George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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while in court, in hope of being saved they confessed, in substance,
that Hughson contrived to burn the town, and kill the people; that a
company of Negroes voted Quack the proper person to burn the fort,
because his wife lived there; that he did set the chapel on fire with
a lighted stick; that Mary Burton had told the truth, and that she
could implicate many more if she would, etc. All this general lying
was done with the understanding that the confessors were to be
reprieved until the governor could be heard from. But a large crowd
had gathered to witness the burning of these poor Negroes, and they
compelled the sheriff to proceed with the ceremonies. The convicted
slaves were burned.

On the 1st of June the boy Sawney was again put upon the
witness-stand. His testimony led to the arrest of more Negroes. He
charged them with having been sworn to the plot, and with having sharp
penknives with which to kill white men. One Fortune testified that he
never knew of houses where conspirators met, nor did he know Hughson,
but accuses Sawney, and Quack who had been burnt. The next witness was
a Negro girl named Sarah. She was frightened out of her senses. She
foamed at the mouth, uttered the bitterest imprecations, and denied
all knowledge of a conspiracy. But the benevolent gentlemen who
conducted the trial told her that others had said certain things in
proof of the existence of a conspiracy, that the only way to save her
life was to acknowledge that there had been a conspiracy to burn the
town and kill the inhabitants. She then assented to all that was told
her, and thereby implicated quite a number of Negroes; but, when her
testimony was read to her, she again denied all. She was without doubt
a fit subject for an insane-asylum rather than for the witness-stand,
in a cause that involved so many human lives.

It will be remembered that John Hughson, his wife, and daughter had
been in the jail for a long time. He now desired to be called to the
witness-stand. He begged to be sworn, that in the most solemn manner
he might deny all knowledge of the conspiracy, and exculpate his wife
and child. But the modest recorder reminded him of the fact that he
stood convicted as a felon already, that he and his family were doomed
to be hanged, and that, therefore, it would be well for him to
"confess all." He was sent back to jail unheard. Already condemned to
be hung, the upright magistrates had Hughson tried again for
"conspiracy" on the 4th of June! The indictments were three in number:
_First_, that Hughson, his wife, his daughter, and Peggy Carey, with
three Negroes, Cæsar, Prince, and Cuffee, conspired in March last to
set fire to the house in the fort. _Second_, That Quack (already
burnt) did set fire to and burn the house, and that the prisoners,
Hughson, his wife, daughter Sarah, and Peggy, encouraged him so to do.
_Third_, That Cuffee (already burnt) did set fire to Phillipse's
house, and burnt it; and they, the prisoners, procured and encouraged
him so to do. Hughson, his family, and Peggy pleaded not guilty to all
the above indictments. The attorney-general delivered a spirited
address to the jury, which was more forcible than elegant. He
denounced the unlucky Hughson as "infamous, inhuman, an arch-rebel
against God, his king, and his country, - a devil incarnate," etc. He
was ably assisted by eminent counsel for the king, - Joseph Murray,
James Alexander, William Smith, and John Chambers. Mary Burton was
called again. She swore that Negroes used to go to Hughson's at night,
eat and drink, and sometimes buy provisions; that Hughson did swear
the Negroes to secrecy in the plot; that she herself had seen seven or
eight guns and swords, a bag of shot, and a barrel of gunpowder at
Hughson's house; that the prisoner told her he would kill her if she
ever revealed any thing she knew or saw; wanted her to swear like the
rest, offered her silk gowns, and gold rings, - but none of those
tempting things moved the virtuous Mary. Five other witnesses
testified that they heard Quack and Cuffee say to Hughson while in
jail, "This is what you have brought us to." The Hughsons had no
counsel, and but three witnesses. One of them testified that he had
lived in Hughson's tavern about three months during the past winter,
and had never seen Negroes furnished entertainment there. The two
others said that they had never seen any evil in the man nor in his
house, etc.

"William Smith, Esq." now took the floor to sum up. He told the jury
that it was "black and hellish" to burn the town, and then kill them
all; that John Hughson, by his complicity in this crime, had made
himself blacker than the Negroes; that the credit of the witnesses was
good, and that there was nothing left for them to do but to find the
prisoners guilty, as charged in the indictment. The judge charged the
jury, that the evidence against the prisoners "is ample, full, clear,
and satisfactory. They were found guilty in twenty minutes, and on the
8th of June were brought into court to receive sentence. The judge
told them that they were guilty of a terrible crime; that they had not
only made Negroes their equals, but superiors, by waiting upon,
keeping company with, entertaining them with meat, drink, and lodging;
that the most amazing part of their conduct was their part in a plot
to burn the town, and murder the inhabitants, - to have consulted with,
aided, and abetted the "black seed of Cain," was an unheard of
crime, - that although "with uncommon assurance they deny the fact, and
call on God, as a witness of their innocence, He, out of his goodness
and mercy, has confounded them, and proved their guilt, to the
satisfaction of the court and jury." After a further display of
forensic eloquence, the judge sentenced them "to be hanged by the neck
'till dead," on Friday, the 12th of June, 1741.

The Negro girl Sarah, referred to above, who was before the jury on
the 1st of June in such a terrified state of body and mind, was
re-called on the 5th of June. She implicated twenty Negroes, whom she
declared were present at the house of Comfort, whetting their knives,
and avowing that "they would kill white people." On the 6th of June,
Robin, Cæsar, Cook, Cuffee, and Jack, another Cuffee, and Jamaica were
arrested, and put upon trial on the 8th of June. It is a sad fact to
record, even at this distance, that these poor blacks, without
counsel, friends, or money, were tried and convicted upon the evidence
of a poor ignorant, hysterical girl, and the "dying confession" of
Quack and Cuffee, who "confessed" with the understanding that they
should be free! Tried and found guilty on the 8th, without clergy or
time to pray, they were burned at the stake the next day! Only Jack
found favor with the court, and that favor was purchased by perjury.
He was respited until it "was found how well he would deserve further
favor." It was next to impossible to understand him, so two white
gentlemen were secured to act as interpreters. Jack testified to
having seen Negroes at Hughson's tavern; that "when they were eating,
he said they began to talk about setting the houses on fire:" he was
so good as to give the names of about fourteen Negroes whom he heard
say that they would set their masters' houses on fire, and then rush
upon the whites and kill them; that at one of these meetings there
were five or six Spanish Negroes present, whose conversation he could
not understand; that they waited a month and a half for the Spaniards
and French to come, but when they came not, set fire to the fort. As
usual, more victims of these confessors swelled the number already in
the jail; which was, at this time, full to suffocation.

On the 19th of June the lieutenant-governor issued a proclamation of
freedom to all who would "confess and discover" before the 1st of
July. Several Indians were in the prison, charged with conspiracy. The
confessions and discoveries were numerous. Every Negro charged with
being an accomplice of the unfortunate wretches that had already
perished at the stake began to accuse some one else of complicity in
the plot. They all knew of many Negroes who were going to cut the
white people's throats with penknives; and when the town was in flames
they were to "meet at the end of Broadway, next to the fields!" And it
must be recorded, to the everlasting disgrace of the judiciary of New
York, that scores of ignorant, helpless, and innocent Negroes - and a
few white people too - were convicted upon the confessions of the
terror-stricken witnesses! There is not a court to-day in all
enlightened Christendom that would accept as evidence - not even
circumstantial - the incoherent utterances of these Negro "confessors."
And yet an intelligent (?) New-York court thought the evidence "clear
(?), and satisfactory!"

But the end was not yet reached. A new turn was to be given to the
notorious Mary Burton. The reader will remember that she said that
there never were any white persons present when the burning of the
town was the topic of conversation, except her master and mistress and
Peggy Carey. But on the 25th of June the budding Mary accused Rev.
John Ury, a reputed Catholic priest, and a schoolmaster in the town,
and one Campbell, also a school-teacher, of having visited Hughson's
tavern with the conspirators.

On the 26th of June, nine more Negroes were brought before the court
and arraigned. Seven pleaded guilty in the hope of a reprieve: two
were tried and convicted upon the testimony of Mary Burton. Eight more
were arraigned, and pleaded guilty; followed by seven more, some of
whom pleaded guilty, and some not guilty. Thus, in one day, the court
was enabled to dispose of twenty-four persons.

On the 27th of June, one Adam confessed that he knew of the plot, but
said he was enticed into it by Hughson, three years before; that
Hughson told him that he knew a man who could forgive him all his
sins. So between John Hughson's warm rum, and John Ury's ability to
forgive sin, the virtuous Adam found all his scruples overcome; and he
took the oath. A Dr. Hamilton who lodged at Holt's, and the latter
also, are brought into court as accused of being connected with the
plot. It was charged that Holt directed his Negro Joe to set fire to
the play-house at the time he should indicate. At the beginning of the
trial only four white persons were mentioned; but now they began to
multiply, and barrels of powder to increase at a wonderful rate. The
confessions up to this time had been mere repetitions. The arrests
were numerous, and the jail crowded beyond its capacity. The poor
Negroes implicated were glad of an opportunity to "confess" against
some one else, and thereby save their own lives. Recorder Horsemanden
says, "Now many negroes began to squeak, in order to lay hold of the
benefit of the proclamation." He deserves the thanks of humanity for
his frankness! For before the proclamation there were not more than
seventy Negroes in jail; but, within eight days after it was issued,
thirty more frightened slaves were added to the number. And Judge
Horsemanden says, "'Twas difficult to find room for them, nor could we
see any likelihood of stopping the impeachments." The Negroes turned
to accusing white persons, and seven or eight were arrested. The
sanitary condition of the prison now became a subject of grave
concern. The judges and lawyers consulted together, and agreed to
pardon some of the prisoners to make room in the jail. They also
thought it prudent to lump the confessions, and thereby facilitate
their work; but the confessions went on, and the jail filled up again.

The Spanish Negroes taken by an English privateer, and adjudged to
slavery by the admiralty court, were now taken up, tried, convicted,
and sentenced to be hung. Five others received sentence the same day.

The bloody work went on. The poor Negroes in the jail, in a state of
morbid desperation, turned upon each other the blistering tongue of
accusation. They knew that they were accusing each other
innocently, - as many confessed afterwards, - but this was the last
straw that these sinking people could see to catch at, and this they
did involuntarily. "Victims were required; and those who brought them
to the altar of Moloch, purchased their own safety, or, at least,
their lives."

On the 2d of July, one Will was produced before Chief-Justice James
DeLancy. He plead guilty, and was sentenced to be burnt to death on
the 4th of July. On the 6th of July, eleven plead guilty. One Dundee
implicates Dr. Hamilton with Hughson in giving Negroes rum and
swearing them to the plot. A white man by the name of William Nuill
deposed that a Negro - belonging to Edward Kelly, a butcher - named
London swore by God that if he should be arrested and cast into the
jail, he would hang or burn all the Negroes in New York, guilty or not
guilty. On this same day five Negroes were hanged. One of them was
"hung in chains" upon the same gibbet with Hughson. And the Christian
historian says "the town was amused" on account of a report that
Hughson had turned black and the Negro white! The vulgar and sickening
description of the condition of the bodies, in which Mr. Horsemanden
took evident relish, we withhold from the reader. It was rumored that
a Negro doctor had administered poison to the convicts, and hence the
change in the bodies after death.

In addition to the burning of the Negro Will, on the 4th of July, was
the sensation created by his accusing two white soldiers, Kane and
Kelly, with complicity in the conspiracy. Kane was examined the next
day: said that he had never been to the house of John Romme;
acknowledged that he had received a stolen silver spoon, given to his
wife, and sold it to one Van Dype, a silversmith; that he never knew
John Ury, etc. Knowing Mary Burton was brought forward, - as she always
was when the trials began to lag, - and accused Kane. He earnestly
denied the accusation at first, but finally confessed that he was at
Hughson's in reference to the plot on two several occasions, but was
induced to go there "by Corker, Coffin, and Fagan." After his tongue
got limbered up, and his memory refreshed, he criminated Ury. He
implicated Hughson's father and three brothers, Hughson's
mother-in-law, an old fortune-teller, as being parties to the plot as
sworn "to burn, and kill;" that Ury christened some of the Negroes,
and even had the temerity to attempt to proselyte him, Kane; that Ury
asked him if he could read Latin, could he read English; to both
questions he answered no; that the man Coffin read to him, and
descanted upon the benefits of being a Roman Catholic; that they could
forgive sins, and save him from hell; and that if he had not gone away
from their company they might have seduced him to be a Catholic; that
one Conolly, on Governor's Island, admitted that he was "bred up a
priest;" that one Holt, a dancing-master, also knew of the plot; and
then described the mystic ceremony of swearing the plotters. He said,
"There was a black ring made on the floor, about a foot and a half in
diameter; and Hughson bid every one put off the left shoe and put
their toes within the ring; and Mrs. Hughson held a bowl of punch over
their heads, as the Negroes stood around the circle, and Hughson
pronounced the oath above mentioned, (something like a freemason's
oath and penalties,) and every negro severally repeated the oath after
him, and then Hughson's wife fed them with a draught out of the bowl."

This was "new matter," so to speak, and doubtless broke the monotony
of the daily recitals to which their honors had been listening all
summer. Kane was about to deprive Mary Burton of her honors; and, as
he could not write, he made his mark. A peddler named Coffin was
arrested and examined. He denied all knowledge of the plot, never saw
Hughson, never was at his place, saw him for the first time when he
was executed; had never seen Kane but once, and then at Eleanor
Waller's, where they drank beer together. But the court committed him.
Kane and Mary Burton accused Edward Murphy. Kane charged David
Johnson, a hatter, as one of the conspirators; while Mary Burton
accuses Andrew Ryase, "little Holt," the dancing-master, John Earl,
and seventeen soldiers, - all of whom were cast into prison.

On the 16th of July nine Negroes were arraigned: four plead guilty,
two were sentenced to be burnt, and the others to be hanged. On the
next day seven Negroes plead guilty. One John Schultz came forward,
and made a deposition that perhaps had some little influence on the
court and the community at large. He swore that a Negro man slave,
named Cambridge, belonging to Christopher Codwise, Esq., did on the
9th of June, 1741, confess to the deponent, in the presence of Codwise
and Richard Baker, that the confession he had made before Messrs.
Lodge and Nichols was entirely false; viz., that he had confessed
himself guilty of participating in the conspiracy; had accused a Negro
named Cajoe through fear; that he had heard some Negroes talking
together in the jail, and saying that if they did not confess they
would be hanged; that what he said about Horsefield Cæsar was a lie;
that he had never known in what section of the town Hughson lived, nor
did he remember ever hearing his name, until it had become the town
talk that Hughson was concerned in a plot to burn the town and murder
the inhabitants.

This did not in the least abate the zeal of Mary Burton and William
Kane. They went on in their work of accusing white people and Negroes,
receiving the approving smiles of the magistrates. Mary Burton says
that John Earl, who lived in Broadway, used to come to Hughson's with
ten soldiers at a time; that these white men were to command the Negro
companies; that John Ury used to be present; and that a man near the
Mayor's Market, who kept a shop where she (Mary Burton) got rum from,
a doctor, by nationality a Scotchman, who lived by the Slip, and
another dancing-master, named Corry, used to meet with the
conspirators at Hughson's tavern.

On the 14th of July, John Ury was examined, and denied ever having
been at Hughson's, or knowing any thing about the conspiracy; said he
never saw any of the Hughsons, nor did he know Peggy Carey. But
William Kane, the soldier, insisted that Ury did visit the house of
Hughson. Ury was again committed. On the next day eight persons were
tried and convicted upon the evidence of Kane and Mary Burton. The
jail was filling up again, and the benevolent magistrates pardoned
fourteen Negroes. Then they turned their judicial minds to the case of
William Kane _vs_. John Ury. First, he was charged with having
counselled, procured, and incited a Negro slave, Quack, to burn the
king's house in the fort: to which he pleaded not guilty. Second, that
being a priest, made by the authority of the pretended See of Rome, he
had come into the Province and city of New York after the time limited
by law against Jesuits and Popish priests, passed in the eleventh year
of William III., and had remained for the space of seven months; that
he had announced himself to be an ecclesiastical person, made and
ordained by the authority of the See of Rome; and that he had appeared
so to be by celebrating masses and granting absolution, etc. To these
charges Ury pleaded not guilty, and requested a copy of the
indictments, but was only allowed a copy of the second; and pen, ink,
and paper grudgingly granted him. His private journal was seized, and
a portion of its contents used as evidence against him. The following
was furnished to the grand jury: -

"Arrived at Philadelphia the 17th of February, 1738. At
Ludinum, 5th March. - To Philadelphia, 29th April. - Began
school at Burlington, 18th June. Omilta Jacobus
Atherthwaite, 27th July. - Came to school at Burlington, 23d
January, 1740. - Saw - - , 7th May. - At five went to
Burlington, to Piercy, the madman. - Went to Philadelphia,
19th May. - Went to Burlington, 18th June. - At six in the
evening to Penefack, to Joseph Ashton. - Began school at
Dublin under Charles Hastie, at eight pounds a year, 31st
July, - - , 15th October, - - , 27th ditto. - Came to John Croker
(at the Fighting Cocks), New York, 2d November. - I boarded
gratis with him, 7th November, - Natura Johannis Pool, 26th
December. - I began to teach with John Campbell, 6th April,
1741. - Baptized Timothy Ryan, born 18th April, 1740, son of
John Ryan and Mary Ryan, 18th May. - Pater Confessor Butler,
two Anni, no sacramentum non confessio."[250]

On the 21st of July, Sarah Hughson, who had been respited, was put on
the witness-stand again. There were some legal errors in the
indictments against Ury, and his trial was postponed until the next
term; but he was arraigned on a new indictment. The energies of the
jury and judges received new life. Here was a man who was a
Catholic, - or had been a Catholic, - and the spirit of religious
intolerance asserted itself. Sarah Hughson remembered having seen Ury
at her father's house on several occasions; had seen him make a ring
with chalk on the floor, make all the Negroes stand around it, while
he himself would stand in the middle, with a cross, and swear the
Negroes. This was also "new matter:" nothing of this kind was
mentioned in the first confession. But this was not all. She had seen
Ury preach to the Negroes, forgive their sins, and baptize some of
them! She said that Ury wanted her to confess to him, and that Peggy
confessed to him in French.

On the 24th of July, Elias Desbroses, confectioner, being called,
swore that Ury had come to his shop with one Webb, a carpenter, and
inquired for sugar-bits, or wafers, and asked him "whether a minister
had not his wafers of him? or, whether that paste, which the deponent
showed him, was not made of the same ingredients as the Luthern
minister's?" or words to that effect: the deponent told Ury that if he
desired such things a joiner would make him a mould; and that when he
asked him whether he had a congregation, Ury "waived giving him an

On the 27th of July, Mr. Webb, the carpenter, was called to the
witness-stand and testified as follows: That he had met Ury at John
Croker's (at the Fighting Cocks), where he became acquainted with him;
that he had heard him read Latin and English so admirably that he
employed him to teach his child; that finding out that he was a
school-teacher, he invited him to board at his house without charge;
that he understood from him that he was a non-juring minister, had
written a book that had drawn the fire of the Church, was charged with
treason, and driven out of England, sustaining the loss of "a living"
worth fifty pounds a year; that on religious matters the deponent
could not always comprehend him; that the accused said Negroes were
only fit for slaves, and to put them above that condition was to
invite them to cut your throats. The observing Horsemanden was so much
pleased with the above declaration, that he gives Ury credit in a
footnote for understanding the dispositions of Negroes![251] Farther
on Mr. Webb says, that, after one Campbell removed to Hughson's, Ury
went thither, and so did the deponent on three different times, and
heard him read prayers after the manner of the Church of England; but
in the prayer for the king he only mentioned "our sovereign lord the
King," and not "King George." He said that Ury pleaded against
drunkenness, debauchery, and Deists; that he admonished every one to
keep his own minister; that when the third sermon was delivered one
Mr. Hildreth was present, when Ury found fault with certain doctrines,
insisted that good works as well as faith were necessary to salvation;
that he announced that on a certain evening he would preach from the
text, "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell
shall not prevail against it; and whosoever sins ye remit, they are
remitted, and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained."

The judges, delighted with this flavor added to the usually dry
proceedings, thought they had better call Sarah Hughson; that if she
were grateful for her freedom she would furnish the testimony their
honors desired. Sarah was accordingly called. She is recommended for
mercy. She is, of course, to say what is put in her mouth, to give
testimony such as the court desires. So the fate of the poor
schoolmaster was placed in the keeping of the fateful Sarah.

On the 28th of July another grand jury was sworn, and, like the old
one, was composed of merchants. The following persons composed it:
Joseph Robinson, James Livingston, Hermanus Rutgers, jun., Charles