that “from the untoward behaviour of this wretch upon her examinations, the reader will be apt to conclude there could be little or no dependence on her veracity, or her evidence at best would deserve but very slender credit.” Ah, but the reader would be forgetting that Sarah was still white — and that her shifting narrative had now settled on the one favored by the court, “corroborated by many other witnesses to the same facts, and concurring circumstances attending them.”

Though he was no slave, John Ury was the man whose prosecution would finally conclude the slave-hunts. Bringing Sarah Hughson out of her long confinement into open court would help to cinch the case against him … while also relieving the city of its most frustrating prisoner without any appearance of wrongdoing. “If she could be affected with a Sense of Gratitude for saving her Life upon so small Merit, and kept to her History concerning John Ury then in Custody, and soon to be tried as an Accomplice in the Plot, and also as a Roman Catholick Priest, they thought she would be a very material Evidence against him; On these Considerations they thought fit this Day to recommend her to his Honour for a Pardon, as an Object of Mercy.” Win-win! (Except for Ury.)

And so on July 29, Sarah Hughson was finally pardoned at the bar of the court, first thing in the morning.

The second thing that morning was the amazing trial of John Ury, now with a new star witness.

But that is a story for a different post.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Last Minute Reprieve,New York,Not Executed,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Public Executions,Treason,USA,Women

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

Add comment 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.”

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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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  • Meaghan: It looks like Mann and Ohr, or whoever actually wrote their gallows ballads, ripped them off the 1874 ballad...
  • Meaghan: Just listened to an episode about Mary Blandy with a really cool, funny true crime podcast called...
  • Johan Louis de Jong: I am very happy with this portrait of the royal children. The girl was a lovely child but died...
  • Johan Louis de Jong: The refusal of the last male Bourbon was only a pretext. The wife of the prince had an...