1835: Four slaves, for the Malê Rebellion

Add comment May 14th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four African slave rebels were shot at Salvador.

The Malê Revolt acquired its name from the local designation for Muslims … which was the predominant religion of the slaves harvested from West Africa* who were pouring into Brazil. (It’s also known as the Muslim Revolt, or simply the Great Revolt.) Ethnically, these were mostly Yoruba peoples, known in Brazil as Nagôs; Nagôs constituted the bulk of the slave sector whom the Portuguese had nicknamed “Minas” — Gold Coast imports who had embarked their slave ships at the notorious Elmina Castle.

Under whichever designation, this population was particularly thick in the agrarian Atlantic province of Bahia; there, “slaves constituted the majority of Bahia’s population in the 1820s and 1830s, [and] the maority of slaves were African-born.” And African-born slaves proved over the years to share a vigorous spirit of resistance. Slave risings and plots had emerged in Bahia in 1807, 1809, 1814, 1816, 1822, 1824, 1826 1827, 1828, 1830, and 1831, spanning the periods of Portuguese colonialism and Brazilian independence. Scottish botanist George Gardner, recalling his travels in Brazil in the late 1830s, opined that

The slaves of Bahia are more difficult to manage than those of any other part of Brazil, and more frequent attempts at revolt have taken place there than elsewhere. The cause of this is obvious. Nearly the whole of the slave population of that place is from the Gold coast. Both the men and the women are not only taller and more handsomely formed than those from Mozambique, Benguela, and the other parts of Africa, but have a much greater share of mental energy, arising, perhaps, from their near relationship to the Moor and the Arab. Among them there are many who both read and write Arabic. They are more united among themselves than the other nations, and hence are less liable to have their secrets divulged when they aim at a revolt.

Here, in secret madrassas and an underground tongue, these people cultivated a shared religion that naturally fused with the religious to the political and eventually germinated a revolutionary conspiracy. Two elderly, enslaved Muslim teachers seems to have been particular nodes in this community of resistance.**

On the night of January 24-25 of 1835, some 300 of these African-born slaves (with a few African-born freedmen) rebelled and attacked the city of Salvador. The fighting spanned only a few midnight hours; rumors of a rising had reached white ears on the 24th and as a result the masters stood halfway prepared and rallied quickly enough to crush the revolt — killing around 80 rebels in the process.

Nevertheless, it was perhaps the largest and most frightening servile rebellion in Brazil’s history. And although not all participants were Muslim, they very distinctively were all African-born: second-generation, Brazil-born blacks (whether slave or free) as well as mulattoes, who occupied a higher caste rank more in simpatico with whites, were deeply distrusted by African natives as liable to betray the plot — and rightly so. This turned out to be the very channel by which advance warning of the imminent rebellion reached white ears on the night of January 24. It was a great, if last-minute, victory for white Brazilians’ intentional stratification of the servile labor force: “The division among Africans is the strongest guarantee of peace in Brazil’s large cities,” the governor of Bahia had written in 1814.

Surprisingly, only four juridical executions are known to have resulted from this rising, although flogging sentences inflicted on others were so brutal that at least one person also died under the lash. Records, however, are patchy, and as João José Reis notes in his essential text on the Malê revolt (Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia) it is scarcely apparent why these particular men came in line for the law’s final extremity:

The president of the province, under pressure from influential members of Bahian society, felt that it was important to put on a public spectacle and hang prisoners as soon as possible so as to intimidate would-be rebels. With this in mind, on 6 March 1835 Francisco de Souza Martins wrote to the minister of justice:

It seems fitting, as has been suggested to me by many Citizens of this Capital, that the Government of His Majesty the Emperor, so as not to diminish the healthy effect of an execution as soon as possible after the crime, should have the sentences carried out on the two or three main leaders, at the same time declaring that these individuals should not have any recourse or appeal; that is, such a measure is thought to be both efficacious and necessary to the present circumstances.

In a decree dated 18 March 1835 the central government accepted this suggestion and ordered that the death sentences be “immediately carried out without being allowed to go before a Court of Appeal, after the remaining legal steps had been taken.” A month later, on 14 May, one day after the publication of the law on deportations, and without having taken “the remaining legal steps,” the government put four Africans to death.

There was only one freedman among those executed: Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, a hod carrier (carregador de cal) whose African name was Ajahi. Ajahi had been arrested on the day after the uprising, in the house of some fellow Nagô acquaintances, Faustina and Tito. Tito was also involved in the rebellion and had left home some days before the twenty-fifth, never to return. On the morning of the twenty-fifth, Ajahi showed up wounded and hid under a bedframe (estrado). Faustina turned him in to inspectors Leonardo Joaquim dos Reis Velloso and Manoel Eustaquio de Figueiredo, who arrested him. Under questioning Ajahi declared that he lived on Rua de Oracao and was a neighbor of Belchior and Gaspar da Cunha, whom he used to visit regularly. Concerning the meetings they had there, he claimed: “Everybody prattled on and on or just stopped in to say hello.” He denied being a Malê and having participated in the revolt. He tried to convince the judge and jury that the bayonet wound in his right leg “had been inflicted by soldiers … while he was at the window, [and] not because he was outside fighting with anybody.” Ajahi was apparently just an ordinary rebel. Indeed none of the Africans questioned in 1835 suggested he had played an important part in the Malê organization. Even so, on 2 March 1835 he was sentenced to death, along with other important prisoners. His sentence had been set by Francisco Goncalves Martins, the chief of police, now presiding over the jury as a judge: “In light of the previous declaration … on behalf of the Sentencing Jury I sentence prisoners: Belchior da Silva Cunha, Gaspar da Silva Cunha, and Jorge da Cruz Barbosa (all freedmen), as well as Luis Sanim, a slave of Pedro Ricardo da Silva, to natural death on the gallows.” With the exception of Jorge Barbosa (Ajahi), all those listed by Martins had their sentences commuted. Ajahi appears to have escaped from prison, but he was quickly recaptured. Perhaps the maintenance of his sentence comes from his being considered an incorrigible rebel.

Little is known about the others sentences to death. They were all Nago slaves. One of them was Pedro, a slave of Joseph Mellors Russell, the English merchant. It seems that all of this man’s slavees took part either in the rebellion or, at least, in the Malê conspiracy. On his own Russell had turned over to the justice of the peace a crate containing a great number of Malê objects belonging to his slaves — Necio, Joao, Joaozinho “the urchin,” Tome, Miguel, and Pedro. Of all these men Joao was the most militant, and his final sentence is not known. No one knows why Pedro was singled out for the death penalty. I could not find the records for his particular trial.

The other two slaves executed were Goncalo, whose owner appears in the records as Lourenco so-and-so, and Joaquim, who belonged to Pedro Luis Mefre. About them all that is known is that they were among the thirteen rebels wounded and taken prisoner during the confrontation at Agua de Meninos. It may be that they were both abandoned by their masters, since nothing suggests that they might have been leaders and none of the other eleven taken prisoner in the same circumstances received similar punishment.

These were, then, the four Africans put to death in 1835. Rodrigues began a tradition claiming that five Africans were executed, but there is no evidence for it. He names a freedman by the name of Jose Francisco Goncalves as the fifth victim. This African actually existed. He was a Hausa and lived in the Maciel de Baixo neighborhood. According to his testimony, he earned his living “bringing out samples of sugar from the warehouses for Merchants.” His name appears on the Roll of the Guilty with this observation: “sentenced and acquitted on 4 June 1835.” On that same roll the names of Jorge da Cruz Barbosa, Joaquim, Pedro, and Goncalo appear, with the following observation after each one: “sentenced to death and executed on 14 May 1835.”

Like all public executions, this one had its share of pomp and ceremony. The victims were paraded through the streets of Salvador in handcuffs. At Campo da Polvora new gallows had been constructed to replace the old ones, which had rotted from lack of use. At the head of the cortege marched the council “doorman,” Jose joaquim de Mendonca, who cried the sentence out to the ringing of bells. After him came Joao Pinto Barreto, the execution scribe, and Caetano Vicente de Almeida, a municipal judge. On both sides of the prisoners marched a column of armed Municipal Guardsmen. The Santa Casa da Misericordia was also presente, since the bylaws of that important philanthropic institution obliged its members, who were recruited from the local elite, to march along with people condemned to death as an act of Christian piety. The execution itself was to be witnessed by the interim chief of police (Martins had already gone to Rio de Janeiro as a congressional deputy), Judge Antonio Simoes da Silva, and by the commandant of the Municipal Guard, Manoel Coelho de Almeida Tander.

Much to the authorities’ disappointment, the new gallows could not be used to hang the prisoners. No one would act as executioner. On 13 May, one day before the execution, the vice-president of the province, Manoel Antonio Galvao, in response to a request from the chief of police, offered 20-30 milreis to any ordinary prisoner in Bahia’s many jails to act as executioner. Even though that was four months’ earnings for the average urban slave, no one came forward. The chief warden, Antonio Pereira de Almeida, expressed his disappointment in a communique to the chief of police that afternoon: “I have offered the job to the inmates, and no one will take it. I did the same thing today at the Barbalho and Ribeira dos Gales jails, and no one will take it for any amount of money; not even the other blacks will take it — in spite of the measures and promises I have offered in addition to the money.” Either because of prisoners’ solidarity or out of fear of retaliation from the African Muslims, an executioner could not be found. For this reason, still on 13 May, the president of the province had a firing squad formed to carry out the sentences. Then, on the fourteenth at Campo da Polvora, the four men were executed by a squad of policemen and immediately buried in a common grave in a cemetery run by the Santa Casa, next to the gallows. Without the hangings, the didactic value Bahian leaders envisaged in the spectacle was lost.

Less pomp surrounded floggings, although they too were public. Here, as well, the chief of police insisted (20 March 1835) that the “punishment should immediately follow the crime.” He argued that haste was necessary “so that the prisoners would not overflow,” a practical more than a political reason. The scenes of torture oculd not have been more degrading. The victims were undressed, tied, and whipped on their backs and buttocks. Floggings were held at two different sites: the Campo da Polvora and the cavalry garrison at Agua de Meninos, where the last battle of the uprising had been fought. At times the authorities worried that these public spectacles would themselves disturb the peace. Alufa Licutan’s sentence to one thousand lashes would be carried out in public, “but not on the street of the city.”


Illustration of a slave being publicly flogged in Brazil, by Johann Moritz Rugendas.

Prisoners received fifty lashes per day, “for as many days as it took to undergo the entire sentence … provided there was no risk to a prisoner’s life.” The victims’ suffering was closely watched by armed guards and carefully supervised by officers of the law, as well as by a court scribe who on a daily basis recorded the date, names, and numbers of lashes. From time to time, doctors visited the victims to check on their health and to advise whether the whipping should be continued or suspended for a while. These doctors’ reports are shocking testimony to the physical state of the tortured individuals. On 2 May 1835 Dr. Jose Souza Brito Cotegipe told Caetano Vicente de Almeida, the municipal criminal judge: “I have only found two who are well enough to continue serving their sentences. The rest cannot because of the enormous open wounds on their buttocks.” In a report on 19 September he said: “Having proceeded in the examination … of the Africans being flogged, I can inform Your Grace that the blacks [named] Carlos, Belchior, Cornelio, Joaquim, Carlos, Thomas, Lino, and Luiz (at the Relacao Jail) are in such a state that if they continue to be flogged, they may die.”

On that very day Luiz was admitted to the Santa Casa da Misericordia Hospital, where he stayed for two months. On 3 November he went back to the stocks, and two weeks later he completed his sentence of eight hundred lashes. Narciso, another slave, was less fortunate. He was caught red-handed during the uprising and did not survive the twelve hundred lashes of his sentence. He is the only African known to have died from that terrible punishment, but there may have been more.

After the Malê Rebellion, the signs and practices of Islam came under harsher surveillance than ever before. Brazil did not abolish slavery until May 13, 1888 — the very last nation in the western hemisphere to do so.

* Prisoners taken by all sides during the wars accompanying the formation and growth of the Sokoto Caliphate were a key source for the early 19th century slave trade.

** Neither teacher was directly involved in the rebellion: one, Ahuna, had alredy been exiled to another locale and the other, Bilal, languished in prison for debts. We have particularly poignant word of the latter’s devastation upon hearing word of what had transpired.

After the rebellion, Bilal, still in jail, received news of the fate of the rebellion. One of his cell companions said in a gripping testimony that Bilal lowered his head to weep and that he never saw him raise it again. Bilal wept as many of his cherished students were brought into the jail. When one of the surviving rebels, who was being incarcerated, passed Bilal a piece of paper with a message written on it, he read it and swiftly began to weep. The devastating fate of his students had brought Bilal to a perpetual trail of tears. His fate, however, was to be amongst the most devastating. Although he could not be charged with participation in the physical uprising that took place, it was clear to authorities that he had participated in the spiritual cultivation of the uprising. Bilal “was sentenced to 1,200 lashes of the whip, to be carried out in public, though not in the streets where everyone could see. The sentence was divided up into 50 lashes a day until completed.” We can imagine that this is how Bilal died.

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1811: The slaves of the German Coast Uprising

Add comment January 15th, 2018 Headsman

Villainous blacks, and MORE VILLAINOUS WHITES who have reduced to the level of the beasts of the field these unhappy Africans — and are now obliged to sacrifice them like wild beasts in self preservation! The day of vengeance is coming!

-Marietta, Ohio Western Spectator, March 5, 1811

On this date in 1811, Louisiana planters commenced their executions of rebel slaves involved in the German Coast Uprising.

Also known as the Deslondes rebellion after the surname of its mulatto commander, this was a larger insurrection than the better-known Nat Turner rebellion: in fact, it was the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history. Louisiana at this point was still new to the Union courtesy of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase; Congress in 1811 would take up the question of statehood for the former French colony and its liability to slave rebellions stoked by Gallic sugar magnates offered no small store of vehemence for the Republic’s orators. (Louisiana was admitted as a state in 1812.)

On January 8 of that same year of 1811, some 60 to 125 black men and women — slaves of Louisiana’s brutal sugarcane economy, as well as runaways and maroons lurking in nearby river swamps — rebelled at Col. Manuel Andry’s plantation 36 miles from New Orleans. Andry was wounded but miraculously escaped, leaving behind a son whom his slaves were energetically stabbing and axing past death.


(Via)

Under the improbable leadership of Charles Deslondes, who had enjoyed so much trust as to be a Andry’s slave overseer, the slaves stripped the plantation of gunpowder, weapons, horses, liquor, and the like, and began following the Mississippi along River Road — drumming, chanting, exulting with cries of “On to Orleans!”

American Uprising Book CoverWhether they knew it or not, they had selected an auspicious moment for their uprising: New Orleans lay practically defenseless, its regular garrison off augmenting the realm via the conquest of adjacent West Florida.* The rebels multiplied several times over as they marched, swelling to perhaps 500 strong over two days as they rolled through plantations — each one a sea of servile labor vastly outnumbering its white household. Yet only one more white man besides Col. Andry’s son died during the German Coast Uprising as, forewarned, planters’ families were able to flee ahead of the Jacquerie.

The Louisiana territory skirted the volcano’s mouth in this moment and everyone realized it: New Orleans, the slaves’ avowed target, was itself two-thirds black. Had the rebels reached it, something cataclysmic might have begun.† “Had not the most prompt and energetic measures been taken, the whole coast would have exhibited one general scene of devastation,” Navy Commodore John Shaw wrote to Washington, having dispatched a company of marines to shore up New Orleans’s defenses. “Every description of property would have been consumed, and the country laid waste by the Revolters.”

Instead, and as was always eventually the case, the volcano swallowed the slaves instead. Sixteen miles from the Big Easy, a scrambled militia of New Orleans volunteers and some federal dragoons and infantry pulled from Baton Rouge managed

to meet the brigands, who were in the neighbourhood of the plantation of Mr. Bernoudi [present-day Norco -ed.], colors displayed and full of arrogance. As soon as we perceived them we rushed upon their troops, of whom we made considerable slaughter.

Not a single white person lost his life in the fray but scores of slaves were either killed in fighting, were summarily executed upon capture, or, fleeing from the carnage, were hunted to their deaths in the following days. The exact butcher’s bill is unknown; Louisiana officials counted 66 dead slaves in the immediate aftermath of action, including those executed, but this certainly understates the figure.

Where principal rebels were known, the revenge was exemplary. Pierre Griffe and Hans Wenprender, who were said to have personally imbrued their hands with the blood of the two dead white planters at the outset of the rebellion, were killed on the spot, mutilated, and their heads cut off as trophies for Colonel Andry.

Decapitation and worse was also the fate awaiting captives, at least 21 of whom were ordered for immediate death on January 15 by a tribunal of planters hastily assembled for the task. “By the end of January, around 100 dismembered bodies decorated the levee from the Place d’Armes [Jackson Square -ed.] in the center of New Orleans forty miles along the River Road into the heart of the plantation district,” in the words of a recent book about the affair. Such decor cost the territory $300 per piked head in compensation to the dead slaves’ former owners.

We excerpt the sentence from the tribunal’s own hand, as published in Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Autumn 1977.

The Tribunal assembled on the 14th and called before it the Negroes: Jean and Thomas, belonging to Mr. Arnauld; Hypolite, belonging to Mr. Etienne Trepagnier; Koock, belonging to Mr. James Brown; Eugene and Charles, belonging to the Labranche brothers; Quamana and Robaine, belonging to Mr. James Brown; Etienne, belonging to Mr. Strax; Louis and Joseph, belonging to Mr. Etienne Trepagnier; the mulatto Guiau, belonging to Messrs. Kenner and Henderson; Acara, belonging to Mr. Delhomme; Nede, belonging to Mr. Strax; and Amar, belonging to Widow Charbonnet; all of whom confessed and declared that they took a major part in the insurrection which burst upon the scene on the 9th of this month.

These rebels testified against one another, charging one another with capital crimes such as rebellion, assassination, arson, pillaging, etc., etc., etc. Upon which the Tribunal, acting in accordance with the authority conferred upon it by the law, and acting upon a desire to satisfy the wishes of the citizenry, does CONDEMN TO DEATH, without qualifications, the 18 individuals named above. This judgment is sustained today, the 15th of January, and shall be executed as soon as possible by a detachment of militia which shall take the condemned to the plantation of their owners and there the condemned shall be shot to death. The tribunal decrees that the sentence of death shall be carried out without any preceding torture.

It further decrees that the heads of the executed shall be cut off and placed atop a pole on the spot where all can see the punishment meted out for such crimes, also as a terrible example to all who would disturb the public tranquility in the future.

Done at the County of the Germans, St. Charles Parish, Mr. Destrehan’s plantation, January 15, 1811, at 10 o’clock in the morning.

Signed,
Cabaret
Destrehan
Edmond Fortier
Aud. Fortier
A. Labranche
P.B. St. Martin

We know for sure that the militia effected these grisly sentences with dispatch because this same body condemned three more slaves to the same fate later that same day, ordering that “their heads shall be placed on the ends of poles, as those of their infamous accomplices, who have already been executed.” Yet even this was better due process than a number of other prisoners enjoyed at the hands of angry white men; the Maryland-born naval officer Samuel Hambleton recorded the “characteristic barbarity” of the French oligarchy with disgust:

Several [slaves] were wrested from the Guards & butchered on the spot. Charles [Deslondes] had his Hands chopped off then shot in one thigh & then the other until they were both broken — then shot in the Body and before he had expired was put in a bundle of straw and roasted!”‡

The shock prompted an immediate tightening of security, and not only in Louisiana — where militia conscription became enforced more rigorously, both slaves and free blacks were encumbered with new restrictions on their movements, and a larger federal military presence was deployed at Louisiana’s own request. The legislatures of Kentucky, Tennessee, and the Mississippi territory — Mississippi wasn’t admitted to statehood until 1817 — all likewise buffed up their militias in the wake of German Coast.§

* Latterly Spanish, West Florida is no part of the present-day U.S. state of Florida; rather, Florida’s former littoral extrusion towards the Mississippi was annexed by Louisiana itself.

** When the U.S. went to war with Great Britain in 1812, Louisiana’s huge servile population made it an obvious vulnerability if the British were to land and arm the slaves. Summoning him from his Alabama stomping-grounds to his date with American folklore, Edward Livingston wrote to Andrew Jackson on behalf of the New Orleans Committee of Safety on September 18, 1814, imploring him to aid the outnumbered sugar planters:

This Country is strong by Nature, but extremely weak from the nature of its population, from the La Fourche downwards on both sides the River, that population consists (with inconsiderable exceptions) of Sugar Planters on whose large Estates there are on an average 25 slave to one White Inhabitant the maintenance of domestic tranquility in this part of the state obviously forbids a call on any of the White Inhabitants to the defense of the frontier, and even requires a strong additional force, attempts have already it is said been detected, to excite insurrection, and the character of our Enemy leaves us no doubt that this flagitious mode of warfare will be resorted to, at any rate the evil is so great that no precautions against it can be deem’d superfluous.

† The rising’s Spartacus, Charles Deslondes, was himself an import from the insurrectionary Caribbean Santo Domingo colony, which suggests a probable link by inspiration to the Haitian Revolution. Santo Domingo slaves were thought so seditious that their importation was periodically banned. However, and perhaps this is no accident, no documentation survives to elucidate the rebel slaves’ ideology, or what triggered them to rise at this particular moment.

‡ Letter to David Porter, January 25, 1811 as quoted by Robert L. Paquette in “‘A Horde of Brigands?’ The Great Louisiana Slave Revolt of 1811 Reconsidered,” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Spring 2009. Deslondes was captured on January 11th but as far as I can ascertain, we don’t have a precise date on record for his savage extrajudicial execution/murder. It obviously falls within this same short mid-January span.

§ See Thomas Marshall Thompson, “National Newspaper and Legislative Reactions to Louisiana’s Deslondes Slave Revolt of 1811,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, Winter, 1992. Thompson notices that “the Tennessee law specified, as had the one in the Orleans Territory, that blacks, mulattoes, and Indians could not be members of the militia.”

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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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1835: Ruel Blake, “often seen among negroes”

Add comment July 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1835, Ruel Blake hanged in Livingston as one of the white instigators of a supposed slave uprising.

Blake was an foreigner to Madison County, a Connecticut carpetbagger who (according to the vigilance committee’s proceedings) “could claim but few or none as friends” as he was “of a cold, phlegmatic temperament, with a forbidding countenance; kept himself almost aloof from white society, but was often seen among negroes” and “was noted for cold-blooded revenge, insatiable avarice, and unnatural cruelty.” He worked as a wheelwright and carpenter, and had only a single slave, Peter.

But not everyone in Livingston had it in for the guy. As the excitement first began to bubble up as June turned to July, Captain Thomas Hudnall, a wealthy plantation owner gave Ruel Blake money and a horse and sagely suggested he lay low somewhere else while the storm passed. Blake had not yet been accused by anyone, but he’d aroused the ire and seemingly the suspicion of his neighbors when his own slave was accused and Blake administered an unconvincing and pro forma flogging — “he did not wish to hurt [the slave], occasionally striking a hard lick to keep up appearances.” Eventually other white citizens forcibly relieved him of the job, and Blake had the effrontery as he saw his man being thrashed to “[rush] through the crowd to where his negro was, and swore, if he was touched another lick, they would have to whip him first,” a threat that brought him to blows with the man wielding the whip.

Hudnall rightly anticipated that his neighbors’ presumption of “mere” excess sympathy for the slave would soon take a much darker turn: Blake blew town on July 1, and with the arrival into Livingston the very next day of the fantastical slave revolt claims from nearby Beatties Bluff, a $500 reward for his capture soon went nipping at Blake’s heels. In the ensuing panicked days, Blake along with the “steam doctors” Cotton and Saunders — all strangers come to Mississippi, all of them socially marginal and noted for fraternizing with black people — came to be acclaimed as the chief white conspirators, accusations that became self-affirming as men under the lash or in fear of the gallows repeated the names, knowing from their torturers’ leading questions who was already condemned by acclamation.

Blake was captured after just a few days, in Vicksburg, where he posed as a boatman from upriver. Now Hudnall’s favor cut against him, for the flight from Livingston appeared to prove his guilt:

He arrived in Livingston on the 8th of July, under a strong escort, intimations being obtained that an attempt would be made by the clan [John Murrell’s bandits, the alleged nexus of the slave rising plot -ed.] to rescue him.

His appearance in Livingston created a most alarming excitement; and, but for the committee’s being in session, in all probability he would have been forcibly taken from the guard, and immediately executed. After arriving, he was immediately put on his trial before the committee … Every disclosure which was made [by previous interrogations] was replete with testimony against him.

After hearing all the evidence, every opportunity was given him to produce counteracting testimony, which he failed to do. There being no doubt on the minds of the committee, he was, by a unanimous vote, condemned to be hanged; and, just before leaving the committee-room, he requested the committee to give him time to settle his affairs.

On the 10th of July, in the presence of an immense concourse of people, he was executed. He privately commended the verdict of the committee, and said they could not have done otherwise than condemn him from the evidence before them, and publicly, under the gallows, made the same declaration. He protested in his innocence to the last, and said that his life was sworn away.

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1835: Vincent, by popular demand

Add comment July 9th, 2017 Headsman

This story is transcribed from the July 27, 1835 National Banner and Nashville Whig:

From the Clinton (Miss.) Gazette.

PUBLIC EXECUTION. — On Thursday morning last,* between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, VINCENT, a mulatto fellow belonging to the estate of the late Robert Bell, was hung in this place, by the citizens.

Abundant evidence of his participation in the late insurrectionary movements having been furnished the Committee of Vigilance appointed by the people of Clinton, he was sentenced to receive three hundred lashes, and to perpetual banishment from the United States, after the expiration of forty days.

On Wednesday evening, Vincent was carried out to receive his stripes; but the assembled multitude were in favor of hanging him — regarding the sentence pronounced against him as insufficient for the punishment of so enormous a crime. A vote was accordingly fairly taken, and the hanging party had it by an “overwhelming majority,” as politicians say. He was remanded to prison.

On the day of execution, a still larger crowd was assembled, and fearing that public sentiment might have changed in regard to his fate, after every thing favorable to the culprit was alleged, which could be said, the vote was taken — and his death again demanded by the people.

In pursuance of this sentiment, so unequivocally expressed, he was led to a “black-jack,” and suspended to one of its branches.

We approve entirely of the proceeding. The people have acted properly. Any man, whether he be white, yellow, or black, who lends his countenance and aid to a scheme, having for its object the burning of villages and towns, and the indiscriminate butchery of men, women and children, surely deserves an ignominious death. He who robs a solitary traveller on the high-way of a few dollars, is doomed to suffer death. How much more then, is he deserving of that punishment, who concocts and matures a deep laid conspiracy against the lives of an unoffending community?

Vincent could have made important discoveries at the gallows, but obstinately refused doing so, alleging that his own death being certain, it would profit him nothing to bring others to the same fate, and that he should inform on no one.


The Clinton lawyer named Henry Foote — who in future would become Governor of Mississippi — claimed in his memoir Casket of Reminisces that the ad hoc public votes on Vincent’s life were the product of his, Foote’s, desperate attempts to prevent the lynching at the behest of the former slave’s aged mistress.

When I rode into the town of Clinton I saw a large multitude assembled on one of the most popular streets, in front of a store in which Mr. Archibald Kenney, now in Staunton, Virginia, had some years before sold merchandize. I dismounted and went to the spot. I soon learned that the vigilance committee of that vicinage, composed of some of the best citizens of the county, had been trying a mulatto man, whom I knew very well, upon a charge of being a participant in the scheme of alleged insurrection.

A considerable quantity of powder and shot had been found in his possession, which circumstance had awakened some suspicions against him. The committee had tried him, and had sentenced him to be whipped only, and they would, indeed, have discharged him altogether, as I learned from themselves, had they not dreaded the indignant rage of the population of the town, then in a very excited condition. The committee had been unfortunate enough to sit with closed doors, which gave to the imagination of those not taking part in their proceedings a wide field for unfavorable conjecture. When the sentence was announced the outsiders determined to hang their longed-for victim at any rate; and at the time I reached the place where they were assembled the preparations for the execution of the boy were going forward. The boy had been in the ownership of a venerable gentle man of the neighborhood, Captain Bell, a Virginia friend of mine of great respectability and intelligence. He had been a great favorite with his master, who had left him free. The captain had been dead about a year, and this boy, who by-the-by was nearly white, and singularly polite and civil in his manners, had been since his master’s decease a faithful protector of his family, which consisted of his widow and a single female child. This widowed lady had reached the fearful scene some minutes before my own arrival, and had been allowed, in connection with a learned and pious minister of the Gospel, Dr. Comfort, to hold a last interview with this unfortunate boy. She came forth from this interview, attended by her pious and humane protector, and advancing within the portico where most of the multitude were located, she spoke, with a voice much agitated and almost stilled with emotion, while the tears were rapidly coursing down her venerable cheeks, as follows:

“GENTLEMEN, you all knew my husband during his life, and respected him. This poor boy was his favorite servant. I know his disposition and character well. I have just catechised him most searchingly. Had he been guilty as charged I should have been able to detect his guilt. I assure you that he is innocent. Oh! gentlemen, (she wildly exclaimed,) is there not one among you who will stand up here as the representative and champion of a poor, widowed, friendless female?” I immediately rose to my feet. I looked circumspectly upon the crowd for a moment. I saw standing just before me the grim-looking face of a man notorious for his violent and blood-thirsty character, whose name was Hardwick, and whom I soon after prosecuted for a diabolical murder, for which he would certainly have been hanged if the victim of his atrocity had been a white man. I saw a new rope in this ruffian’s hands, the texture of which he was feeling with his accursed fingers, evidently for the purpose of ascertaining whether it was strong enough to do the dread office effectually for which he had purchased it. I was conscious of all the perils which surrounded my position, and I therefore proceeded with extreme caution. I spoke thus: “Gentlemen, you have heard the touching appeal of this venerable lady. I have nothing to add to her decorous and impressive address, but I have a word to say to you of a prudential character in regard to yourselves and your own future responsibilities. The excitement now raging in this community may after awhile subside. Then it may be that some officious person shall wish to institute a prosecution for murder on account of the hanging of this boy. In my judgment it will be most safe that whatever is done in this affair shall be the act, as it were, of the whole community. I am not willing that a few generous-minded young men shall be made the scape-goats of this vicinage. Let us all join in whatever act may be resolved on. Now I will take the vote of the whole assemblage upon the question of banging, if no one sball object to it.” No objection being made, I said: “All in favor of hanging this unfortunate boy will signify the same by saying aye.” Nine-tenths answered aye. I said: “Those opposed to hanging will answer no.” About eight or ten persons said no.

I determined to make one more experiment before I gave up all hope of saving a human being from a fate so dreadful as that I saw impending. The day was intensely hot. The street on which we were located was very wide and intersected with deep gullies. I said: “Gentlemen, let us settle this question more satisfactorily: All in favor of hanging will range themselves on the opposite side of the street; those in favor of mercy will remain under the shade of this portico.” Nearly all rushed across the street! I left the spot with feelings of sorrow and disgust which no words can express. The boy was swung into eternity in less than fifteen minutes from that moment.

On my way home to dinner I met that distressed widow. She was on horseback, and stopped for a moment to speak to me. She said: “Mr. Foote, you know what has taken place to-day. You were, during the life of my venerated husband, his friend and his legal adviser. Tell me what I had best do. I wish to prosecute the murderers of my servant. Will you undertake to bring them to justice? I will reward you liberally.”

“My dear madam,” I said, “We are in the midst of most unhappy circumstances and of most appalling dangers. The community in which we live is in a frenzied condition. Were you to commence such a prosecution as you mention your own life would not be safe. Let me recommend to you earnestly to bow to the imperious necessity of the hour. “She looked at me for a moment with a mingled expression of sorrow and resentment upon her countenance, and then responded to me with a grave and touching solemnity of look I can never forget: “I will take your advice. Farewell!”

* This story was republished around the country featuring only the Gazette‘s original “Thursday morning last” locution, without any contextualizing dateline, which is another compelling reason for newsfolk to abandon the chatty day-of-week convention in favor of stating an actual date. Neither does Foote trouble to date the affair.

However, in view of the infuriatingly cavalier dating of events that this calendar-interested author is forever wrestling, Joshua Rothman‘s gumshoe act on Vincent’s hanging date in Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson is nothing short of a godsend. Here’s endnote 50 to chapter 7 in its gloriously diligent entirety:

Figuring the date of Vincent’s trial requires a bit of detective work and a bit of guesswork. On July 24 the Jackson Mississippian reprinted Vincent’s story as it appeared in the Clinton Gazette. July 24 was a Friday, and while no copies of the Gazette from July 1835 survive, the paper was published on Saturdays, meaning that its article about Vincent appeared in either the July 11 or July 18 edition. The original story indicates that Vincent’s execution took place on “Thursday morning last” and suggests that his trial took place the day before that. The language here is ambiguous. If the story originally appeared in the July 11 issue of the Gazette, “last” means July 9, the Thursday immediately preceding, as there was no vigilance committee in existence in Clinton on any Thursdays prior to that one. If the story originally appeared in the July 18 issue of the Gazette, “last” could mean that Vincent’s trial occurred on July 15 or on July 8, but July 8 seems more likely for several reasons. The activities of the vigilance committees all over the state, including the one in Livingston, had slowed significantly by the fifteenth. Moreover, Henry Foote claimed to have seen what happened to Vincent when he got back to Clinton the day after seeing the beating of Lee Smith. He may have been mistaken, but an entirely plausible and consistent timeline exists in which Foote saw a mob assault Lee Smith on the afternoon of July 7, arrived in Jackson that evening, accompanied William Sharkey to Clinton on the morning of July 8, and witnessed what became of Vincent in town that afternoon and early the next day. [citing] Clinton Gazette in Jackson Mississippian, July 24, 1835; Foote, Casket of Reminiscences, 256.

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1835: Joshua Cotton and William Saunders, steam doctors

1 comment July 4th, 2017 Headsman

In the Mississippi slave insurrection panic of 1835, slavers’ fears attached themselves right from the start to the prospect of white leadership affiliating with the prospective black rising.

Israel Campbell, a slave who would eventually reach freedom in the North and publish a fascinating autobiography on the eve of the Civil War, was present in the vicinity. He knew nothing of any rebellion until

two white men came to my house one night after I had gone to bed, and ordered me to get up immediately. I could not think, for my life, what was the matter. Before I got my clothes on, they became impatient, and called for me to open the door. As I done this, one of them seized me by the collar, having a bowie-knife in one hand. Uttering a horrible oath, he asked —

“What do you know about Doctor Cotton’s scrape?”

“Nothing at all, sir,” I replied.

“Don’t you tell me a lie. Do you know Dr. Cotton? When did you see him last?”

I replied, that I would not tell them a lie; that I did know Mr. Cotton, but that I had not seen him for some time. They went on asking a number of questions, wanting to know if I knew Harris’ old Dave, the negro preacher, and when I heard him preach last, and where at? I answered them satisfactorily these queries. They then wanted to know if I staid at the meeting until the people had all dispersed? If they talked any thing about getting free and killing the white people?

I replied to them about knowing the different parties; but about the rising of the slaves I had heard nothing.

After convincing themselves that I was ignorant, they left, warning me, however, not to be caught outside our own plantation, nor talk with any strange negroes or white men. They told me that Dr. Cotton and some other mean white men and a great many of the negroes were laying plans to rise and kill off the white people and free the negroes. After giving me some brandy, and again warning me, that if I did not heed their advice, I would be shot, they left my house.

They, with other parties, went around among all the slave quarters. Many they scared so badly, that they told lies of every description, and suffered for it. When they thought they had succeeded in quelling the insurrection, they commenced punishing those they had caught. Some they hung, others they burned, and some of those they thought not so guilty they pulled cats back-wards on their bare backs. Two of the party hung themselves in the prison.

The man these rude guests hunted with that menacing Bowie knife was Joshua Cotton, an itinerant homeopath expounding the fad launched by Samuel Thomson‘s hit publication New Guide to Health. Thomson had by means of some natural palliatives healed his family of several ailments that confounded legitimate medical practitioners; his emphasis on having patients sweat out toxins by immersion in steam led his followers to be derided as “steam doctors.”

Cotton wasn’t the only steam doctor beating the bushes in Madison County: an intimate named William Saunders was also about. Their wandering practice, interacting with free men and slaves alike, profiled as precisely the types who would be orchestrating a coordinated rebellion — and they had been implicated under the lash by the Beatties Bluff slaves, where the insurrection panic had begun days earlier.

Though not yet aware that they would be caught up in the panic, the steam doctors were making their own moves in these days. Saunders attended a June 30 meeting of Livingston whites to organize suppression of the supposed rebellion and advised them that the other steam doctor, Cotton, “was in the habit of trading with negroes; would buy any thing they would steal and bring to him.” This put the vigilantes onto Cotton; Saunders left town in peace and made, so he said, for Texas — which would have been a wise choice, as events would show.

On the road to Vicksburg and a river crossing to the safety of Louisiana, Saunders repeated the story to another traveler who just so happened to have a more suspicious frame of mind than the Livingstonians. This Good Samaritan promptly brought Saunders in as a suspected conspirator himself. Both steam doctors were under lock and key as the Beatties Bluff allegations of their complicity reached Livingston.

Saunders elaborated his charges against Cotton, plainly hoping to trade his opposite number’s life for his own: that Cotton was forever going about pretending to lose his horses in the countryside “as a pretext for hunting them, that he might have opportunities to converse with the negroes, and, by that means, to seduce them from their allegiance to their owners, by instilling rebellious notions among them; and to form plans, and to make converts to his propositions, which he could not do by being a steam-doctor.” Since a slave brought from Beatties Bluff also identified Cotton on sight as the man keen on seducing him to rebellion, Cotton could perceive that his fate was surely sealed, and while the vigilantes deliberated on July 4 he sent them a desperate offer to confess in exchange for leniency. The committee refused the offer … but confession was still the only card Cotton had to play, and he submitted the confession on spec. In it, he leaned for his narrative on Virgil Stewart’s recently published claims about a slave plot led by the bandit John Murrell.

I am one of the Murrell clan, a member of what we called the grand council … Our object in undertaking to excite the negroes to rebellion, was not for the purpose of liberating them, but for plunder. I was trying to carry into effect the plan of Murrell as laid down in Stewart’s pamphlet … from the exposure of our plans in said pamphlet, we expected the citizens would be on their guard at the time mentioned, being the 25th of December next; and we determined to take them by surprise, and try it on the night of the 4th of July, and it would have been tried to-night (and perhaps may yet), but for the detection of our plans.

Cotton also repaid tit for tat by naming Saunders as one of the plotters, confirming some slaves’ accusations and leaving the backstabbing chum to twist on his own useless protestations of innocence.

The upshot of Cotton’s statement was an offer to buy his own life by continuing to reveal more information about the conspiracy going forward — essentially, to become a standing informant against anyone whom the slavers might next suspect. “But the committee, deeming it of infinitely more importance to check the impending storm, by immediately destroying two of the ringleaders, and thereby creating dismay and panic among them, ordered their execution” — which was effected immediately, both steam doctors being marched directly from their hearing to the jail where, “fastening a rope to the grating of a window, in the upper story of the jail, and leaning a couple of rails against the wall, assisted the culprits upon the rails; then, adjusting the other end of the rope around their necks, removed the rails. They were left hanging until the next morning.”

The final extent of the executions/lynchings meted out during the course the insurrection panic is uncertain. Israel Campbell, however, would remember that Cotton and Saunders were certainly not the end of it when it came to rootless itinerants in the vicinity — and not only the steam doctor set. “[T]he party who were making arrests endeavored to get hold of every steam doctor and colored preacher they could,” he wrote in his autobiography.

[O]nce in their grasp, there was very little mercy shown them. The heads of the preachers they cut off and put on poles, and placed them along the road, where they remained until they were bleached. I saw several of their skulls in an apothecary store at Mount Vernon the latter part of that fall. Dr. Cotton was a noble-looking man and a friend to the slave, and he died a martyr to the cause he had so much at heart, — the emancipation of the slave.

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1835: A white man at Vicksburg and two black men at Livingston, and five slaves at Beatties Bluff

Add comment July 2nd, 2017 Headsman

The first casualties of the Murrell Excitement, a purported slave rising in Madison County, Mississippi, were strung up by vigilance committees on this date in 1835.

Having been alerted to rebellious talk by slaves on a Beatties Bluff plantation, a vigilance committee organized itself and interrogated every slave there.

Events were moving fast, and those in the middle of them had all they could do to keep up with developments — as can be seen by this staccato letter from Canton, Mississippi in the center of Madison County. It was reprinted widely in the U.S. in late July; we’re quoting here from the July 25, 1835 Baltimore Gazette And Daily Advertiser.

Canton, Mississippi
July 3, 1835.

I have to inform you the disagreeable news that the negroes are about to rise upon the whites. It come out about two weeks ago; the whole country is in alarm — There have been meetings throughout the state, to adopt measures to find out the ringleaders and to appoint patrols. We are out patroling every night. — Last night I was in company to ride about the country to the plantations to see if every negro was at his home. There was a white man taken up at Vicksburg concerned with the negroes; they called a court together, and brought him in guilty and HUNG him right off. There have been three more white men taken up, but they have not had their trials yet.

In Livingston a town twelve miles from here, they gave a negro six hundred lashes, before he would discover any thing; then he informed them that the blacks were to rise on the Fourth of July. The jail here is full and they are bringing more and more in every day. We have a meeting here to day to form a volunteer company, to be ready at a minute’s notices and we are prepared with guns and ammunition.

Whilst I am writing this, there is a large meeting here to adopt resolutions to protect the citizens; also to send on to the Secretary of War to send a company of soldiers to protect the citizens of the County. — They hanged two negroes yesterday at Livingston, and they have about fifteen more that they are going to hang. We had four brought in here this morning to examine, and expect they will hang one of them.

The Court has just adjourned. They tried three blacks and flogged them all. To one of them they gave two hundred lashes! There were three white men at the head of the insurrection, that have run away. They have one in jail. They took him out yesterday, and gave him Lynch’s law, and that is thirty-nine lashes in this country. They expect to hang him.


Meanwhile, at Beatties Bluff, interrogators on July 1-2 harrowed the slaves with scourges. A letter from one of their number described the transaction with the first man to crack, a blacksmith named Joe. We do not know for a fact whether there was any slave plot, but if one reads it from the perspective of Joe’s likely innocence it presents as an archetypical feeling-out dialogue between torturer and prey, each party half-guessing at the other’s direction so as to steer a story to its acceptable destination.

We then called for a rope, and tied his hands, and told him that we were in possession of some of their conversation, and that he should tell the whole of it; after some time he agreed that, if we would not punish him, he would tell all that he could recollect. He said he knew what we wanted, and would tell the whole, but that he himself had nothing to do with the business. He said that Sam had told him that the negroes were going to rise and kill all the whites on the 4th, and that they had a number of white men at their head: some of them he knew by name others he only knew when he saw them. He mentioned the following white men as actively engaged in the business: Ruel Blake, Drs. Cotton and Saunders, and many more, but could not call their names; and that he had seen several others. He aso gave the names of several slaves as ringleaders in the business, who were understood to be captains under those white men.

Joe appears to have managed this frightful situation with aplomb and “was set at liberty”; however, on his evidence, other slaves were brought in: an aged preacher named Weaver (“no offers of lenity could shake his courage, and he remained steadfast under the torture of the lash, when even his executioner was nigh to fainting with his task”); a man named Russell (“all was mystery with him” until, prompted, he made a statement “in all particulars, precisely like the one made by Joe”); a handsome youth called Jim who offered more white man’s names and claimed that the slaves intended “to slay all the whites, except some of the most beautiful women, whom they intended to keep as wives”; and “a boy” — presumably a child — called Bachus who confirmed same.

“After getting through with these examinations, Jim, Bachus, Weaver, Russell, and Sam, were all put to death by hanging.”

A tense albeit perhaps dramatized narration of the violent interrogations and summary executions can be found in chapter 29 of The Life and Adventures of J. A. Murrell, the Great Western Land Pirate, which is also the source of the illustration above, and of the parenthetical quote about the preacher Weaver.

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1741: John Hughson, Sarah Hughson and Peggy Kerry, “so abandoned to confederate with Slaves”

1 comment June 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1741, “John Hughson, Sarah his wife, and Margaret Kerry, were executed according to sentence” for the slave conspiracy to burn New York.

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! —

Gentlemen,

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.

* In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, Jill Lepore — who believes that the “plot” was fictitious — unpacks a confusing part of the 1737-1738 backstory that might help us straddle the space between reality and fantasy in this strange case.

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.)

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

On this day..

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

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1741: Cuffee and Quack, “chained to a stake, and burnt to death”

Add comment May 30th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1741 marked the first official execution for the alleged New York slave conspiracy of 1741.

Nineteen days before, two slaves named Caesar and Prince had hanged, nominally for theft but believed by the populace (and the court) primary instigators of a staggering plot to put New York to the torch, murder the city’s whites, and reign as kings on the ashes of their masters’ city.

Cuffee was, alongside those already-executed Caesar and Prince, part of a trio of slaves known to hang about together at the house of barkeep and fence John Hughson. Already notorious about town for a gin-robbing incident that had seen all three publicly whipped in 1738, and had again burgled a linen store that February. (That’s the crime for which Caesar and Prince were executed.)

The evidentiary chain linking these commonplace prowlers to a spate of fires whose intent must be the annihilation of the city leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the burning spring of 1741 helped solder them together in part thanks to a white New Yorker spying Cuffee in what he thought was a suspicious position during a fire and raising the alarm. Cuffee fled, back to the home of Adolph Philipse — his owner, and also the uncle of one of the judges who would eventually condemn him — where a crowd of incited freemen chased him down and hauled him to gaol, “borne upon the People’s Shoulders.” His skulking seemed to confirm a widening suspicion, spiced by the mother country’s going war against dusky Spaniards, that the city’s Negroes must surely lurk behind a fortnight’s infernos. From this point on it appears as if New Yorkers — or at least the city’s elites — determined by consensus that they “must necessarily conclude, that [the fires] were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”

Now, this appearance of consensus is an impression nearly three centuries distant, and is heavily shaped by the circumstance that there’s one predominant voice surviving the ravages of years to document for us the official proceedings: Daniel Horsmanden, who both judged and investigated the case and is thus heavily invested in its outcome. His A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction With Negro and Other Slaves, for Burning the City of New-York in America and Murdering the Inhabitants is Horsmanden’s record of how the plot or “plot” was uncovered; it was assembled in 1742 and presents trial and deposition records curated by Horsmanden with a view to persuading “such as have a Disposition to be convinc’d, and have in Reality doubted, whether any particular Convicts had Justice done them or not” — for by this time such doubts were dogging Horsmanden’s court, having hounded 30-odd people to death on evidence that was already viewed as highly impeachable.

There had been some wanton, wrong-headed Persons amongst us, who took the Liberty to arraign the Justice of the Proceedings, and set up their private Opinions in Superiority to the Court and Grand Jury; tho’ God knows (and all Men of Sense know) they could not be Judges of such Matters; but nevertheless, they declared with no small Assurance (notwithstanding what we saw with our Eyes, and heard with our Ears, and every one might have judg’d of by his Intellects, that had any) That there was no Plot at all!

Whether the entire slave conspiracy to burn New York was a phantom, or whether it did indeed reflect in whatever distorted way a some real mode of resistance, is a factual question that is permanently unanswerable.* But the cases certainly took on a witch hunt quality, and they bore many hallmarks of wrongful conviction that are familiar even today.

Our first two hangings, Caesar and Prince, were doomed by the decision of John Hughson’s teenage serving-girl to turn state’s evidence and denounce them. As Cuffee and Quack would be the first people formally tried for the arson wave, her evidence was buttressed in this case by another common prosecutor’s cheat: the prison snitch.

A (white) petty thief named Arthur Price, who was being held in New York’s dungeon along with the growing ranks of suspected terrorists, helpfully began informing on the people around him. It’s likely he was a longstanding underclass crony of the purported plotters.

At any rate, the civic-minded Price, “having been found by experience to be very adroit at pumping out the Secrets of the Conspirators … was ordered to put Cuffee (Mr. PHILIPSE’s Negro) into the same Cell with him, and to give them a Tankard of Punch now and then, in order to chear up their Spirits, and make them more sociable.” What do you know but the next morning, Price was ready to report that his inebriated cellmate had admitted the conspiracy to him, and had implicated Quack as the man who actually fired the fort.

Quack was promptly arrested. Arthur Price would give evidence against both at their trial, but having made himself an obvious stool pigeon his use as an informant was at an end since nobody would go near him any longer.

More key information against Cuffee and Quack came from two other slaves, whose “Negro evidence” — a distinct class of (significantly derogated) proof in New York courts — would also have been controversial. The crown’s attorney prosecuting the case felt obliged to go out of his way to justify to the jury the unsworn testimony of “Pagan Negroes” on the grounds that without such, “the greatest Villanies would often pass with Impunity.” But pagan or no, both Sandy (a minor) and Fortune were also men who were suspect in the plot. Perhaps as black slaves their king’s evidence could not be as strong as that of the white servant Mary Burton — but it might still be strong enough to save their lives. Sandy spent a week in the dungeon amid his alleged confederates, after which he was hauled before the grand jury and leaned upon until he cracked.

They told him, if he would speak the Truth, the Governor would pardon him, though he had been concerned in them; and this was the Time for him to save his Life by making a free and ingenuous Confession; or in Words to this Purpose. He answered, That the Time before after that the Negroes told all they knew, then the white People hanged them. The Grand Jury assured him, that it was false; for that the Negroes which confessed the Truth and made a Discovery, were certainly pardoned, and shipped off: [which was the Truth] And upon this Assurance he began to open, and gave the following Evidence.

Quack, Sandy said, had solicited Sandy to help him burn down Fort George — and Cuffee “said, D–m him, that hang him or burn him, he would set fire to the Town.” Fortune was among the numerous other names he named — whose “Design was to kill all the Gentlemen, and take their Wives, and that Quack and Cuffee were particular Persons that talked so.”

Strangely, before they suffered at the stake Cuffee and Quack were suffered to conduct a hopeless defense of their own — “indulged with the same Kind of Trial as is due to Freemen, though they might have been proceeded against in a more summary and less favourable Way,” in the crown’s summing-up. This was more than they were entitled to as slaves, and they used the court’s liberality to summon ten witnesses in an attempt to establish good character and alibi; notably, Quack’s owner John Roosevelt avowed that “Quack was employed most Part of that Morning the Fort was fired, from the Time they got up, in cutting away the Ice out of the Yard; that he was hardly ever out of their Sight all that Morning, but a small Time while they were at Breakfast; and that they could not think he could that Morning have been [from] their House so far as the Fort.” But even from a white property owner, these words were far too little against a consensus that had been shaped seemingly from the belly of the conspiracy — from Mary Burton’s evidence and Arthur Price’s evidence and Sandy’s and Fortune’s evidence: that Quack’s were the hands that set the most damaging fire in the arson campaign, and that Cuffee’s, along with Caesar’s and Prince’s, were the hands that directed him.

Their condemnation was a mere formality, albeit one whose rhetorical opportunities the court did not mean to neglect.

You both now stand convicted of one of the most horrid and detestable pieces of villainy, that ever satan instilled into the heart of human creatures to put in practice; ye, and the rest of your colour, though you are called slaves in this country; yet you are all far, very far, from the condition of other slaves in other countries; nay, your lot is superior to that of thousands of white people. You are furnished with all the necessaries of life, meat, drink, and clothing, without care, in a much better manner than you could provide for yourselves, were you at liberty; as the miserable condition of many free people here of your complexion might abundantly convince you. What then could prompt you to undertake so vile, so wicked, so monstrous, so execrable and hellish a scheme, as to murder and destroy your own masters and benefactors? nay, to destroy root and branch, all the white people of this place, and to lay the whole town in ashes.

I know not which is the more astonishing, the extreme folly, or wickedness, of so base and shocking a conspiracy; for as to any view of liberty or government you could propose to yourselves, upon the success of burning the city, robbing, butchering, and destroying the inhabitants; what could it be expected to end in, in the account of any rational and considerate person among you, but your own destruction? And as the wickedness of it, you might well have reflected, you that have sense, that there is a God above, who has always a clear view of all your actions, who sees into the utmost recesses of the heart, and knoweth all your thoughts; shall he not, do ye think, for all this bring you into judgment, at that final and great day of account, the day of judgment, when the most secret treachery will be disclosed, and laid open to the view, and everyone will be rewarded according to their deeds, and their use of that degree of reason which God Almighty has entrusted them with.

Ye that were for destroying us without mercy, ye abject wretches, the outcasts of the nations of the earth, are treated here with tenderness and humanity; and, I wish I could not say, with too great indulgence also; for you have grown wanton with excess of liberty, and your idleness has proved your ruin, having given you the opportunities of forming this villainous and detestable conspiracy; a scheme compounded of the blackest and foulest vices, treachery, blood-thirstiness, and ingratitude. But be not deceived, God Almighty only can and will proportion punishments to men’s offences; ye that have shewn no mercy here, and have been for destroying all about ye, and involving them in one general massacre and ruin, what hopes can ye have of mercy in the other world? For shall not the judge of all the earth do right? Let me in compassion advise ye then; there are but a few moments between ye and eternity; ye ought therefore seriously to lay to heart these things; earnestly and sorrowfully to bewail your monstrous and crying sins, in this your extremity; and if ye would reasonably entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, ye must shew mercy here yourselves, and make what amends ye can before ye leave us, for the mischief you have already done, by preventing any more being done. Do not flatter yourselves, for the same measure which you give us here, will be measured to you again in the other world; ye must confess your whole guilt, as to the offences of which ye stand convicted, and for which ye will presently receive judgment; ye must discover the whole scene of iniquity which has been contrived in this monstrous confederacy, the chief authors and actors, and all and every the parties concerned, aiding and assisting therein, that by your means a full stop may be put to this horrible and devilish undertaking. And these are the only means left ye to shew mercy; and the only rea­sonable ground ye can go upon, to entertain any hopes of mercy at the hands of God, before whose judgment seat ye are so soon to appear.

Ye cannot be so stupid, surely, as to imagine, that when ye leave this world, when your souls put off these bodies of clay, ye shall become like the beasts that perish, that your spirits shall only vanish into the soft air and cease to be. No, your souls are immortal, they will live forever, either to be eternally happy, or eternally miserable in the other world, where you are now going.

If ye sincerely and in earnest repent you of your abominable sins, and implore the divine assistance at this critical juncture, in working out the great and momentous article of the salvation of your souls; upon your making all the amends, and giving all the satisfaction which is in each of your powers, by a full and complete discovery of the conspiracy, and of the several persons concerned in it, as I have observed to ye before, then and only upon these conditions can ye reasonably expect mercy at the hands of God Almighty for your poor, wretched and miserable souls.

Here ye must have justice, for the justice of human laws has at length overtaken ye, and we ought to be very thankful, and esteem it a most merciful and wondrous act of Providence, that your treacheries and villainies have been discovered; that your plot and contrivances, your hidden works of darkness have been brought to light, and stopped in their career; that in the same net which you have hid so privly for others your own feet are taken: that the same mischief which you have contrived for others, and have in part executed, is at length fallen upon your own pates, whereby the sentence which I am now to pronounce will be justified against ye; which is,

That you and each of you be carried from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you and each of you shall be chained to a stake, and burnt to death; and the lord have mercy upon your poor, wretched souls.

That sentence came down on May 29.

It was implemented the very next day, amid a mob scene.

With Quack and Cuffee staked to their pyres, they were harried to admit the plot with the promise of a reprieve from their horrible sentence. Even if mercy would only amount to moderating death by burning into death by hanging, it would be well worth having — and the frightened slaves grasped at the small succor left them.

The spectators at this execution were very numerous; about three o’clock the criminals were brought to the stake, surrounded with piles of wood ready for setting fire to, which the people were very impatient to have done, their resentment being raised to the utmost pitch against them, and no wonder. The criminals shewed great terror in their countenances, and looked as if they would gladly have discovered all they knew of this accursed scheme, could they have had any encouragement to hope for a reprieve. But as the case was, they might flatter themselves with hopes: they both seemed inclinable to make some confession; the only difficulty between them at last being, who should speak first. Mr. Moore, the deputy secretary, undertook singly to examine them both, endeavoring to persuade them to confess their guilt, and all they knew of the matter, without effect; till at length Mr. Roosevelt [Quack’s owner, who testified for his alibi -ed.] came up to him, and said he would undertake Quack, whilst Mr. Moore examined Cuffee; but before they could proceed to the purpose, each of them was obliged to flatter his respective criminal that his fellow sufferer had begun, which stratagem prevailed: Mr. Roosevelt stuck to Quack altogether, and Mr. Moore took Cuff’s confession, and sometimes also minutes of what each said; and afterwards upon drawing up their confessions in form from their minutes, they therefore intermixed what came from each.

Thus induced by prevaricating confessors amid a mob baying for their blood, both Quack and Cuffee implicated Hughson as the originator of the plot, and themselves as early principals, and named a good many others besides. (Quack also at last claimed responsibility for firing Fort George, as the court had found.)

But the quid for their quo was not the promised abatement of their sufferings. As Sandy had worried to the grand jury in a different context, white men’s reassurances to slave rebels whom they meant to destroy could prove … unreliable.

After the confessions were minuted down (which were taken in the midst of great noise and confusion) Mr. Moore desired the sheriff to delay the execution until the governor be acquainted therewith, and his pleasure known touching their reprieve; which, could it have been effected, it was thought might have been means of producing great discoveries; but from the disposition observed in the spectators, it was much to be apprehended, there would have been great difficulty, if not danger in an attempt to take the criminals back. All this was represented to his honour; and before Mr. Moore could return from him to the place of execution, he met the sheriff upon the common, who declared his opinion, that the carrying the negroes back would be impracticable; and if that was his honour’s order it could not be attempted without a strong guard, which could not be got time enough; and his honour’s directions for the reprieve being conditional and discretionary, for these reasons the execution proceeded.

* For contrasting perspectives, Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker present this as a real instance of working-class rebellion in The Many-Headed Hydra, while Jill LePore’s New York Burning approaches it as mostly a concoction.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,History,New York,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Terrorists,Treason,USA

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Corpses Strewn: New York’s slave conspiracy of 1741

1 comment May 11th, 2016 Headsman

Beginning on this May 11th, and scattered depressingly over the coming weeks, we revisit New York City’s great terrorist panic … of 1741.

This was scarcely the first security scare of New York — indeed, the city had been rocked by a major slave revolt back in 1712, a revolt that included arson.

By 1741, New York “boasted” the second-largest slave population of Britain’s North American colonies, behind only Charleston: enough souls to outnumber the city’s propertied elite should they manage to act in concert. As the cruel winter of 1741 abated, a series of fires in the city raised suspicion … and then fear … and soon, certainty … that just such a slave conspiracy was underway.

On March 18, Fort George caught fire, burning to the ground with the mansion of the autocratic royal governor before a semi-timely rainstorm aborted a potential Great Fire of London scenario.

Nobody could be sure what happened, but the cold-dried tinders of a wooden city were easy prey to accidental sparks. Though devastating, the calamity was not necessarily suspicious.

The event took on a different hue when another fire broke out near the ruins of the fort the very next week, March 25. Another occurred on April 1, and yet another on April 4.


1762 illustration of New Yorkers fighting a blaze by passing water buckets to a pumping wagon.

There were 10 fires in all, plus alarming near-misses like fizzled coals left under a heap of straw, and although each was contained without devastating the city it must have seemed that the flames licked Manhattan from the very mouth of hell, convening an ever more rattled bucket brigade again and again until — as the city’s Common Council recorded in convening on April 11 — “every one that reflected on the Circumstances attending them, the Frequency of them, and the Causes yet undiscovered, must necessarily conclude, that they were occasioned and set on Foot by some villainous Confederacy of latent Enemies amongst us.”


New-York Weekly Journal, April 20, 1741

A frightened populace confronting a shadowy menace in a world at war made an environment ripe for a witch hunt. That was not quite true in the literal sense:* a half-century’s distance from the Salem trials put 1741 New Yorkers in a different philosophical universe.

But for at least 30 of New York’s slaves, and for four white people known to keep intimacy with them, the effect was much the same. Harrowed between the masters’ self-confirming fears and their fellows’ desperate accusations under duress, the plot or the “plot” staked them to flaming pyres, high gallows, and public infamy.

We will pause for the particulars of various individuals’ situations as we meet them. As to the general outline, the provincial supreme court that condemned these 30-plus souls (and inflicted various sub-lethal punishments on others) had via testimony delivered to a grand jury beginning on April 22 evolved a working theory that the black slaves who frequented a tavern kept by a white couple named John and Peggy Hughson had formed a sinister society bent on outright revolution. The allegations of the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton, drawn from her with fear and favor, were key to the entire affair; in her words, three slaves named Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were the architects of the plan along with Mr. Hughson and they aimed to “burn the whole town … [and] when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.” More than that: these dark serviles should when they ruled New York have the city’s white women for their own. There is something of the Witches’ Sabbath about these specifications after all.

Whether there ever was a slave conspiracy — and if so, whether it ever compassed more than a handful of people, or rose past the level of loose words or isolated and opportunistic deeds — has never really been known. Cities have now and very much had then a susceptibility to fire, and their inhabitants a susceptibility to finding spurious patterns in noisy data.

As soon as July of that same year 1741 it was charged publicly (albeit anonymously) that those tongues of Hell had been the “merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot,” and New Yorkers admonished that “making Bonfires of the Negros … [is] perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs.” On the other hand — and one is reminded here of the Rorschach quality these distant and ill-documented episodes carry — the idea of an actual wide-ranging slave plot has also been valorized as working class resistance to the cruel Atlantic economy. To think, the ghost of Spartacus abroad in Manhattan! If it were, then they died like Spartacuses, too.

A few books about the slave conspiracy

* Witches were actually passingly entertained as the possible malefactors here, as the day for this superstition was not yet entirely past.

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Entry Filed under: Corpses Strewn,Themed Sets

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