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New York Burning

By thesameoldsong23 Oct 09, 2008 1066 Words
Jill Lepore’s New York Burning is a novel about the 1741 slave conspiracy in New York City. When ten fires blazed through Manhattan, more and more evidence surfaced that it was slaves that set those fires and that they planned to set many more. Trials began and thirty slaves were either burned at the stake or hanged and over one hundred black men and women were thrown in jail. The question is, was there really a plot? Or were dozens of innocent people persecuted due to mass hysteria? After reading New York Burning I believe that there was a plot and in 1741 the slaves of New York planned to burn down the city.

It all began during Christmas of 1740 at a man by the name of John Hughson’s house. Hughson invited black slaves to his house for food, drinks, cards, dice, and dancing. There, they were also told of a plot; a plot to “set fire to the town and kill the white people.” Hughson made the blacks swear to this plot. He kept a list and said it was “an agreement of the Blacks to kill the white folks” and added black slave’s names to the list in ink.

Hughson said that they would start by burning down Fort George, the cities crucial defensive outpost. At this signal, each slave was to kill his master and any black slave that would not assist them. After the killings, they were to set their master’s house on fire. Hughson claimed that then he would become king, and Caesar, one of the key conspirators, would become governor. Of the 152 black New Yorkers that were arrested in 1741, 80 of them confessed to taking part in the conspiracy.

The plot first began to unravel in February of 1741 with a robbery. On February 26, 1741 a young English sailor by the name of Christopher Wilson went to a shop owned by Robert Hogg. While paying for his purchase he spotted where the money was kept. He then went to John Hughson’s tavern to talk to Hughson and three black men: Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee. Together they came up with a plan to rob Robert Hogg’s store. On February 28th, Wilson went into the shop and undetected, shoved back the bolt on the shop’s side door. That night, after the shop had closed, Caesar and Prince entered the shop through the unbolted door and stole coins, linen, wrought silver, and other goods.

On March 18, 1741, the plot continued to unravel. Fort George was set on fire. “A great plume of smoke rose from the roof of Lieutenant Governor George Clarke’s mansion.” Clarke’s mansion would be destroyed before anything could be done. The slave, Cuffee, danced in the snow as the flames spread from the roof to the chapel and the barracks, then to the secretary’s office. On March 25th, Captain Peter Warren’s house went up in flames. Exactly a week later, Winant Van Zant’s warehouse burned to the ground with everything inside. That was the third fire, three Wednesday’s in a row. Three days later, two more fires were set. The people of New York City began to get suspicious.

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 5th, a woman named Abigail Earle was looking out her window when she saw three black men walk by. One of the three men, Quack, a local slave, shouted “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A little, Damn it, By-and-By.” Monday, April 6, 1741, brought four more fires. A fireman, Jacobus Stoutenburgh, was cleaning up after a fire, looked down inside the building and saw Cuffee, a slave owned by Adolph Philipse. When Cuffee realized he was spotted, he began to run. Cuffee was chased, eventually caught, and thrown in jail.

After the chase for Cuffee, “brigadiers-turned-vigilantes” ran around the streets, picking up any unlucky black man that was on the streets. The fires stopped and all week city magistrates conducted interrogations. In mid-April of 1741, the trials began and the “Negroe Plot” began to be depicted. Justice Frederick Philipse and Justice Daniel Horsmanden led the courtroom. Cuffee and Quack were the first to be tried. They were convicted and burned at stake. Immediately before they were burned they confessed and gave the names of fifty of their conspirators. More trials followed quickly and the Hughson’s and Peggy Kerry were sentenced to hang. On May 8th, Prince and Caesar were accused of burglary and sentenced to death by hanging. Many imprisonments and deaths followed throughout the summer of 1741.

However, Horsmanden thought that the conspiracy was missing something, a mastermind who had planned it all. He didn't think John Hughson was smart enough. Instead, Horsmanden came to believe that John Ury was responsible, which brought the “Priest’s Plot” to light. Ury had just arrived in town and had been working as a school teacher and a private tutor. Horsmanden arrested him under the suspicion of being a Roman Catholic priest and a secret agent to the Spanish. Mary Burton, the Hughson’s indentured servant who accused many people of being involved in the plot, remembered that Ury had been one of the plotters of the conspiracy. Many others confessed that there “was a man who could forgive them of all their sins.” Ury was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.

The trials ended on July 15, 1741. By the end of the trials, 160 blacks and 21 whites had been arrested, 17 blacks and four whites were hanged, 13 blacks were burned at stake, and 70 blacks were banished from New York. After reading Jill Lepore’s New York Burning, I believe that the conspiracy was definitely real. There were far too many events that took place for the plot to have been in everyone’s heads. For example, Quack shouting in the street and Cuffee running away after being spotted inside a building shortly after a fire. More than 80 people confessed to being part of the plot; that is more than half of the people who were arrested. I believe that the “Negroe Plot” was the basis for the “Priest’s Plot,” just as Daniel Horsmanden believed. I think that there was truly a plot to burn down New York City and that justice was served.

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