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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Negro Plot in New York
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The witchcraft delusion of Salem had its counterpart in an equally baseless epidemic of suspicion and cruelty in New York, of sufficient importance to call for special consideration. The only other event of marked importance in that city, between the Leisler rebellion and the French and Indian War, was a conflict between the democratic and aristocratic parties in 1732. These parties divided the province, and were in violent opposition. The editor of a popular journal was imprisoned and sued for libel for an attack upon the measures of the governor and council. He was acquitted upon trial, and Andrew Hamilton, one of his defenders, was presented with an elegant gold box by the magistrates, for his defence of popular rights and the liberty of the press. The other occurrence referred to the negro plot of 1741, which for a while threw the city into an unreasoning panic, is fully described in Mary L. Booth's "History of the City of New York," from which we extract its leading particulars.]

The negro plot of the city of New York will long continue to be classed in the foremost rank of popular delusions, even exceeding in its progress and its fearful denouement the celebrated Popish Plot concocted by Titus Oates. At this distance, it is difficult to ascertain how many grains of truth were mingled in the mass of prejudice, or to discover the wild schemes which may have sprung up in the brains of the oppressed and excitable negroes, but certain it is that nothing can justify the wholesale panic of a civilized community, or the indiscriminate imprisonment and execution of scores of ignorant beings without friends or counsel, on no other evidence than the incoherencies of a few wretches more degraded than they, supported by the horror of a terror-struck imagination. We shall endeavor to follow the development of this singular plot clearly and simply, leaving the reader to draw his own inference from the facts and to determine how much credence should be given the testimony.

At this time New York contained about ten thousand inhabitants, nearly one-fifth of whom were negro slaves. Since the first introduction of slavery into the province in the days of Wilhelm Kieft, it had increased and flourished to an alarming extent. Every householder who could afford it was surrounded by negroes, who were contemptuously designated as "the black seed of Cain," and deprived not only of their liberty, but also of the commonest rights of humanity.. The ordinances [against them] were of the most stringent character. "All blacks were slaves," says a late historian, "and slaves could not be witnesses against a freeman. They were incapable of buying anything, even the minutest necessary of life; they were punishable by master or mistress to any extent short of life or limb; as often as three of them were found together, they were punished with forty lashes on the bare back; and the same legal liability attended the walking with a club outside the master's grounds without a permit. Two justices might inflict any punishment short of death or amputation for a blow or the smallest assault upon a Christian or a Jew." Such was the spirit of the laws of the times.

It had been the constant policy, both of the Dutch and English governments, to encourage the importation of slaves as much as possible; the leading merchants of the city were engaged in the traffic, which was regarded by the public as strictly honorable, and at the time of which we speak New York was literally swarming with negroes, and presented all the features of a present (1859.) Southern city, with its calaboose on the Commons and its market-place at the foot of Wall Street. The people were not blind to the possible danger from this oppressed yet powerful host that was silently gathering in their midst, and the slightest suspicious movement on the part of the negroes was sufficient to excite their distrust and alarm. Since the supposed plot of 1712, of which we have already spoken, a growing fear of the slaves had pervaded the city, and the most stringent measures had been adopted to prevent their assemblages and to keep them under strict surveillance. But it was difficult to restrain the thieving propensities of the negroes; petty thefts were constantly committed, and it was one of these that first paved the way to the real or supposed discovery of a plot to murder the inhabitants and take possession of the city.

On the 14th of March, 1741, some goods and silver were stolen from the house of a merchant named Robert Hogg, on the corner of Broad and Mill or South William Streets. The police immediately set to work to discover the thieves, and, suspicion having fallen upon John Hughson, the keeper of a low negro tavern on the shores of the North River, his house was searched, but to no effect. Soon after, an indentured servant-girl of Hughson's, by the name of Mary Burton, told a neighbor that the goods were really hidden in the house, but that Hughson would kill her if he knew she had said so. This rumor soon came to the ears of the authorities, who at once arrested Mary Burton and lodged her in the city jail, promising Mary Burton and lodged her in the city jail, promising her her freedom if she would confess all that she knew about the matter.

[On a hearing, Mary Burton charged a negro named Caesar with complicity in the robbery, and he and another slave, named Prince, were arrested and imprisoned. Shortly afterwards the governor's house at the fort took fire and burned to the ground. Other fires took place in rapid succession, and there spread among the alarmed inhabitants a rumor that the negroes had plotted to burn the city. This suspicion soon took the form of certainty. Some free negroes had recently been brought into the port, as the crew of a Spanish prize vessel, and had been sold as slaves. They were exasperated by this harsh usage, and indulged in murmurs and threats. One of them being questioned about a fire, his answers seemed evasive, and "Take up the Spanish negroes!" became the instant cry. They were at once arrested and thrown into prison.]

The magistrates met the same afternoon to consult about the matter, and while they were still in session another fire broke out in the roof of Colonel Philipse's storehouse. The alarm became universal: the negroes were seized indiscriminately and thrown into prison,--among them many who had just helped to extinguish the fire. People and magistrates were alike panic-struck, and the rumor gained general credence that the negroes had plotted to burn the city, massacre the inhabitants, and effect a general revolution.

On the 11th of April, 1741, the Common Council assembled, and offered a reward of one hundred pounds and a full pardon to any conspirator who would reveal his knowledge of the plot, with the names of the incendiaries. Many of the terrified inhabitants removed with their household goods and valuables from what they began to deem a doomed city, paying exorbitant prices for vehicles and assistance. The city was searched for strangers and suspicious persons, but none were found, and the negroes were examined without effect. Cuff Philipse, (The negroes were familiarly called by the surnames of their masters.) who had been among those arrested, was proved to have been among the most active in extinguishing the fire at his master's house, yet he was held in prison to await further developments.

[Before the grand jury, which soon after met, Mary Burton deposed that she had overheard a plot to burn the city and kill the whites. Hughson was then to be governor, and Cuff king. Peggy Carey, an Irishwoman who lived in Hughson's house, was charged with complicity in the plot. She was convicted of having received and secreted the stolen goods, and was sentenced to death along with Prince and Caesar.]

Terrified at the prospect of a speedy death, the wretched Peggy endeavored to avert her fate by grasping the means of rescue which had before been offered her, and begged for a second examination, and, this being granted her, confessed that meetings of negroes had been held in the last December at the house of John Romme, a tavernkeeper near the new Battery, of the same stamp with Hughson, at which she had been present, and that Romme had told them that if they would set fire to the city, massacre the inhabitants, and bring the plunder to him, he would carry them to a strange country and give them all their liberty. This confession was so evidently vamped up to save herself from the gallows that even the magistrates hesitated to believe it. Yet Cuff Philipse, Brash Jay, Curacoa Dick, Caesar Pintard, Patrick English, Jack Beasted, and Cato Moore, all of whom she had named in her confession, were brought before her and indentified as conspirators. Romme absconded, but his wife was arrested and committed to prison, and the accused were locked up for further examination. Upon this, the terrified negroes began to criminate each other, hoping thereby to save themselves from the fate that awaited them. But these efforts availed them nothing, any more than did the confession of the miserable Peggy, who was executed at last, vainly denying with her dying breath her former accusations. In the mean time several fires had occurred at Hackensack, and two negroes, suspected of being the incendiaries, were condemned and burnt at the stake, though not a particle of evidence was found against them.

On Monday, the 11th of May, Caesar and Prince, the first victims of the negro plot, were hung on a gallows erected on the little island in the Fresh Water Pond, denying to the last all knowledge of the conspiracy, though they admitted that they had really stolen the goods.

Hughson and his wife were tried and found guilty, and with Peggy Carey, were hanged on a gibbet erected on the East River shore, near the corner of Cherry and Catharine Streets.. Cuff Philipse and Quack were next brought to trial, a negro boy named Sawney appearing as witness against them. This boy was at first arrested and brought before the magistrates, when he denied all knowledge of the conspiracy. He was told, in reply, that if he would tell the truth he would not be hanged. To tell the truth had now come to be generally understood to mean the confession of a plot for burning the town.

[The frightened boy told a tissue of doubtful tales, on the strength of which the accused negroes were tried for their lives. All the lawyers of the city were on the side of the prosecution, leaving the prisoners without counsel.]

Ignorant of the forms of law, and terrified at the prospect of their impending danger, it is not strange that their bewildered and contradictory statements were construed by their learned adversaries into evidences of their guilt. Quack and Cuffee were found guilty, and sentenced to be burned at the stake on the 3d of June.

On the day appointed, the fagots were piled in a grassy valley in the neighborhood of the present Five Points, and the wretched victims led out to execution. The spot was thronged with impatient spectators, eager to witness the terrible tragedy. Terrified and trembling, the poor wretches gladly availed themselves of their last chance for life, and, on being questioned by their last chance for life, and, on being questioned by their masters, confessed that the plot had originated with Hughson, that Quack's wife was the person who had set fire to the fort, he having been chosen for the task by the confederated negroes, and that Mary Burton had spoken the truth and could name many more conspirators if she pleased. As a reward, they were reprieved until the further pleasure of the governor should be known. But the impatient populace, which had come out for a spectacle, would not so easily be balked of its prey. Ominous mutterings resounded round the pile, with threats of evil import, and the sheriff was ordered to proceed with his duty. Terrified by these menaces, he dared not attempt to take the prisoners back to the jail; and the execution went on. Despite their forced confessions, the terrible pile was lighted, and the wretched negroes perished in the flames, knowing that, with their last breath, they had doomed their fellows to share their fate in vain.

On the 6th of June, seven other negroes, named Jack, Cook, Robin, Caesar, Cuffee, Cuffee, and Jamaica, were tried and found guilty on the dying evidence of Quack and Cuffee, with the stories of Mary Burton and the negro boy Sawney. All were executed the next day, with the exception of Jack, who saved his life by promising further disclosures. These disclosures implicated fourteen others, one of whom, to save his life, confessed and accused still mor.

On the 11th of June, Francis, one of the Spanish negroes, Albany, and Curacoa Dick were sentenced to be burned at the stake. Ben and Quack were condemned to the same fate five days after. Three others were at the same time sentenced to be hanged, and five of the Spanish negroes were also convicted.

[On June 19 the governor proclaimed pardon to all who should confess and reveal the names of their accomplices before July 1. The accusations at once multiplied. Mary Burton, who had declared that Hughson was the only white man in the plot, now accused John Ury, a schoolmaster and reputed Catholic priest. To the negro plot were now added rumors of a Popish plot. The evidence against Ury was of the most improbable character, yet he was condemned, and sentenced to be hanged.]

The arrest of Ury was the signal for the implication of others of the whites. It was a true foreshadowing of the Reign of Terror. Every one feared his neighbor, and hastened to be the first to accuse, lest he himself should be accused and thrown into prison. Fresh victims were daily seized, and those with whom the jails were already full to overflowing were transported or hanged with scarcely the form of a trial in order to make room for the new-comers. So rapid was the increase that the judges feared that the numbers might breed an infection, and devised short methods of ridding themselves of the prisoners, sometimes by pardoning, but as often by hanging them. From the 11th of May to the 29th of August, one hundred and fifty-four negroes were committed to prison, fourteen of whom were burned at the stake, eighteen hanged, seventy-one transported, and the rest pardoned or discharged for the want of sufficient evidence. In the same time, twenty-four whites were committed to prison, four of whom were executed.

The tragedy would probably have continued much longer, had not Mary Burton, grown bolder by success, begun to implicate persons of consequence. This at once aroused the fears of the influential citizens, who had been the foremost when only the negroes were in question, and put a stop to all further proceedings. The fearful catalogue of victims closed on the 29th of August with the execution of John Ury. The 24th of September was set apart as a day of general thanksgiving for the escape of the citizens from destruction; Mary Burton received the hundred pounds that had been promised her as the price of blood, and the city fell back into a feeling of security.

Whether this plot ever had the shadow of an existence except in the disordered imaginations of the citizens can never with certainty be known.. The witnesses were persons of the vilest character, the evidence was contradictory, inconsistent, and extorted under the fear of death, and no real testimony was adduced that could satisfy any man in the possession of a clear head and a sound judgment. Terror was really the strongest evidence, and the fear of the Jesuits the conclusive proof. The law passed in 1700 for hanging every Catholic priest who voluntarily came within the province still disgraced the statute-book, while the feeling of intolerance which had prompted it remained as bitter and unyielding as ever.

Mary L. Booth

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