Conversations with America: 1741

The New York City Witch Hunt of 1741

Before I leave the colonial days of America completely behind me, I would like to look more carefully at the legal murders of New York City in 1741. What began with a robbery and a few fires became an assault on the slave community of the city and those white men and women who were accused of aiding and abetting them in a conspiracy to murder white residents. Was there a conspiracy? Perhaps, but more likely not. It is impossible at this point to declare definitively one way or the other given the means by which evidence was purchased and coerced by the authorities in their fear.

My main source is not of recent publication. It was written in 1883 by George Washington Wiliams, a former Union soldier and Ohio legislator. HisHistory of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, volume 1:Negroes as Slavesappeared when black men in America still had high hopes that significant gains would be made and maintained in Reconstruction, hopes that were dashed by the politics of the 1890s. His description of the 1741 events in New York is full and based on primary sources. The book itself is available as a free e-book at Amazon, which is where I obtained it.

New York City in 1741 had a population of 10,000 with some 2,000 slaves. On February 28 of that year Robert Hogg's home was burglarized. On March 18th a fire started at the fort's chapel, accompanied by rumors of a Negro plot, although investigators attributed it to a worker's carelessness. Other fires followed: Captain Warren's chimney, Van Zandt's warehouse, Quick's cow stable, Mr. Thompson's kitchen loft, and Sgt. Burns's home. Coals were found under John Murray's stable on Broadway. After Mr. Hilton's home fired, a bundle of tow, evidence of arson, was found nearby. These fires were connected in the popular mind to the presence of Spanish negroes sold in the city after their ship's capture shortly before they began. One of these Negroes had been purchased by Mr. Hilton's neighbor, Captain Sarly.

The people of New York were convinced that there was a slave conspiracy to destroy them all, evidence that a guilty conscience will convict itself through the persons it has persecuted and imagine them capable of delivering the full violence the conscience has earned by its actions and inactions. They lacked, however, slaves to prosecute until Mary Burton, a 16 year old indentured servant, was arrested in connection with the Hogg robbery. In return for a release from indenture, she testified against her master, John Hughson, who ran a public house, and Peggy Carey, known also as Margaret Sorubiero, Margaret Solinburgh, and Margaret Kerry. Mary said that Peggy had a criminal-romantic relationship with 'Quin' Caesar Varick, slave of the baker, John Varick. On April 21, Mary Burton was called to testify before a Supreme Court grand jury to testify about the fires, but gave no answer. She did not speak of the fires until the city's reward, one hundred pounds and a pardon, was read to her, and then began to weave a tale of conspiracy that included as key motivators her master and mistress, the Hughsons.

Mary Burton's accusations initially included John Hughson and his wife, Peggy Carey and Quin. Peggy denied the conspiracy and declined to name other participants until after her conviction, when she hoped such confessions would bring her mercy. They did not, and Peggy was executed, as were the Hughsons. These were three of the four white persons that would be executed in pursuit of the conspirators. The other was a school-teacher suspected of secretly being a Catholic priest, the Rev. John Ury. At his trial, more evidence was presented on the evils of the Papacy and the corruption of Catholicism than the guilt of Rev. Ury and in him the New York jurors convicted Catholicism, for it was presented to their judgment far more than the person of the teacher-reverend.

Mary Burton was not the only accuser of slaves and others in 1741, but she was the most prolific and the most active. She appeared to have an interest in maintaining her supremacy as a witness, a star. When other informers threatened to take the court's attention away from her, she came forth with new, more sinister accusations. The accused took on a very diverse character connected to one another by their membership in a despised class (the slaves) or a despised religion (Catholicism); in the black sailors of the Spanish vessel the two combined into a single figure of malice and fear. Dancing masters, schoolteachers, and soldiers were arrested as suspects. Between May 11 and Aug 29, 1741, 144 blacks were arrested, 14 burned, 18 hanged, 71 transported, and the remainder released to their masters. During the same period, 24 whites were arrested of which 4 were hanged and the rest discharged.

According to Williams, this event "had its origin in a diseased public conscience, inflamed by religious bigotry, accelerated by hired liars and consummated in the blind and bloody action of a court and jury who imagined themselves sitting over a powder magazine". What, then, ended it? Well, the fires did stop, but they had stopped long before August, certainly well before the public thanksgiving for the city's deliverance declared for September 24th. Mary Burton was still willing to tell a story, but the judges were less inclined to listen to her. She had stopped confining her accusations to the lower orders and had begun to accuse respectable men, wealthy men, and the servants in their houses, persons whom the judges considered above suspicion. This threat to the elites, to their own, made the judges retreat, and without their cooperation the machinery of legal murder ground to a halt.

Throughout the existence of slavery in the United States, events such as this would occur. The fear of a slave uprising, real or imagined, rushed through the white population and it responded with excessive violence, governed by terror. Later, during the Civil Rights era, white Southerners would blame outside, usually white, instigators for bringing rebellion to a black population that before their arrival was satisfied with the way things were. Violence would be deployed against the instigators and the black men, women, and children 'led astray' by them. The courts of law would be used to punish not criminals but those who broke social codes and forms that lacked the sanction of law, and where the law failed, vigilantes would do the work. This, too, is America, a country like any other, peopled by human beings like all others, and therefore not always the equal of its promises or its hopes.

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