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New York Burning – a Review

A slave is burned to death at the stake in New York City in 1741.
Burned at the Stake
New York City, 1741

Worse than the Salem Witch Trials were the reactive trials and horrid executions of slaves in New York city in 1741.  Oh, how thoughts can be twisted to justify unjust cruelty!

I got attracted to this topic and author when finishing up my talks on Thomas Jefferson.  Slavery was far more varied and widespread than I had known.  While reading an article by Jill Lepore, professor of History at Harvard, I was so attracted to her easily-readable, comma-laden writing style I got a copy of her New York Burning – Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan.  It isn’t a pretty story, but it is a well-written and distressing historical lesson. 

Fear of a slave uprising was partly based on wars elsewhere.  France, allied to Spain, contended with England.  Pirates of all sides captured vessels and people, selling them into slavery.  If Spain were to get the slaves to revolt and get the Indians to join it, perhaps England’s distant colony could be taken. 

Alarm over potential slave rebellion was rife before the raft of fires in New York City in 1741.  The rebellions in Barbados, Jamaica, and Antigua had put slave-holders on edge.  It isn’t clear the New York fires were due to rebellion, but a few witnesses to an alcohol-driven party at a tavern prior to it were enough to start convicting and executing many of the black slaves and a few whites accused of it.

Slave testimony was inadmissible as evidence unless it was against another slave.  This was made all the worse by threatening them with whipping and execution lest they tell on one another, or if already sentenced, they were granted the “leniency” of “mere” hanging instead of being burnt for ratting on others.  With such incentives, the accusations spread. 

The Salem Witch Trials had resulted in 20 executions.  In New York, of the 200 suspected, 17 were hanged, 13 were burned alive at the stake, and 84 African men and women were sold and sent off.  Two white men and women each were also hanged, accused of leading the revolt.  One of the white men and one of the black slaves were left up to rot, a putrid lesson to all.  They hung so long they appeared to switch colors, the white man turning black and the black man white.  Such executions were public spectacles, witnessed by men, women, and children.

New York City was second or third in size to Boston, the largest in the colonies.  It was far smaller than London, eighty-four times smaller.  But London had only 1% slaves, while New York had about 20%.  Slaves were considered “property,” for they cost to buy and maintain, while the fruits of their labors belonged to the owners.  The King had appointed William Cosby to be New York’s Governor.  His first act upon entering the city was to have a slave whipped for not getting out of his arrogant way fast enough. 

Daniel Horsemanden was the mediocre lackey lawyer inadvertently advanced to prosecutor by Cosby.  The mere rumor and accusation of a young white woman (who he liked) grew to accusations and then certainty at the trial he used to increase his fame.  Whether and how and who was involved is the gist of Lapore’s detailed, telling, grizzly, and highly readable scholarship. 

A generation later, Thomas Jefferson would detest political parties.  He considered them factions, inherently contentious.  Earlier, in New York, they were also held suspect, at first.  The Court Party were the urban elite who held most power.  The Country Party weakly contended.  During this era, parties came to be seen as necessary to balance between factions in governing. 

The issues in New York then grew to be crucial aspects of the future revolution of the colonies from England.  Governor Cosby tried to imprison a newspaper printer for publishing damaging opinions of him.  Prior to this, any such publishing would be seditious; after it, whether the facts were true helped protect the publisher, ultimately leading to later honoring the fourth estate in the Bill of Rights.   

That black slaves could conspire to burn houses, slit the throats of their masters, rape the wives, and install themselves as new kings – scared the whites.  After a raft of fires in 1741, whites and the Court Party were eager to publicly punish many as a deterrent.  Too bad most of the confessions were coerced.  Too bad so many died painful deaths.  Too bad their owners objected mostly to losing their investment in their “property.”  Too bad second-thoughts didn’t come till later. 

I had no idea anyone had ever been burned at the stake in America.  I come away from Jill Lepore’s history aghast at how extreme cruelty based on the flimsiest of evidence buoyed by blatant prejudice and self-serving economics can twist thinking – and yet be inflicted by courts.  Horsemanden ended up trying to defend his excessive prosecution, expanding it by going after Catholic papists as also causing the supposed conspiracy, and he died in obscurity. 

Only slowly has America advanced toward what Jefferson later penned: “All men,” would come to include far more than the male, white property holders who initiated the revolution.  The possibility of unintelligent men imposing their self-serving prejudices while promoting pain in those they fear or don’t like, remains a danger, I’m sorry to observe.  I appreciate Jill Lepore’s shocking reminder.

Byron Carrier

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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