In 1741, the British colony of New York was at the height of panic. Fires had raged throughout Manhattan for several weeks, leading lawmakers to question whether depraved members of the enslaved community, recently arrived immigrants, or other agitators were in their midst. In what was eventually deemed to be a certain "Negro plot" in which enslaved people sought vengeance for their condition, authorities rounded up, jailed, and tried two hundred enslaved people and ten white men who were the suspected architects of the terror. Nearly half of the enslaved people were found guilty and either hanged, exiled to plantations outside America, or burned at the stake. Others were summarily tossed into a dungeon beneath city hall, where they were intimidated into "confessing" to their crimes and asked to implicate others in the alleged scheme to burn down the city. Four white defendants were hanged and seven others were pardoned and banned from ever stepping foot in New York. Daniel Horsmanden (1691-1778), the judge who was appointed to investigate the fires and a possibly related robbery, compiled the testimonies, evidence, and a thorough list of those found guilty within this document. It remains unclear whether the "guilty" parties were truly culpable. What is certain is that stories of Black rebellion across the Atlantic World were persistent and increased white paranoia. Enslavers responded to real and imagined conspiracies in increasingly violent ways, as they realized that their prior efforts to tamp down resistance had been futile. Indeed, rebellious enslaved people would go on to fight for their dignity and often attempted to self-liberate, refusing to be held in the bonds of slavery forever.
From The New-York Conspiracy;
or, A History of the Negro Plot,
with the Journal of the Proceedings Against the Conspirators at
New York in the Years 1741-2
"Gentlemen of the grand jury,
"It is not without some concern, that I am obliged at this time to be more particular in your charge, than for many preceding terms there hath been occasion. The many frights and terrors which the good people of this city have of late been put into, by repeated and unusual fires, and burning of houses, give us too much room to suspect, that some of them at least, did not proceed from mere chance, or common accidents; but on the contrary, from the premeditated malice and wicked purposes of evil 36 and designing persons; and therefore, it greatly behoves us to use our utmost diligence, by all lawful ways and means, to discover the contrivers and perpetrators of such daring and flagitious undertakings: that, upon conviction, they may receive condign punishment; for although we have the happiness of living under a government which exceeds all others in the excellency of its constitution and laws, yet if those to whom the execution of them (which my lord Coke calls the life and soul of the law) is committed, do not exert themselves in a conscientious discharge of their respective duties, such laws which were intended for a terror to the evil-doer, and a protection to the good, will become a dead letter, and our most excellent constitution turned into anarchy and confusion; every one practising what he listeth, and doing what shall seem good in his own eyes: to prevent which, it is the duty of all grand juries to inquire into the conduct and behaviour of the people in their respective counties; and if, upon examination, they find any to have transgressed the laws of the land, to present them, that so they may by the court be put upon their trial, and then either to be discharged or punished according to their demerits.
"I am told there are several prisoners now in jail, who have been committed by the city magistrates, upon suspicion of having been concerned in some of the late fires; and others, who under pretence of assisting the unhappy sufferers, by saving their goods from the flames, for stealing, or receiving them. This indeed, is adding affliction to the afflicted, and is a very great aggravation of such crime, and therefore deserves a narrow inquiry: that so the exemplary punishment of the guilty (if any such should be so found) may deter others from committing the like villainies; for this kind of stealing, I think, has not been often practised among us.
"Arson, or the malicious and voluntary burning, not only a mansion house, but also any other house, and the out buildings, or barns, and stables adjoining thereto, by night or by day, is felony at common law; and if any part of house be burned, the offender is guilty of felony, notwithstanding the fire afterwards be put out, or go out of itself.
"This crime is of so shocking a nature, that if we have any in this city, who, having been guilty thereof, should escape, who can say he is safe, or tell where it will end?
"Another Thing which I cannot omit recommending to your 37 serious and diligent inquiry, is to find out and present all such persons who sell rum, and other strong liquor to negroes. It must be obvious to every one, that there are too many of them in this city; who, under pretence of selling what they call a penny dram to a negro, will sell to him as many quarts or gallons of rum, as he can steal money or goods to pay for.
"How this notion of its being lawful to sell a penny dram, or a pennyworth of rum to a slave, without the consent or direction of his master, has prevailed, I know not; but this I am sure of, that there is not only no such law, but that the doing of it is directly contrary to an act of assembly now in force, for the better regulating of slaves. The many fatal consequences flowing from this prevailing and wicked practice, are so notorious, and so nearly concern us all, that one would be almost surprised, to think there should be a necessity for a court to recommend a suppressing of such pernicious houses: thus much in particular; now in general.
"My charge, gentlemen, further is, to present all conspiracies, combinations, and other offences, from treasons down to trespasses; and in your inquiries, the oath you, and each of you have just now taken, will, I am persuaded, be your guide, and I pray God to direct and assist you in the discharge of your duty."
Court adjourned until to-morrow morning ten o'clock.
Wednesday, April 22.
Present, the second justice. The court opened, and adjourned until ten o'clock to-morrow morning.
The grand jury having been informed, that Mary Burton could give them some account concerning the goods stolen from Mr. Hogg's, sent for her this morning, and ordered she should be sworn; the constable returned and acquainted them, that she said she would not be sworn, nor give evidence; whereupon they ordered the constable to get a warrant from a magistrate, to bring her before them. The constable was some time gone, but at length returned, and brought her with him; and being asked why she would not be sworn, and give her evidence? she told the grand jury she would not be sworn; and seemed to be under some great uneasiness, or terrible apprehensions; which gave suspicion that she knew something concerning the fires that had lately happened: and being asked a question to that purpose, she gave no answer; which increased the jealousy that she was privy to them; and as it was thought a matter of the utmost concern, the grand jury was very importunate, and used many arguments with her, in public and private, to persuade her to speak the truth, and tell all she knew about it. To this end, the lieutenant governor's proclamation was read to her, promising indemnity, and the reward of one hundred pounds to any person, confederate or not, who should make discovery, &c. She seemed to despise it, nor could the grand jury by any means, either threats or promises, prevail upon her, though they assured her withal, that she should have the protection of the magistrates, and her person be safe and secure from harm; but hitherto all was in vain: therefore the grand jury desired alderman Bancker to commit her; and the constable was charged with her accordingly; but before he had got her to jail, she considered better of it, and resolved to be sworn, and give her evidence in the afternoon.
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 heiniousness 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; where by 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 39 last prevailed, and she gave the following evidence, which however, notwithstanding what bad been said, came from her, as if still under some terrible apprehensions or restraints.
Deposition, No. 1.-Mary Burton, being sworn, deposeth,
1. "That Princeand C¾sarbrought 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.
Mr. Auboyneau's negro.
2. "That C¾sar, 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, C¾sar 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, C¾sar 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.
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 C¾sar, 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 40 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 every one 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.
The grand jury therefore, as it was a matter of the utmost consequence, thought it necessary to inform the judges concerning it, in order that the most effectual measures might be concerted, for discovering the confederates; and the judges were acquainted with it accordingly.
Thursday, April 23.
Present, the second and third justices.
The grand jury came into court and were called over.
The foreman desiring that Margaret Sorubiero, alias Kerry, a prisoner might be brought before them, Ordered, that the sheriff do carry the said Margaret Sorubiero, alias Kerry, before the grand jury, and see her safe returned again.
The court adjourned until to-morrow morning, ten o'clock.
This morning the judges summoned all the gentlemen of the law in town, to meet them in the afternoon, in order to consult with them, and determine upon such measures as on the result of their deliberations should be judged most proper to be taken upon this emergency; and Mr. Murray, Mr. Alexander, Mr. Smith, Mr. Chambers, Mr. Nicholls, Mr. Lodge, and Mr. Jamison, met them accordingly; the attorney general being indisposed, could not attend.
It was considered, that though there was an act of the province for trying negroes, as in other colonies, for all manner of offences by the justices, &c. in a summary way; yet as this was a scheme of villainy in which white people were confederated with them, and most probably were the first movers and seducers of the slaves; from the nature of such a conjunction, there was reason to apprehend there was a conspiracy of deeper design and more dangerous contrivance than the slaves themselves were capable of; it was thought a matter that required great secrecy, as well as the utmost diligence, in the conduct of the inquiry concerning it: and upon the whole, it was judged most adviseable, as there was an absolute necessity that a matter of this nature and consequence should be fathomed as soon as possible, that it should be taken under the care of the supreme court; and for that purpose, that application should be made to his honour the lieutenant governor, for an ordinance to enlarge the term for the sitting of that court, which in the ordinary method would determinate on the Tuesday following.
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