1741: John Ury, schoolmaster

Add comment August 29th, 2017 Headsman

Colonial New York’s summer 1741 slave rebellion panic* drew to a close on this date with the execution of the alleged Catholic priest John Ury.

The supposed plot to fire the city, whose reality and extent have been questioned ever since, had seen some 30 souls to the gallows and stakes these past four months after a suspicious series of fires hit the city in the spring.

The original supposed spider at the center of the web of was a white innkeep called John Hughson, who kept a raucous tavern frequented by blacks — and also kept a serving-girl named Mary Burton, the “eyewitness” who would become the inquisitor-judge Daniel Horsmanden‘s faithful familiar throughout the trials, conjuring every new accusation required of the next plot twist.

But even as Hughson was executed in June, the compounding accusations of people in fear of their lives had driven the story past the confines of his humble tavern, all the way to the capitals of the European powers against whom England was fighting a New World naval war. Jill LePore in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan characterizes four Venn-patterned seditions that investigators perceived over the course of these months:

  • Hughson’s Plot, centered on the publican and his establishment;
  • The Negro Plot, extending well beyond Hughson’s circle to compass perhaps the majority of black people in New York;
  • The Spanish Plot, a foreign plan — possibly coordinated with an internal slave rising — to destroy New York or seize her for Spain; and,
  • The Catholic Plot.

It was the last of these, perfectly calibrated for the Anglo id, that would gather all the other strands together. What hand could unite the threats within and without? The priest. Who moved conspiratorially among Englishmen while obeying the dictates of a foreign potentate? The priest. Who gave men the boldness to murder their masters through his promise of absolving worldly sin? The priest.

The confusing — the incoherent — unfolding of trials that summer became marvelously clarified once apprehended as a Catholic intrigue; maybe the only wonder was that this decisive reveal emerged so late. The prosecutor of the trial that concerns us in this post would say as much in his summation:

Though this work of darkness, in the contrivance of a horrible plot, to burn and destroy this city, has manifested itself in many blazing effects, to the terror and amazement of us all; yet the secret springs of this mischief lay long concealed: this destructive scene has opened by slow degrees: but now, gentlemen, we have at length great reason to conclude, that it took its rise from a foreign influence; and that it originally depended upon causes, that we ourselves little thought of, and which, perhaps, very few of the inferior and subordinate agents were intimately acquainted with.

Gentlemen, if the evidence you have heard is sufficient to produce a general conviction that the late fires in this city, and the murderous design against its inhabitants, are the effects of a Spanish and popish plot, then the mystery of this iniquity, which has so much puzzled us, is unveiled, and our admiration ceases: all the mischiefs we have suffered or been threatened with, are but a sprout from that evil root, a small stream from that overflowing fountain of destruction, that has often deluged the earth with slaughter and blood, and spread ruin and desolation far and wide.

It might have been a warning letter sent by governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, that prepared this popish cast to events. “Some intelligence I had of a villainous design of a very extraordinary nature, if true, very important, viz. that the Spaniards had employed emissaries to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in the English North-America,” Oglethorpe wrote in May of 1741. And who were these “emissaries”? “Many priests were employed, who pretended to be physicians, dancing-masters, and other such kinds of occupations; and under that pretence to get admittance and confidence in families.”

These few words would prove a death warrant.

Days after Oglethorpe’s letter arrived to New York, a Manhattan newcomer named John Ury was taken up as a suspected undercover priest — appearing to fit Oglethorpe’s description for he had advertised himself a schoolmaster “pretending to teach Greek and Latin.” Latin!

Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ servant turned stool pigeon for all seasons, revised her original depositions averring that she had never seen white people besides her own household at Hughson’s nefarious negro gatherings and now conveniently remembered that this guy named Ury or Jury “used to come there almost every night, and sometimes used to lie there.” And he was Catholicizing the slaves as he inducted them into a spectacular conspiracy. How could I have forgotten to mention it?!

“Corroborating” testimony to this same effect would also be wrenched from the white soldier William Kane … when Mary’s fabrications against Kane forced him to choose between joining his accuser in perjury or joining slaves at the gallows. And the case was cinched by John Hughson’s miserable daughter Sarah, who spent that entire summer suspended between life and death before she was finally pardoned on the very morning of John Ury’s trial — an expedient necessary to clear the reluctant but desperate young woman to provide evidence against the “priest.”

Ury denied being Catholic at all; he defended himself vigorously in a nine-hour trial and clowned his accuser on cross-examination:

Prisoner: You say you have seen me several times at Hughson’s, what clothes did I usually wear?

Mary Burton: I cannot tell what clothes you wore particularly.

Prisoner: That is strange, and [k]now me so well.

Furthermore, Ury noted, he had been forewarned of the suspicions against him but not attempted to flee. Plus, what about all those people who had been executed since May? “The negro who confessed as it is said that he set fire to the fort did not mention me in all his confession doubtless he would not have neglected and passed over such a person as I am said to be … neither Huson his wife nor the creature that was hanged with them and all that have been put to death since did not once name me.”

Show trials are not proper venues for defenses, of course. If anything can be said on behalf of Ury’s appalling prosecution, it is that the production of an arch-villain permitted the final closure of a terrorist-hunt that weeks before had seemed on the verge of becoming a literal hecatomb. Horsmanden’s senior colleague on the bench, James De Lancey, had shown keen to wrap things up; at the same time, as an Atlantic oligarch, he likely viewed the foreign threat of the Spanish and/or Catholic plot far more gravely. From either perspective, Ury’s death was a fit end to the scene.

Ury was hanged on August 29, 1741, a month to the day after his trial. (He was originally to have shared his gallows with the Spaniard Juan de la Silva on August 15, but had been respited.) The freelance teacher turned infernal mastermind prepared a written vindication of himself for a friend, and at the gallows he “repeated somewhat of the substance of it before he was turned of.” Here it is:

Fellow Christians —

I am now going to suffer a death attended with ignominy and pain; but it is the cup that my heavenly father has put into my hand, and I drink it with pleasure; it is the cross of my dear redeemer, I bear it with alacrity; knowing that all that live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution; and we must be made in some degree partakers of his sufferings before we can share in the glories of his resurrection: for he went not up to glory before he ascended Mount Calvary; did not wear the crown of glory before the crown of thorns.

And I am to appear before an awful and tremendous God, a being of infinite purity and unerring justice, a God who by no means will clear the guilty, that cannot be reconciled either to sin or sinners; now this is the being at whose bar I am to stand, in the presence of this God, the possessor of heaven and earth, I lift up my hands and solemnly protest I am innocent of what is laid to my charge: I appeal to the great God for my non-knowledge of Hewson [sic], his wife, or the creature that was hanged with them, I never saw them living, dying, or dead; nor never had I any knowledge or confederacy with white or black as to any plot; and upon the memorials of the body and blood of my dearest lord, in the creatures of bread and wine, in which I have commemorated the love of my dying lord, I protest that the witnesses are perjured; I never knew the perjured witnesses but at my trial.

But for the removal of all scruples that may arise after my death I shall give my thoughts on some points.

First — I firmly believe and attest, that it is not in the power of man to forgive sin; that it is the prerogative only of the great God to dispense pardon for sins; and that those who dare pretend to such a power, do in some degree commit that great and unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, because they pretend to that power which their own consciences proclaim to be a lie.

Again, I solemnly attest and believe, that a person having committed crimes that have or might have proved hurtful or destructive to the peace of society, and does not discover the whole scheme, and all the persons concerned with them, cannot obtain pardon from God: and it is not the taking any oath or oaths that ought to hinder him from confessing his guilt, and all that he knows about it; for such obligations are not only sinful, but unpardonable, if not broken: now a person firmly believing this, and knowing that an eternal state of happiness or misery depends upon the performance or non-performance of the above-mentioned things, cannot, will not trifle with such important affairs.

I have not more to say by way of clearing my innocence, knowing that to a true Christian unprejudiced mind, I must appear guiltless; but however, I am not very solicitous about it. I rejoice, and it is now my comfort (and that will support me and protect me from the crowd of evil spirits that I must meet with in my flight to the region of bliss assigned me) that my conscience speaks peace to me.

Indeed, it may be shocking to some serious Christians, that the holy God should suffer innocence to be slain by the hands of cruel and bloody persons; (I mean the witnesses who swore against me at my trial), indeed, there may be reasons assigned for it; but, as they may be liable to objections, I decline them; and shall only say, that this is one of the dark providences of the great God, in his wise, just and good government of this lower earth.

In fine, I depart this waste, this howling wilderness, with a mind serene, free from all malice, with a forgiving spirit, so far as the gospel of my dear and only redeemer obliges and enjoins me to, hoping and praying, that Jesus, who alone is the giver of repentance, will convince, conquer and enlighten my murderers’ souls, that they may publicly confess their horrid wickedness before God and the world, so that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

And now, a word of advice to you, spectators: behold me launching into eternity; seriously, solemnly view me, and ask yourselves severally, how stands the case with me? die I must: am I prepared to meet my Lord when the midnight cry is echoed forth? shall I then have the wedding garment on? Oh, sinners! trifle no longer; consider life hangs on a thread; here to-day and gone to-morrow; forsake your sins ere ye be forsaken forever: hearken, now is God awfully calling you to repent, warning you by me, his minister and prisoner, to embrace Jesus, to take, to lay hold on him for your alone savior, in order to escape the wrath to come; no longer delay, seeing the summons may come before ye are aware, and you standing before the bar of a God who is consuming fire out of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be hurled, be doomed to that place, where their worm dies not, and their fire is never to be quenched.

* Longtime readers may recall that the series to which this post belongs ran last year. Embarrassingly I lost track of the date, and in the almanac form the calendar is unforgiving.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1741: Caesar and Prince, leaders of a plot to burn New York?

Add comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.

The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Peggy Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.

Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.

As Jill Lepore notes in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, the existence of this mock secret society would be conflated for the prosecutors of the 1741 burnings with a three-year plot to destroy New York.

This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!

They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.

And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.

Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.

This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.

Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,

1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.

2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had 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.

3. “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.

4. “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.

5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.

6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, 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.

7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.

8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.

9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”

This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.

By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.

Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.

The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.

I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.

And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.

The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.

MONDAY, MAY 11

Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.

These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.

* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.

** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.

† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.

Part of the set Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Theft,Treason,USA

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