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THE NEGRO PLOTS
As early as the eighteenth century New York had. become a cosmopolitan town. Its population contained not only Dutch and English in nearly equal numbers, but also French, Swedes, Jews, Negroes, and sailors, travelers from every land. The settled portion of the city, according to a map of 1729, extended as far north as Beekman Street on the East Side and as far as Trinity Church on the West Side. A few blocks beyond the church lay Old Wind Mill Lane touching King’s Farm, which was still open country. Here Broadway shook off all semblance to a town thoroughfare and became a dusty country road, meeting the post-road to Boston near the lower end of the rope walk. “The cittie of New York is a pleasant, well-compacted place,” wrote Madam Knight, who journeyed on horseback from Boston over this post-road and who recorded her experiences in an entertaining journal. “The buildings brick generally, very stately and high, though not altogether like ours in Boston. The bricks in some of the houses are of divers coullers and laid in checkers, being glazed look very agreeable. The inside of them are neat to admiration.”
Besides its welcoming houses set among spreading trees, New York possessed public buildings of dignity and distinction. There was Trinity Church, whose tall steeple was one of the first landmarks to catch the traveler’s eye as he journeyed down the river from Albany. The new City Hall, dating from Bellomont’s time and standing on a site at the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, given by Colonel Abraham de Peyster, was also a source of pride. With its substantial wings and arched colonnade in the center it was quite imposing. Here the Assembly, Council, and Court sat. Here, too, were offices and a library. But the cellar was used as a dungeon and the attic as a common prison.
New markets and wharves told of the growing commerce of the city and province. On every hand were evidences of luxurious living. There were taverns and coffee-houses where gold flowed in abundant streams from the pockets of pirates and smugglers, and in the streets crest-emblazoned family coaches, while sedan chairs were borne by negro slaves along the narrow brick pathways in the center of the town. The dress of the people told the same story of prosperity. The streets of the fashionable quarter around Trinity Church were fairly ablaze with gay costumes. Men of fashion wore powdered wigs and cocked hats, cloth or velvet coats reaching to the knee, breeches, and low shoes with buckles. They carried swords, sometimes studded with jewels, and in their gloved hands they held snuff-boxes of costly material and elaborate design. The ladies who accompanied them were no less gaily dressed. One is described as wearing a gown of purple and gold, opening over a black velvet petticoat and short enough to show green silk stockings and morocco shoes embroidered in red. Another wore a flowered green and gold gown, over a scarlet and gold petticoat edged with silver. Everywhere were seen strange fabrics of oriental design coming from the holds of mysterious ships which unloaded surreptitiously along the water front.
The members of one class alone looked on all this prosperous life with sullen discontent — the negro slaves whose toil made possible the leisure of their owners. These strange, uncouth Africans seemed out of place in New York, and from early times they had exhibited resentment and hatred toward the governing classes, who in turn looked upon them with distrust. This smoldering discontent of the blacks aroused no little uneasiness and led to the adoption of laws which, especially in the cities, were marked by a brutality quite out of keeping with the usual moderation of the colony. When Mrs. Grant wrote later of negro servitude in Albany as “slavery softened into a smile, “ she spoke in the first place from a narrow observation of life in a cultivated family, and in the second place from scant knowledge of the events which had preceded the kind treatment of the negroes.
In 1684 an ordinance was passed declaring that no negroes or Indian slaves above the number of four should meet together on the Lord’s Day or at any other time or at any place except on their master’s service. They were not to go armed with guns, swords, clubs, or stones on penalty of ten lashes at the whipping-post. An act provided that no slave should go about the streets after nightfall anywhere south of the Collect without a lighted lantern “so as the light thereof could be plainly seen.” A few years later Governor Cornbury ordered the justices of the peace in King’s County to seize and apprehend all negroes who had assembled themselves in a riotous manner or had absconded from their masters.
In 1712, during the Administration of Governor Robert Hunter, a group of negroes, perhaps forty in number, formed a plot which justified the terror of their masters, though it was so mad that it could have originated only in savage minds. These blacks planned to destroy all the white people of the city, then numbering over six thousand. Meeting in an orchard the negroes set fire to a shed and then lurked about in the shadows, armed with every kind of weapon on which they could lay hands.
As the negroes had expected, all the citizens of the neighborhood, seeing the conflagration, came running to the spot to fight the flames. The blacks succeeded in killing nine men and wounding many more before the alarm reached the fort. Then of course the affair ended. The slaves fled to the forests at the northern end of the island; but the soldiers stationed sentries and then hunted down the negroes, beating the woods to be sure that none escaped. Six of the negroes, seeing that their doom was sealed, killed themselves, and the fate of the captives showed that they well knew what mercy to expect at the hands of the enraged whites. Twenty-one were put to death, one being broken on the wheel and several burned at the stake, while the rest were hanged.
After this experience of the danger attending the holding of slaves, the restrictions upon the negroes grew even more irksome and the treatment they received more that of outcasts. For instance, a slave must be buried by daylight, without pallbearers and with not more than a dozen negroes present as mourners.
In spite of bright spots in the picture the outlook grew constantly darker; a mistrust ready to develop on slight provocation into terror perturbed the whites; and every rumor was magnified till there reigned a panic as widespread as that caused by the reports of witchcraft in New England. At length in 1741 the storm burst. One March night, while a gale was sweeping the city, a fire was discovered on the roof of the Governor’s house in the fort. Church bells sounded the alarm and firemen and engines hurried to the spot; but it was hopeless to try to extinguish the flames, which spread to the chapel and to the office of the secretary over the fort gate, where the records of the colony were stored. The barracks then caught fire, and in a little over an hour everything in the fort was destroyed, the hand-grenades exploding as they caught fire and spreading destruction in every direction.
A month later a fire broke out at night near the Vlei Market. A bucket brigade was formed and the fire was extinguished. On the same night the loft in a house on the west side of the town was found to be in flames, and coals were discovered between two straw beds occupied by a negro. The next day coals were found under the coach-house of John Murray on Broadway, and on the day following a fire broke out again near the Vlei Market. Thus the townsfolk were made certain that an incendiary plot was on foot. Of course every one’s thoughts flew to the negro slaves as the conspirators, especially when a Mrs. Earle announced that she had overheard three negroes threatening to burn the town.
The authorities were as much alarmed as the populace and at once leaped to the conclusion that the blame for the incendiarism, of which they scarcely paused to investigate the evidence, was to be divided between the Roman Catholics and the negroes, who without reasonable grounds had so long constituted their chief terror.
The Common Council offered pardon and a reward of one hundred pounds to any conspirator who would reveal the story of the plot and the names of the criminals involved. Under the influence of this offer one Mary Burton, a servant in the employ of Hughson, the tavern-keeper, accused her master, her mistress, their daughter, and a woman of evil reputation known as Peggy Carey, or Kerry, as well as a number of negroes, of being implicated in the plot. She said that the negroes brought stolen goods to the tavern and were protected by Hughson, who had planned with them the burning and plundering of the city and the liberation of the slaves. On this unsupported evidence Peggy Carey and a number of negroes were condemned to execution, and under terror of death, or encouraged by the hope of pardon, these prisoners made numerous confessions implicating one another, until by the end of August twenty-four whites and one hundred and fifty-fourty-four negroes had been imprisoned. Four whites, including Hughson and Peggy Carey, were executed; fourteen negroes were burned at the stake; eighteen were hanged, seventy-one transported, and the remainder pardoned or discharged.
Accusations were also made that the Roman Catholics had stirred up the plot; and persons of reputation and standing were accused of complicity. The effect of the popular panic, which rendered impossible the calm weighing of evidence and extinguished any sense of proportion, is seen in the letters of Governor George Clarke. On June 20, 1741, he writes to the Lords of Trade as follows:
The fatal fire that consumed the buildings in the fort and great part of my substance (for my loss is not less than two thousand pounds), did not happen by accident as I at first apprehended, but was kindled by design, in the execution of a horrid Conspiracy to burn it and the whole town, and to Massacre the people; as appears evidently not only by the Confession of the Negro who set fire to it, in some part of the same gutter where the Plumber was to work, but also by the testimony of several witnesses. How many Conspirators there were we do not yet know; every day produces new discoveries, and I apprehend that in the town, if the truth were known, there are not many innocent Negro men.... I do myself the honor to send your Lordships the minutes taken at the tryal of Quack who burned the fort, and of another Negro, who was tryed with him, and their confession at the stake; with some examinations, whereby your Lordships will see their designs; it was ridiculous to suppose that they could keep possession of the town, if they had destroyed the white people, yet the mischief they would have done in pursuit of their intention would nevertheless have been great.... Whether, or how far, the hand of popery has been in this hellish conspiracy, I cannot yet discover; but there is room to suspect it, by what two of the Negroes have confessed, viz: that soon after they were spoke to, and had consented to be parties to it, they had some checks of conscience, which they said, would not suffer them to burn houses and kill the White people; whereupon those who drew them into the conspiracy told them, there was no sin or wickedness in it, and that if they would go to Huson’s [Hughson’s] house, they should find a man who would satisfy them; but they say they would not, nor did go. Margaret Keny [Kerry] was supposed to be a papist, and it is suspected that Huson and his wife were brought over to it. There was in town some time ago a man who is said to be a Romish Priest, who used to be at Huson’s but has disappeared ever since the discovery of the conspiracy and is not now to be found.
Later in the summer the Governor recorded his suspicions as follows:
We then thought it [the] Plot was projected only by Huson [Hughson] and the Negroes; but it is now apparent that the hand of popery is in it, for a Romish Priest having been tryed, was upon full and clear evidence convicted of having a deep share in it…. Where, by whom, or in what shape this plot was first projected is yet undiscovered; that which at present seems most probable is that Huson, an indigent fellow of a vile character, casting in his thoughts how to mend his circumstances, inticed some Negroes to rob their Masters and to bring the stolen [goods] to him on promise of reward when they were sold; but seeing that by this pilfering trade riches did not flow into him fast enough, and finding the Negroes fit instruments for any villainy, he then fell upon the schemes of burning the fort and town, and murdering the people, as the speediest way to enrich himself and them, and to gain their freedom, for that was the Negroes main inducement....The conspirators had hopes given them that the Spaniards would come hither and join with them early in the Spring; but if they failed of coming, then the business was to be done by the Conspirators without them; many of them were christen’d by the Priest, absolved from all their past sins and whatever they should do in the Plott; many of them sworn by him (others by Huson) to burn and destroy, and to be secret; wherein they were but too punctual; how weak soever the scheme may appear, it was plausible and strong enough to engage and hold the Negroes, and that was all that the Priest and Huson wanted; for had the fort taken fire in the night, as it was intended, the town was then to have been fired in several places at once; in which confusion much rich plunder might have been got and concealed; and if they had it in view too, to serve the enemy, they could not have done it more effectually; for this town being laid in ashes his Majesties forces in the West Indies might have suffered much for want of provisions, and perhaps been unable to proceed upon any expedition or piece of service from whence they might promise themselves great rewards; I doubt the business is pretty nigh at an end, for since the Priest has been apprehended, and some more white men named, great industry has been used throughout the town to discredit the witnesses and prejudice the people against them; and I am told it has had in a great measure its intended effect; I am sorry for it, for I do not think we are yet got near the bottom of it, where I doubt the principal conspirators lie concealed.
With the collapse of the excitement through its own excess, ends the history of the great negro “plot.” Whether it had any shadow of reality has never been determined. Judge Horsmanden, who sat as one of the justices during the trials growing out of the so-called plots, compiled later a record of examinations and alleged confessions whereby he sought to justify the course of both judges and juries; but the impression left by his report is that panic had paralyzed the judgment of even the most honest white men, while among the negroes a still greater terror, combined with a wave of hysteria, led to boundless falsification and to numberless unjustified accusations.