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.
Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.
The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.
Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.
[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.
Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”
Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.
“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”
The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.
There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.
By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.
So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:
140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.
Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.
Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.
The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.
Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will
Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”
To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …
When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.
While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.
Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†
Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.
The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.
The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.
This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.
No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.
By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.
But they were not forgotten.
A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.
* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.
** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.
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.”
We have in these pages actually already encountered one of Ertman and Pena’s slayers in these pages: Jose Medellin, who was executed in 2008. That case was notable for the litigation resulting from Texas’s failure to comply with the Vienna Convention by notifying the Mexican consulate of Medellin’s arrest — and the Medellin post focuses on that issue. This post turns instead to the crime itself.
On June 24, 1993, Ertman and Pena — 14- and 16-year-old Waltrip High School students desperate to beat curfew — took a late-night shortcut along a railroad skirting the White Oak Bayou.
At a railroad trestle in T.C. Jester Park, just moments from home, they encountered our man Derrick O’Brien, Jose Medellin, and four other young men toasting a gang initiation. The six fell on the vulnerable girls and raped both, then strangled them with shoelaces.
Even for a city as large as Houston, it was a shattering crime that still haunts the lost girls’ friends and neighbors.
Memorial to Ertman and Pena in T.C. Jester Park. (cc) image by Pepper Hastings.
Politically, it thrust gangs to the front of the agenda for Houston pols. The girls’ kin* also fought successfully to adjust Texas Department of Criminal Justice procedure in order to permit victims’ family members to witness executions, an innovation that is now widely used throughout the U.S.
O’Brien, barely 18 when he took part in the murder, turned up in the crowd gawking at the crime scene when it was first discovered, and some video footage chances to catch him smiling and laughing. He would eventually be the first person put to death for the Ertman-Pena murder.
(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.
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.
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.”
They were the first white people executed in the affair, and when their 16-year-old indentured servant Mary Burton first described a plot to fire the city hatched by thronging slave conclaves at the Hughsons’ tavern, the by the account of the court’s officer Daniel Horsmanden, it “was most astonishing to the Grand Jury … that any white People should become so abandoned to confederate with Slaves in such an execrable and detestable Purpose.”
Whether there ever really was an execrable and detestable Purpose or whether white New Yorkers convinced of the arson plot were just chasing ghosts, nobody can say with certainty. But the Hughsons most definitely did confederate with slaves. The keeper of a dockside tavern on the Hudson, Hughson catered to the colony’s lower strata: both blacks and poor whites frequented the place, and for the criminal element among them Hughson kept up a side business as a small-time fence of stolen goods.
Back in 1738, the Hughsons had moved to that location from the South Ward — driven, one infers, by complaints of a previous neighbor that they “kept a very disorderly House, and sold Liquor to, and entertained Negroes.” Three of those Negroes were the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee, who in January of 1738 had been busted for breaking into another tavern in town and carrying away the gin … an incident that by 1741 their prosecutors were characterizing as the germ of a years-long plot to orchestrate the annihilation of New York.*
The keystone to the 1741 wave of prosecutions — the break in the case, from the standpoint of the court — occurred on April 22, when Burton provided the Grand Jury a damning description of her master and mistress as the kingpins of a murderous cabal. Burton swore
That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s Negro Man (Cuffee) 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(d) and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
That in their common Conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be Governor, and Hughson her Master should be King.
That Cuffee used to say, That a great many People had too much, and others too little; That his old Master had a great deal of Money, but that, in a short Time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
That at the Meetings of the Three aforesaid Negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her Master’s House, they used to say, in their Conversation, That when they set Fire to the Town, they would do it in the Night, and as the white People came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
Up until that point, the court had a suspicion of an arson campaign, based on a series of fires that looked like a pattern but might have been coincidental. Burton’s deposition gave that suspicion tangible shape, and structured all the proceedings to follow. And in her telling, it all started with Hughson, Hughson, and Kerry.
It was a story that fit what the judges would know or believe about them: besides the Hughsons’ underclass and criminal connections, the Hughsons’ Irish lodger Peggy Kerry was Caesar’s lover and the mother of his infant son. “She was a person of infamous character, a notorious prostitute, and also of the worst sort, a prostitute to negroes,” Horsmanden sneers in the introduction he wrote to his compendium of proceedings.
“Here is laid the foundation of the characters of Hughson and his family, which will afford frequent occasion of enlarging upon; and from such a hopeful earnest the reader may well expect a plentiful harvest.”
Peggy Kerry, that “Newfoundland Irish beauty,” now came under relentless pressure to corroborate Mary Burton. Prostitute to Negroes or no, she was badly needed to add credibility (and leal certainty) to Burton’s charge.
Jailed and facing the prospect of execution, she nevertheless stubbornly refused every blandishment to adhere to Mary Burton’s version of events — a version that would surely doom her friends the Hughsons and her lover Caesar.
She paid the last price or her obstinance. Arthur Price, the jailhouse snitch who eventually doomed Cuffee, entered the case by telling investigators that Peggy said to him all the stuff they wanted her to say to them.
[Price asked] What, Peggy; were you a going to set the Town on fire? And she made Answer, She was not; but said, by God, since I knew of it, they made me swear: Upon which the Deponent asked her, Was John and his Wife in it? (meaning John Hughson and his Wife) And she answered Yes, by God, they were both sworn as well as the rest. Then the Deponent asked her, if she was not afraid that the Negroes would discover her? And she said, No; for Prince, Cuff and Caesar, and Forck’s [Vaarck’s] Negro [Caesar] were all true-hearted Fellows.
And by the way, she added,
for your Life and Soul of you, you Son of a Bitch, don’t speak a Word of what I have told you.
Whether or not Peggy Kerry really did say all this incriminating stuff to her fellow dungeon denizen, Price’s report laid her in the magistrates’ trap. Now she was already the second witness, via Price — and without the benefit of leniency that she could have procured by talking herself. The pending conspiracy charge dangled over her head.
Finally, on May 7, she made a too-little, too-late grab at mercy by describing plotters meeting not at the Hughsons’, but at the house of a nearby cobbler, John Romme. Heartbreakingly, she put the father of her son into the scene: she had abandoned any hope of saving him.
This half-confession, as the magistrates saw it, only redounded against her for upon interrogation Elizabeth Romme denied everything (John Romme had left, or fled, town). Romme’s place was a dead end in the investigation but Kerry’s saying it confirmed that she was privy to something about the plot — something she might still be withholding. “From what had hitherto come to Light concerning this Mystery of Iniquity, it was scarce to be doubted, but Peggy had it in her Power to unfold a great deal more,” Horsmanden remarks in his entry for May 14. “Though what Peggy had already disclosed seemed to merit something; yet it was not altogether satisfactory; and ’twas thought proper she should be arraigned upon the Indictment for the Conspiracy, upon the Supposition that this Step might probably be a Means of bringing her to a Resolution of making a full Discovery of what she knew.”
For the next weeks, the court routed around the intransigence of its would-be star witness, and increasingly made her prospective evidence irrelevant. There was Arthur Price’s deposition, to begin with; to this crown’s evidence was added witnesses we have already met in the trials of the other other men: Sandy, Sarah, Fortune. There were the desperate “confessions” extorted from Quack and Cuffee at the stake.
John Hughson, who was being fitted for the halter, could see what was up. With his wife and now his daughter as well both in jail, Hughson asked on June 1 to see Daniel Horsmanden, “to open his Heart to them, and they should know more.” What deal was he hoping to cut? Could he extricate himself? Would he trade his own life to save his family?
We don’t know, because Horsmanden made it clear in their interview that not John Hughson nor Sarah Hughson nor Peggy Kerry had an ounce of leverage remaining.
[I] reproached him with his wicked Life and Practices, debauching and corrupting of Negroes, and encouraging them to steal and pilfer from their Masters and others; and for shewing his Children so wicked an Example, training them up in the High-Way to Hell: He further observed to him, that his Wife, and Peggy, then stood convicted of a Felony for receiving stolen Goods of Negroes; and that now nothing remained but to pass Sentence of Death upon them, and to appoint a Day for their Execution for that Fact; but that it was now determined, that he, his Wife and Daughter, and Peggy, should also be tried for being confederated in this most horrible Conspiracy; that the Evidence would appear so strong and clear against them in this Particular, that there was little doubt of their being all convicted upon that Head also; that it would appear undeniably that he was a Principal, and head Agent in this detestable Scheme of Villany; the chief Abettor, together with the rest of his Family, of this execrable and monstrous Contrivance for shedding the Blood of his Neighbours, and laying the whole City in Ashes, upon the Expectation of enriching himself by such an inhuman and execrable Undertaking: He therefore admonished him, if he would entertain the least Hopes of recommending himself to the Mercy of God Almighty, before whose Tribunal he must soon appear, that he would ingenuously tell the Truth, and lay open the whole Scene of this dark Tragedy, which had been brooding at his House; and discover the several Parties he knew to have been engaged in it; in doing which he would make some Attonement for his past Villanies, by preventing that Slaughter, Bloodshed and Devastation which he and his Confederates had intended.
Disabused of any hope, Hughson “put on a soft smiling Air of Innocence” and “declared, he knew Nothing at all of any Conspiracy; and called God to witness his Protestations, that he was as innocent with respect to that Charge as the Child unborn, and also his Wife, Daughter, and Peggy for aught he knew.” He would go to trial with those three on June 4.
That proceeding was a walkover, as Horsmanden had predicted. Mary Burton was the star witness against her former master and mistress, with Arthur Price’s account of Peggy Kerry’s confessions thrown in for good measure.
Following these came a litany of the Hughsons’ current and former white neighbors who damned the Hughson house as a regular haunt of the city’s black population — that “a Cabal of Negroes” was frequently entertained, that Peggy had been seen serving them and both the Hughson mother and daughter danced shamelessly with them, that “whole Companies of Negroes [were] playing at Dice there.”
The real evidence here still rested only upon Mary Burton’s allegation as supported by Arthur Price. But from the trial preceding the court had already fixed that story through the flesh of other men. That others who had hanged and burned already were known to congregate at the Hughsons’ did the necessary work to finish John Hughson, “whose Crimes have made him blacker than a Negro; the Scandal of his Complexion, and the Disgrace of human Nature!”
Such a Monster will this Hughson appear before you, that for sake of the Plunder he expected by setting in Flames the King’s House, and this whole City, and by the Effusion of the Blood of his Neighbours’ — He — Murderous and Remorseless He! — counselled and encouraged the Committing of all these most astonishing Deeds of Darkness, Cruelty, and Inhumanity. — Infamous Hughson! —
This is that Hughson! whose Name, and most detestable Conspiracies will no doubt be had in everlasting Remembrance, to his eternal Reproach; and stand recorded to latest Posterity, — This is the Man! — his, that Grand Incendiary! — That Arch Rebel against God, his King, and his Country! — That Devil Incarnate! and chief Agent of the old Abaddon of the infernal Pit, and Regions of Darkness.
These are the rhetorical fulminations of the prosecuting attorney, William Smith, who surely deserves a plaque in that profession’s hall of fame for bridging the distance from some NIMBYing neighbors to the logic and the rhetoric of a witch trial. Hell … just the fact that Hughson had the effrontery to show up and defend himself only went to show what a monster he was.
Was not this Hughson sunk below the Dignity of human Nature — Was he not abandoned to all Sense of Shame and Remorse! — To all Sense of Feeling the dreadful Calamities He has brought on this City, and his fellow Creatures; He would from a Consciousness of his own Guilt. — His monstrous Guilt! — be so confounded, as not able to look up, or stand without the greatest Confusion of Face, before this Court and Audience; but would openly confess his, and the Rest of his wretched Confederates Guilt, and humbly ask Pardon of God, the King, and his injured Country.
And so they died. Of course they died.
Sarah Hughson, the 17-year-old daughter, was spared her sentence. Over the next weeks her orphaned life would be a litany of execution dates imposed and then delayed, trading time for cooperation that Sarah was very reluctant to provide. In whatever combination her age, her sex, and her skin — for as a white person, her evidence had privilege over the allegations of “pagan Negroes” in trials yet to come — would eventually procure her pardon.
But on June 12, her parents and their misfortunate friend Peggy Kerry all went to the gallows. (Not to the pyre, the fate of the black slaves convicted for the conspiracy.) Horsmanden spares for these major trophies a longer narration of their Passion, though this turns out to consist in large measure of Horsmanden complaining one last time how Peggy Kerry didn’t spare any of her last moments to finally give him what he wanted.
The under-sheriff had often advised John Hughson, to make a cofession about the conspiracy, but he always denied he knew any thing of the matter; said he had deserved death for receiving stolen goods. The wife was ever sullen; said little or nothing, but denied all.
The sheriffs observed John Hughson, when he was brought out of jail to be carried to execution, to have a red spot on each cheek, about the bigness of a shilling, which at that time thought very remarkable, for he was always pale of visage: these spots continued all along to the gallows. Amongst other discourse it seems he had said, he did not doubt but some remarkable sign would happen to him, to show his innocence; concerning which more will be observed upon hereafter.** He stood up in the cart all the way, looking round about him as if expecting to be rescued, as was by many conjectured from the air he appeared in: one hand was lifted up as high as his pinion would admit of, and a finger pointing, as if intending to beckon.
At the gallows his wife stood like a lifeless trunk, with the rope about her neck, tied up to the tree; she said not a word, and had scarce any visible motion.
Peggy seemed much less resigned than the other two, or rather unwilling to encounter death; she was going to say something, but the old woman who hung next to her, gave her a shove with her hand, as was said by some, so Peggy was silent.
But they all died, having protested their innocence to the last, touching the conspiracy.
This old woman, as it has been generally reported, was bred a Papist; and Peggy was much suspected of the same persuasion, though perhaps it may seem to be of little significance what religion such vile wretches professed.
From the scanty room in the jail for the reception of so many prisoners, this miserable wretch, upon her conviction with the Hughsons for the conspiracy, was put in the same cell with them; which perhaps was an unfortunate incident; for though she had to the time of their trial screened them from the charge of the conspiracy; yet there was reason to expect, that upon the last pinch, when she found there was no hopes of saving her own life if she persisted, the truth as to this particular would have come out; and indeed it was upon this expectation, that she was brought upon trial for the conspiracy; for her several examinations before set forth, and what Arthur Price had sworn to have dropt from her in accidental talk in jail, had put it beyond doubt, that she was privy to many of the Hughsons’ secrets concerning this detestable confederacy; but when she was admitted to the Hughsons, under the circumstances of conviction and condemnation for the conspiracy, they most probably prevailed with her to persevere in her obstinacy, to the end to cover their own guilt, since they were determined to confess nothing themselves; and they might drive her to desperation by subtle insinuations, that the judges she saw after they had picked all they could but of her, whatever expectations she might have raised from her confessions, or hopes she flattered herself with of saving her life upon the merit of them; yet after all, she was brought to trial and condemned for the conspiracy, as well as they; and why should she expect pardon any more than they: and by such like artifices it is probable they might stop her mouth, and prevent her making further discovery; and not only so, but then of course prevail with her to recant, as to what she had confessed already.
John Hughson endured the posthumous indignity of being gibbeted in chains, on an island† alongside the already-rotting corpse of his former boon companion Caesar — who had hanged fully a month before.
As an unseasonably hot summer emerged in the weeks ahead, Horsmanden would later report how “Hughson’s Body drip’d and distill’d very much, as it needs must, from the great Fermentation and Abundance of Matter within him,” bloating to “Gigantick” proportions until at last “Hughson’s Corps unable to contain its Load, burst and discharged Pails full of Blood and Corruption” to the disgust of some nearby fishermen “to whom the Stench of it was very offensive.” The progress of this revolting fermentation was one reason guessed by “amused” New Yorkers for a queer phenomenon, that as they dangled in their manacles,
Hughson was turned Negro, and Vaarck’s Caesar a White; and when they came to put up York in Chains by Hughson (who was hung upon the Gibbet three Weeks before [and not yet exploded from his fermentation -ed.]) so much of him as was visible, viz. Face, Neck, Hands and Feet, were of a deep shining Black, rather blacker than the Negro placed by him, who was one of the darkest Hue of his Kind; and the Hair of Hughson’s Beard and Neck (his Head could not be seen, for he had a Cap on) was curling like the Wool of a Negro’s Beard and Head; and the Features of his Face were of the Symmetry of a Negro Beauty; the Nose broad and flat, the Nostrils open and extended, the Mouth wide, Lips full and thick, his Body, (which when living, was tall by the View upwards of six Feet, but very meagre) swell’d to a Gigantick Size; and as to Caesar (who, tho’ executed for a Robbery, was also one of the Head Negro Conspirators, had been hung up in Chains a Month before Hughson, and was also of the darkest Complexion) his Face was at the same Time somewhat bleach’d or turned whitish; insomuch that it occasion’d a Remark, That Hughson and he had changed Colours.
Lepore suggests that the city’s controversial Freemasons club, which was then prominent enough for active parody in the city’s press, led John Hughson to form a mock secret society at his cronies’ saturnalias whose joke “initiations” had downtrodden friends and even casual acquaintances boozily (but jestingly) vow to torch the city. During the (actual or perceived) arson wave of 1741, New York’s court would read a far more sinister intent to this sort of talk, and there are consequent references in the trial records to a “three-year conspiracy.”
** Much later in his narrative, Horsmanden gets around to an indeterminate speculation that the red spots on John Hughson’s cheeks might have been the product of his attempting to cheat the executioner with an insufficient poison. Evidently this was a rumor abroad in New York, though Horsmanden doubted the truth of it.
† The gibbet stood “near the powder-house,” which places it on a small island — long since gobbled up by the metropolis — within the marshes of Collect Pond. That’s around the present-day park named for Thomas Paine, which is just south of what’s now Collect Pond Park and at the time stood outside of the city’s main settlement.
Once an essential source of fresh water for Manhattanites, Collect Pond soon became overtaxed by the growing population and polluted by its use as a common sewer, devolving into a foetid slough. This public health hazard was destined for a grand future in New York’s crime annals, for once it was filled in the streets above it became New York’s legendary underworld nest, the Five Points. They were also the original site of The Tombs prison, which had structural problems from its outset due to land subsiding into the buried quagmire.
The Powder House, marked on a 1766 map of New York. (See large original version here.)
On this date in 1741, four black men were burned in New York City.
This is the third execution date in that year’s great suppression of a purported slave conspiracy, and it is here that its wantonly inquisitorial character clearly comes to the fore. Accusations under the gallows (or in this case, the pyres) topple like domino-tiles into fresh arrests and new accusations, until from a couple of luckless thieves there are 30-plus souls in the grave.
Eleven days prior, when two slaves named Cuffee and Quack had burned at the stake for this sensational plot, a sham offer of clemency had been extended them with the very fagots beneath their feet. Under this extortion the men had owned the plot, a confession the court privileged as the truth of dying men (for they were burnt anyway, despite their compliance), they duly named as co-conspirators several of those we find in the next tranch of slaves tried before the colony’s highest court.
(We must do Cuffee and Quack the justice of noting that by the time they burned, all those who were to be tried next were already in jail with them, arrested upon the information of another fellow-slave informing to save his own skin. Perhaps the men at the stake supposed their fellows already burnt flesh, and their own accusations strictly ornamental.)
By this point in events, the court was convinced past arguing that a white barkeep named Hughson (whose own Executed Today entry is fast approaching) had played host to large meetings of New York’s Negros, where they drank together and leered at the white servant and toasted one another’s plans to destroy the city. When slaves were wrung for information about the “plot” it was largely to name those who had participated in these supposed meetings. But since a master conspiracy against white New York was now presumed — its alleged leaders had been the first to die — little was required to damn a man but to place him at one of these slaves’ sabbaths. Trials could now become quite perfunctory on any one person’s actual role or misdeeds: just tie him to the satanic cabal.
Even the crown’s own opening statement to the court on June 8 basically promised to mail it in.
It will, I doubt not, appear to you, upon hearing our Witnesses for the King on this Trial, that these six Negroes are some of the Conspirators who combined with those principal Incendiaries, Hughson and his Family, to set on fire the King’s House, and this whole Town, and to kill and murder the Inhabitants.
But as I have already, upon the Trial of the Negro Quack, for burning the King’s House, and of another Negro called Cuffee, for burning Mr. Philipse’s Storehouse, and likewise on the last Trial of Hughson, his Wife and Daughter, and Kerry, endeavoured to set forth their Heinousness of so horrible and detestable a Conspiracy; and the Dangers this City and Province may still be exposed to, until Examples are made of all such as have been concerned in this most wicked Plot; I think I have no Need upon this Trial, to say any Thing further on either of these Heads; not doubting but when you have heard the Crimes which these Criminals stand charged with, proved against them, you will find them Guilty.
The six in question were appended to the horrible and detestable Conspiracy as bullet points in depositions full of denunciations: namely, by the white servant Mary Burton, who was the Abigail Williams character of this particular witch hunt; by Cuffee’s and Quack’s tricked confession at the stake; and by three other slaves — Sandy, Sarah,* and Fortune — who had all been arrested themselves and gave their evidence under the pall of their own probable execution for any failure in cooperation.**
The court would surely reply here that such a society can rarely be penetrated but by dirty hands and compromised witnesses.** Seen in such a light, the roles imputed to these six would have been terrifying.
Jack was a “captain” in the cell and resolved “his Knife was so sharp, that if it came a-cross a white Man’s Head, it would cut it off” (according to Sandy); he with Cook “used to be at the Meetings at Hughson’s, when they were talking of firing the Town and murdering the People” (Mary Burton)
Cuffee and Caesar “fired Van Zant’s Storehouse” (according to the dying confessions of both Quack and the previous Cuffee) with Caesar declaring for good measure that “he would kill the white Men, and drink their Blood to their good Healths: This about a Fortnight or Three Weeks before the Fort burnt.” (Sandy)
Robin “had a Knife there, and sharpened it; and consented to help kill the white Men, and take their Wives.” (Sandy)
Jamaica “(being a Fidler) said, he would dance over [white New Yorkers] while they were roasting in the Flames; and said, he had been Slave long enough.” (Mary Burton)
There is at times a suspicious confluence of language — and a repeated fixation on black men seizing white women — that suggest the interrogator’s influence. Nevertheless, depositions overlapping on a number of key points have persuaded not only the slaves’ jurors but some of their latter-day interlocutors that they truly were party to a most audacious design. Every one of them was condemned to death. Jamaica, the fiddler, received the liberality of a three-day wait; the other five were all to burn the very next afternoon — June 9, 1741.
Their actual execution is a one-sentence afterthought in a record already by the morrow speeding along to the next proceedings: “This Day also, The Negroes Cook, Robin (Chamber’s) Caesar (Peck’s) Cuffee (Gomez’s) were executed according to Sentence.” The reader will notice that where five were doomed, only four have died. The fifth, Jack — that fell captain whetting his sharp blade for white throats — was busy that morning saving his own neck by supplying evidence for the crown, straight from the center of the plot. So Jack instead remained in the courtroom, detailing for his prosecutors (soon to be his pardoners) a fresh roster of prey, even as his comrades were wrenched from the courthouse’s basement jail and set alight in downtown Manhattan.
* Our very partial compiler Daniel Horsmanden admits that this witness “was one of the oddest Animals amongst the black Confederates, and gave the most Trouble in her Examinations; a Creature of an outragious Spirit: When she was first interrogated upon this Examination about the Conspiracy, she absolutely denied she knew any Thing of the Matter … her Conduct was such upon the Whole, that what she said, if not confirmed by others, or concurring Circumstances, could not deserve entire Credit.”
** In fact, the court did make this argument (“if Pagan Negroes could not be received as Witnesses against each other … [then] the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity”), for it was also defending itself as early as July of 1741 against contemporary whites who doubted that any actual terrorist conspiracy existed among the slaves. The anonymous New England critic whose letter surviving to us compares New York in 1741 to Salem in 1692 noticed “that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appears to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtained by foul means, by force or torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to die an easier death.” This was a soul ahead of its time.