36 pages 1 hour read

Jill Lepore

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2005

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In New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan, historian and writer Jill Lepore researches the little-known history of New York’s 1741 slave burnings. The book, published in 2005, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for History. Although slavery is typically associated with the southern United States, Lepore’s history reveals that New York also has a deep and dark history of engaging in the practice of human ownership.

18th-century New York boasts a large slave population, with around 2,000 of its 10,000 citizens being black slaves. In the winter and spring of 1741, New York’s Fort George and several other homes are burned, with several slaves suspected as the arsonists. Over the following months, New York’s Supreme Court launches an investigation into the arsons, believing that they are uncovering a massive conspiracy to overthrow the New York government. By the end of the investigation, many slaves are burned at the stake, while several white New Yorkers are hung from a noose.

Nearly all of the historical evidence stems from a single source: The Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy, published by Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden following the trial’s conclusion. While the Journal contains invaluable transcripts of the court proceedings, Lepore also argues that the journal reflects the bias and beliefs of Horsmanden. Throughout New York Burning, a major theme is the necessity to separate fact from fiction while considering Horsmanden’s historical account.

The slave rebellion traces its origins to meetings held at John Hughson’s tavern. There, Hughson would provide feasts for New York’s slave population, giving them a chance to socialize with each other. At many of these feasts, Hughson is alleged to have initiated slaves into a secret plot he is planning in conjunction with the slave Caesar. The plan is to burn New York’s Fort George to the ground, sending a signal for the rest of the slaves to burn their master’s homes, killing the masters, and taking the women as their wives in the process. Afterwards, Hughson is to be declared King, while Caesar is to be named Governor of New York.

In March 1741, a fire does break out at New York’s Fort George, but authorities initially rule the fire as an accident. However, the fires continue to break out with increasing frequency, and in one instance, four fires occur in a single day. The government begins to suspect arson and connects some of the fires to slaves. New York breaks out in hysteria, convinced that a slave rebellion is under way. Dozens of slaves are rounded up and arrested in the process, although there is little to no evidence to link these slaves to the fire.

The Supreme Court, led by Daniel Horsmanden, begins an investigation to uncover the “latent Enemies” (62) behind the conspiracy. Hughson’s indentured servant Mary Burton offers a deposition to the court, describing Hughson’s planned plot and initiations in full. Shocked by the scope of Hughson’s alleged conspiracy, the Supreme Court begins arresting many more slaves. The slaves Quack and Cuffee are the first to be tried for their role in the conspiracy, and they are quickly sentenced to burning at the stake. Right before their death, both slaves are coerced into offering confessions, naming other slaves as co-conspirators in the process. This launches a pattern in which slaves are arrested, who then confess and name other slaves in hopes of being pardoned. The jailhouse becomes overpacked with accused slaves, and the Supreme Court struggles to bring all the slaves to trial.

As the investigation nears its end, several slaves claim that a Catholic priest had been present at Hughson’s initiations. The Supreme Court now suspects that the slave rebellion had, in fact, been a plot hatched by the Catholic church. They arrest John Ury, who they claim to be an undercover Catholic priest, and sentence him to death by hanging. Horsmanden, believing he has gotten to the bottom of the conspiracy, concludes his trial and investigation.

In the months after the trial, many New Yorkers begin to criticize Horsmanden. They believe that the supposed conspiracy is fictional, and some accuse Mary Burton of offering falsified testimony. Determined to vindicate himself, Horsmanden compiles all of the witness testimony and other court documents, publishing it as the Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy. However, the Journal fails to sell well, and Horsmanden’s reputation suffers.