The first executions for New York’s 1741 fires took place on this date in 1741, several weeks before any others. They were two slaves of regal name: Caesar, the property of a baker named John Vaarck, and Prince, who was owned by the merchant John Auboyneau.
The first thing to know about these two men is that they were arrested in the first days of March … more than two weeks before fire consumed Fort George and initiated Gotham’s burning season. Though Prince was out on bail (as were the tavern owners John and Sarah Hughson, also arrested at the same time), Caesar and his white lover Peggy Kerry had been under lock and key throughout the supposed arson spree, awaiting trial for burglary.
Days prior to their arrest, they had contrived to unlock a window and steal coins plus £60 of linen merchandise from the shop of Rebecca Hogg. These men were indeed thieves, and they had a reputation in a town still intimately small (12,000 or so). Back in 1738, Caesar and Prince — along with Cuffee, who in 1741 would again be esteemed their third triumvir — had been carted shirtless through a Manhattan winter’s day, “attended by a Number of Spectators of all Degrees Ages and Sizes, and were continually complimented with Snow Balls and Dirt, and at every Corner had five Lashes with a Cowskin well laid on each of their naked black Backs.” (New York Gazette) The reason was that, in a celebratory mood, the three had broken into a pub and stolen its gin, thereafter toasting themselves the Geneva Club in celebration. They used the liquor as part of a mock initiation ceremony, travestying for their own fraternity the outlandish rites of New York’s white Freemasons. This in turn had led to them christening themselves as Black Masons.
As Jill Lepore notes in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, the existence of this mock secret society would be conflated for the prosecutors of the 1741 burnings with a three-year plot to destroy New York.
This alliance of minor crooks was so obvious a target that the bailed-out Prince was re-arrested two days after Fort George burned, at the order of New York’s mayor. Round up the usual suspects!
They are also, collectively, the Patient Zero for that city’s epidemic of incendiary accusations. We can even date the first onset: April 22, 1741. That’s the day the Hughsons’ servant Mary Burton provided to Daniel Horsmanden‘s grand jury the crucial testimony that would cast their society as not merely deviant, but menacing. After making a great show of refusing to give evidence, Burton sang when threatened with the prospect of joining Caesar, Prince, Peggy Kerry, and the Hughsons in city hall’s cellar jail. Mary was no fool: far better the star witness in court than the undercard attraction at the gallows.
And when she started talking, she had a shocking story to tell them — one that would firmly fix upon the accused the city’s rampant rumors and speculations about a black plot.
Accordingly, she being sworn, came before the grand jury; but as they were proceeding to her examination, and before they asked her any questions, she told them she would acquaint them with what she knew relating to the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg’s, but would say nothing about the fires.
This expression thus, as it were providentially, slipping from the evidence, much alarmed the grand jury; for, as they naturally concluded, it did by construction amount to an affirmative, that she could give an account of the occasion of the several fires; and therefore, as it highly became those gentlemen in the discharge of their trust, they determined to use their utmost diligence to sift out the discovery, but still she remained inflexible, till at length, having recourse to religious topics, representing to her the heinousness of the crime which she would be guilty of, if she was privy to, and could discover so wicked a design, as the firing houses about our ears; whereby not only people’s estates would be destroyed, but many persons might lose their lives in the flames: this she would have to answer for at the day of judgment, as much as any person immediately concerned, because she might have prevented this destruction, and would not; so that a most damnable sin would lie at her door; and what need she fear from her divulging it; she was sure of the protection of the magistrates? or the grand jury expressed themselves in words to the same purpose; which arguments at last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what had been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.
Deposition, No. 1. — Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,
1. “That Prince and Caesar brought the things of which they had robbed Mr. Hogg, to her master, John Hughson’s house, and that they were handed in through the window, Hughson, his wife, and Peggy receiving them, about two or three o’clock on a Sunday morning.
2. “That Caesar, Prince, and Mr. Philipse’s* negro man (Cuffee) used to meet frequently at her master’s house, and that she had heard them (the negroes) talk frequently of burning the fort; and that they would go down to the fly and burn the whole town; and that her master and mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.
3. “That in their common conversation they used to say, that when all this was done, Caesar should be governor, and Hughson, her master, should be king.
4. “That Cuffee used to say, that a great many people had too much, and others too little; that his old master had a great deal of money, but that, in a short time, he should have less, and that he (Cuffee) should have more.
5. “That at the same time when the things of which Mr. Hogg was robbed, were brought to her master’s house, they brought some indigo and bees wax, which was likewise received by her master and mistress.
6. “That at the meetings of the three aforesaid negroes, Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee, at her master’s house, they used to say, in their conversations, that when they set fire to the town, they would do it in the night, and as the white people came to extinguish it, they would kill and destroy them.
7. “That she has known at times, seven or eight guns in her master’s house, and some swords, and that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master’s house; and that at such large meetings, the three aforesaid negroes, Cuffee, Prince, and Caesar, were generally present, and most active, and that they used to say, that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them, and they were sure that they had a number sufficient to stand by them.
8. “That Hughson (her master) and her mistress used to threaten, that if she, the deponent, ever made mention of the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg, they would poison her; and the negroes swore, if ever she published, or discovered the design of burning the town, they would burn her whenever they met her.
9. “That she never saw any white person in company when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.”
This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.
By the summer, Mary Burton’s credibility was shot. But for months before her fall from public confidence, the town fence’s 16-year-old servant sent many slaves and some whites too scrambling to protect themselves, unfolding a warren of defensive silences, opportunistic denials, and pay-it-forward name-naming that would flesh out the “twenty or thirty negroes” and more.
Caesar and Prince were just the low-hanging fruit. Languishing in jail and already charged with a theft that could be constructed as a capital crime, their now-certain doom became the leverage used against their white co-accused. Before they died, they would see Caesar’s lover Peggy Kerry, the mother of his son,** “admit” the plot — desperate gambit that would not in the end save her, either.
The court did not bother to keep them around for the arson trials that would come, but it was clear at Caesar and Prince’s sentencing (May 8, 1741) that it wasn’t the stolen linens that were on Judge Philipse’s mind.
I have great reason to believe, that the crimes you now stand convicted of, are not the least of those you have been concerned in; for by your general characters you have been very wicked fellows, hardened sinners, and ripe, as well as ready, for the most enormous and daring enterprises especially you, Caesar: and as the time you have yet to live is to be but very short, I earnestly advise and exhort both of you to employ it in the most diligent and best manner you can, by confessing your sins, repenting sincerely of them, and praying God of his infinite goodness to have mercy on your souls: and as God knows the secrets of your hearts, and cannot be cheated or imposed upon, so you must shortly give an account to him, and answer for all your actions; and depend upon it, if you do not truly repent before you die, there is a hell to punish the wicked eternally.
And as it is not in your powers to make full restitution for the many injuries you have done the public; so I advise both of you to do all that in you is, to prevent further mischief’s, by discovering such persons as have been concerned with you, in designing or endeavouring to burn this city, and to destroy its inhabitants. This I am fully persuaded is in your power to do if you will; if so, and you do not make such discovery, be assured God Almighty will punish you for it, though we do not:† therefore I advise you to consider this well, and I hope both of you will tell the truth.
The condemned slaves did not gratify their persecutors with any such discoveries.
MONDAY, MAY 11
Caesar and Prince were executed this day at the gallows, according to sentence. They died very stubbornly, without confessing any thing about the conspiracy; and denied they knew any thing of it to the last. The body of Caesar was accordingly hung in chains.
These two negroes bore the characters of very wicked idle fellows; had before been detected in some robberies, for which they had been publicly chastised at the whipping-post, and were persons of most obstinate and untractable tempers; so that there was no expectation of drawing any thing from them which would make for the discovery of the conspiracy, though there seemed good reason to conclude, as well from their characters as what had been charged upon them by information from others, that they were two principal ringleaders in it amongst the blacks. It was thought proper to execute them for the robbery, and not wait for the bringing them to a trial for the conspiracy, though the proof against them was strong and clear concerning their guilt as to that also; and it was imagined, that as stealing and plundering was a principal part of the he1lish scheme in agitation, amongst the inferior sort of these infernal confederates, this earnest of example and punishment might break the knot, and induce some of them to unfold this mystery of iniquity, in hopes thereby to recommend themselves to mercy, and it is probable, that with some it had this effect.
* Frederick Philipse, also one of the judges in this case. As already noted, the city was intimately small.
** An infant at the time events unfold here, the child presumably died as it disappears from the record about the time Peggy Kerry was arrested.
† Many other slaves burned for the purported conspiracy instead of “merely” hanging; this surely would have been the fate of Caesar and Prince had they been formally convicted of leading a plot to fire the city. But it’s still not quite the case that they weren’t punished for the fires: slaves being valuable property, it’s rather doubtful that they would have been executed for the linen thefts absent the subsequent security panic.
Part of the set Corpses Strewn: New York’s Slave Conspiracy of 1741.
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