New York Conspiracy of 1741
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The Conspiracy of 1741, also known as the Negro Plot of 1741 or the Slave Insurrection of 1741, was a supposed plot by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York in 1741 to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Historians disagree as to the existence of such a plot.
Rumors of a conspiracy arose against a background of economic competition between poor whites and slaves; a severe winter; war between Britain and Spain, with heightened anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings; and recent slave revolts in South Carolina and the Caribbean. In March and April 1741, a series of 13 fires erupted in Lower Manhattan, the most significant one within the walls of Fort George, then the home of the governor. After another fire at a warehouse, a slave was arrested after having been seen fleeing it. A 16-year old Irish indentured servant, Mary Burton, arrested in a case of stolen goods, testified against the others as participants in a supposedly growing conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn the city, kill the white men, take the white women for themselves, and elect a new king and governor.
Two slaves were burned at the stake. Before their executions, they confessed to burning the fort and named dozens of others as co-conspirators. News of the "conspiracy" set off a stampede of arrests, although the fires ended. Trials and executions followed through the summer. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city's male slaves over the age of 16 were in jail. The number of arrests totaled 152 blacks and 20 whites. They were tried and convicted in a show trial. John Ury, a teacher and suspected Catholic priest, was charged with instigating the plot.
Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt – how many is uncertain. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, Caesar, a slave, and John Hughson, a white cobbler and tavern keeper, were gibbeted. Their corpses were left to rot in public. Seventy-two men were deported from New York, sent to Newfoundland, various islands in the West Indies, and the Madeiras.
With the increase of enslaved Africans in New York during the early decades of the 18th century, there were both real revolts and periodic fears in the white community about revolts. Fears about slavery were used by different political factions to fan other tensions, as well. By 1741 slaves comprised one in five of New York's total population of 10,000. Between 1687 and 1741, a slave plot was "discovered" on average every two and one half years.
Residents remembered the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, when more than 20 slaves met to destroy property and abusers in retaliation for the injustices they had suffered. One of the slaves, Kofi, (called Cuffee by whites), set fire to his master’s outhouse. When townspeople gathered to put it out, the slaves attacked the crowd, killing nine whites and injuring six. The governor tried and executed 21 slaves.
With the increase of slaves in New York, poor whites were pressed in economic competition. Some slaveholders were artisans who taught their slaves their trade. They could subcontract their work and underbid other white artisans. This created racial and economic tension between the slaves and competing white craftsmen. The governor of New York in 1737 told the legislature, “the artificers complain and with too much reason of the pernicious custom of breeding slaves to trades whereby the honest industrious tradesmen are reduced to poverty for want of employ, and many of them forced to leave us to seek their living in other countries.” Some whites went out of business because of this.
The winter of 1740–1741 was a miserable period for the poor in the city. An economic depression contributed to declining food and fuel supply, aggravated by record low temperatures and snowfall. Many people were in danger of starving and freezing to death. These conditions caused many denizens, especially the poor whites and slaves, to grow resentful of the government. The tension between the whites and the blacks was great. “A mere hint of restiveness among black New Yorkers could throw whites into a near panic”. In 1741, the fear of a slave revolt was high following slave revolts in South Carolina (1739) and in the Caribbean (1734 on St. John.)
In addition, Britain had recently gone to war with Spain (War of Jenkins' Ear), which added to the tensions in the seaport and increased anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings by the authorities. At the time, Spain was frequently viewed by slaves in Anglophone colonies as a liberator due to the fact the Spanish had offered freedom to any slave who joined their cause. To attack Cuba, the British recruited soldiers from New York, and reduced the number of troops normally kept there. The upper classes were nervous and tensions during the winter reminded them of the times of the Slave Revolt of 1712. The government banned slave meetings on street corners. They limited slaves in groups to three, but allowed twelve at funerals. The government reduced other rights of assembly and movement.
With frame buildings and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, fire was always a risk in the city. Chimney fires were frequent. On March 18, 1741, the governor’s house in Fort George caught on fire, and soon the church connected to his house was ablaze too. People tried to save it, but the fire soon grew beyond control. The fire threatened to spread to another building, where all the city documents were kept. The governor ordered the windows smashed and documents thrown out to save them. Later the practice was to keep them in the City Hall. A week later another fire broke out, but was put out quickly. The same thing happened the next week at a warehouse. Three days later a fire broke out in a cow stable. On the next day a person walking past a wealthy neighborhood saw coals by the hay in a stable and put them out, saving the neighborhood.
As the number of fires grew, so did the suspicion that the fires were not accidents but planned arson. When on April 6, a round of four fires broke out, and a black man was spotted running away, a white man yelled out, “A negro, a negro.” The man’s cry was taken up quickly by a crowd and soon turned to, “The negroes are rising!” They captured the running slave, Cuffee. He was jailed. Within a few days, 100 slaves were jailed. Many people believed the fires were due to a conspiracy.
Initially tackling the problem of stolen goods and Hughson's tavern, the city council decided to launch an investigation. They turned it over to Daniel Horsmanden, the city recorder and one of three justices on the provincial supreme court. Horsmanden set up a grand jury that he “directed to investigate whites who sold liquor to blacks- men like John Hughson.” Given legal practice then and his own inclinations, he exercised great influence in interrogations and directing the grand jury's investigations.
John Hughson was a poor, illiterate cobbler who came to New York from Yonkers in the mid-1730s with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law. Unable to find work, he opened a tavern. His neighbors were offended because he sold to unsavory clients. In 1738, Hughson opened a new tavern when he moved to the Hudson River waterfront, near the Trinity Churchyard. It soon became a rendezvous point for slaves, poor whites, free blacks, and soldiers. The elite were nervous about such lower class-types socializing together. Hughson’s place also was a center of trade in stolen property. “City slaves laughingly referred to his place as 'Oswego', after the Indian trading post on Lake Ontario.” Though the constables watched his place constantly, they failed to catch Hughson for thievery.
In February, two weeks before the first fire, Hughson was arrested for receiving stolen goods from slaves Caesar and Prince, who were also jailed. Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were considered part of the "Geneva Club", named after an incident in which they stole some "Geneva", or Dutch gin. They were black Freemasons. (The slaves were punished by whipping.)
Horsmanden, one of three justices on the court and leader of an investigation, pressured 16-year-old indentured servant, Mary Burton, to testify against her master Hughson on theft charges. While a grand jury heard that case, the first of 13 suspicious fires broke out.
On March 18, a fire broke out at New York governor George Clarke's complex at Fort George. Horsmanden put a lot of pressure on Burton to talk about the fires. Finally, Burton said the fires were a conspiracy between blacks and poor whites to burn down the town. Horsmanden was pleased with her testimony but was convinced that Burton knew more about the conspiracy than she had told him. He threatened to throw her in jail if she did not tell him more, so she testified further. There was rising fear about slaves and poor whites' combining for insurrection.
Burton declared that the three members of the Geneva Club met frequently at Hughson’s, that they had talked about burning the fort and town, and the Hughsons had agreed to help them. Another person suspected in the fires was “Margaret Sorubiero, alias Salingburgh, alias Kerry, commonly called Peggy", or the "Newfoundland Irish" beauty. She was a prostitute to blacks. The room she lived in was paid for by Caesar, with whom she had a child.
Though Burton's testimony did not prove that any crime had been committed, the grand jury was so afraid that more fires would occur that they decided to believe her. The city council also decided to pay a high reward to anybody who provided useful information about the conspiracy: £100 to a white person, £45 to a free black or Indian, and £20 and freedom to a slave. Such prices brought more testimony.
On May 2, the court found Caesar and Prince guilty of burglary and condemned them to death. The next day seven barns caught fire. Two blacks were caught and immediately burned at stake. On May 6, the Hughsons and Peggy were found guilty of burglary charges. Peggy, “in fear of her life, decided to talk.” Some of the blacks who had been imprisoned in the dungeons also decided to talk. Two who did not talk were Caesar and Prince, who were hanged on May 11.
Having gathered witnesses, Horsmanden started the trials. Kofi (Cuffee) and another slave Quaco (Quack) were the first to be tried. They were convicted, although each of their masters defended them. Respectable white men whose testimony normally would have been given considerable weight, they stated that each of the slaves had been at home the evening in question. The slaves were convicted anyway. Each of the slaves was hanged. Immediately before being hanged on May 30, they confessed and identified dozens of other so-called conspirators. Moore asked to save them as future witnesses, but the officers of the court decided against it because of the rage of the crowd.
More trials followed quickly. The trials and testimony in courtrooms were filled with conflicting evidence. Both the Hughsons and Peggy Kerry were tried on June 4. They were sentenced to hang eight days later. At the height of the hysteria, half of the city’s male slaves over the age of 16 were implicated in the plot and jailed. Arrests, trials and executions continued through the summer. "The 'epidemic of mutual incrimination' reached such proportions that officials were forced to suspend circuit courts for the rest of 1741. The jails simply could hold no more people." An anonymous letter was sent to the city of New York, cautioning them against the epidemic of suspicion and executions, as the writer claimed to have seen in the Salem witch trials.
Five men known as the "Spanish Negroes" were among those arrested. Dark-skinned Spanish sailors who had been sold into slavery by a privateer, they contended they were full Spanish citizens and unfairly enslaved. Because Britain was at war with Spain, this did not earn them much sympathy; it even raised suspicions against them as infiltrators. The British colonists were worried about anyone with Spanish and Catholic ties. The five Spanish blacks were convicted and hanged.
As the investigation wore on, Horsmanden came to believe that a man named John Ury was responsible. Ury had just arrived in town and had been working as a school teacher and a private tutor. He was an expert in Latin, which was enough to make him suspect as a Roman Catholic priest by less educated Protestants. Horsmanden arrested him on suspicion of being a priest and secret agent to the Spanish. Burton suddenly "remembered" that Ury had been one of the plotters of the conspiracy and testified against him.
Ury was put on trial. His defense was that he was a dissenter from the Church of England, but not a Catholic priest, and had no knowledge of any conspiracy. But at the time of the trial, Horsmanden had received a warning from the governor of Georgia that Spanish agents were coming to burn all the considerable towns in New England. This added to suspicions about Ury, and the teacher was convicted. He was hanged on the last day of August.
Gradually the fears died down. When Burton's accusations began to charge members of the upper class and family members of the judges as conspirators, the case became a major embarrassment to Horsmanden. In addition, the political leadership of the city was changing. The case was finally closed. Those slaves and whites still in jail were released.
By the end of the trials, 160 blacks and 21 whites had been arrested. From May 11 to August 29, 1741, seventeen blacks and four whites were convicted and hanged, 13 blacks were burned at stake, and 70 blacks were banished from New York. Seven whites were also deported. The following year, Mary Burton finally received her reward of ₤100 from the city, which she used to buy her freedom from indenture, and had money left over. The executions were conducted near the Poor House at the north end of the city and its boundary of Chambers Street. North of there was the African Burial Ground National Monument.
Historians remain divided about the events of 1741. Some historians, notably Edgar J. McManus and Jill Lepore, believe that wartime hysteria, together with Horsmanden's desire to advance his name, exaggerated the extent and basis of a slave plot. A majority of scholars, however, believe the evidence suggests some plot did exist (but not necessarily that all of those charged and executed were guilty). T.J. Davis, Graham Russell Hodges, Leslie Harris, Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and Peter C. Hoffer all regard the numerous fires as evidence of an actual slave conspiracy.
These events figure in the plot of Pete Hamill's novel Forever (2003).
In 2007, Mat Johnson published The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, a novel set amidst this event.
These events are used as part of a revenge plot in the novel On Maiden Lane (1981) by Bruce Nicolaysen, a 5-volume family saga encompassing the history of New York/Manhattan from 1613-1930.
The events are the subject of the novel "The Savage City" (1955) by Jean Paradise, published by Ace Books.
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|Library resources about
New York Conspiracy of 1741
- Bond, Richard E. "Shaping a Conspiracy: Black Testimony in the 1741 New York", Early American Studies, vol. 5, n. 1 (Spring 2007). University of Pennsylvania Press: ISSN 1543-4273
- Berrol, Selma Cantor. The Empire City: New York and Its People, 1624–1996. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997 ISBN 0-275-95795-0
- Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ISBN 0-19-514049-4
- Campbell, Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) p 24
- Christensen, Gardello Dano . Colonial New York. New York: Thomas Nelson Press Inc., 1969.
- Davis, Thomas J. "A Rumor of Revolt: The “Great Negro Plot", Colonial New York ISBN 0-02-907740-0
- Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime and Colonial Law ISBN 0-7006-1246-7
- Zabin, Serena R., ed. The New York conspiracy trials of 1741 : Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the proceedings with related documents ISBN 0-312-40216-3
- Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. Millwood, NJ: K+O Press, 1975. ISBN 0-19-510779-9
- Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. "'The Outcasts of the Nations of the Earth,'" in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8070-5006-7
- Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. ISBN 0-313-33271-1
- Williams, George W., History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1., 1882 Project Gutenberg EBook
- Horsmanden, Daniel. The trial of John Ury for being an ecclesiastical person, made by authority pretended from the See of Rome, and coming into and abiding in the province of New York, and with being one of the conspirators in the Negro plot to burn the city of New York, 1741
- “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch!”: Testimony from the Negro Plot Trials in New York, 1741, History Matters, George Mason University
- "'Great Negro Plot' Tells of Manhattan on the Edge", News and Notes, National Public Radio, February 7, 2007. (Links to RealPlayer or Windows Media Audio)
- "Rumors of a Slave Revolt", Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, February 28, 2007. (Links to MP3 audio)
- "A Forgotten 'Witch Trial' of Colonial Slaves", Nathan Newman blog
- "The Power of Fear", The Nation[dead link]