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The day of execution appointed for Hughson, his wife, and Peggy was a solemn one, and almost the entire population turned out to witness it. The former had declared that some extraordinary appearance would take place at his execution, and every one gazed on him as he passed in a cart from the prison to the gallows. He was a tall, powerful man, being six feet high. He stood erect in the cart all the way, his piercing eye fixed steadily on the distance, and his right hand raised high as his fetters would permit, and beckoning as though he saw help coming from afar. His face was usually pale and colorless, but today it was noticed that two bright red spots burned on either cheek, which added to the mystery with which the superstitious spectators invested him. When the sad procession arrived at the place of execution, the prisoners were helped to the ground, and stood exposed to the gaze of the crowd. Hughson was firm and self possessed; but Peggy, pale, and weeping, and terror struck, begging for life; while the wife, with the rope round her neck, leaned against a tree, silent and composed, but colorless as marble. One after another they were launched into eternity, and the crowd, solemn and thoughtful, turned their steps homeward.
Hughson was hung in chains; and in a few days a Negro was placed beside him, and here they swung, “blind and blackening,” in the April air, in full view of the tranquil bay, a ghastly spectacle to the fishermen as they plied their vocation near by. For three weeks they dangled here in sunshine and storm, a terror to the passers by. At length a rumor passed through the town that Hughson had turned into a Negro, and the Negro into a white man. This was a new mystery, and day after day crowds would come and gaze on the strange transformation, some thinking it supernatural, and others trying to give an explanation. Hughson had threatened to take poison, and it was thought by many that he had, and it was the effect of this that had wrought the change in his appearance. For ten days the Battery was thronged with spectators, gazing on these bloated, decomposing bodies, many in their superstitious fears expecting some new transformation. Under the increasing heat of the sun, they soon began to drip, till at last the body of Hughson burst asunder, filling the air with such an intolerable stench that the fishermen shunned the locality.
As simple hanging was soon thought not sufficient punishment, and they were left to swing, and slowly rot in chains, so this last was at length thought to be too lenient, and the convicts were condemned to be burned at the stake. Two Negroes, named Quack and Cuffee, were the first doomed to this horrible death. The announcement of this sentence created the greatest excitement. It was a new thing to the colonists, this mode of torture being appropriated by the savages for prisoners taken in war. Curious crowds gathered to see the stake erected, or stare at the loads of wood as they passed along the street, and were unloaded at its base. It was a strange spectacle to behold the workmen carefully piling up the fagots under the spring sun; the spectators looking on, some horrified, and others fierce as savages; and over all the blue sky bending, while the gentle wind stole up from the bay and whispered in the tree tops overhead. On the day of execution an immense crowd assembled. The two Negroes were brought forward, pale and terrified, and bound to the stake. As the men approached with the fire to kindle the pile, they shrieked out in terror, confessed the conspiracy, and promised, if released, to tell all about it. They were at once taken down. This was the signal for an outbreak, and shouts of “burn ’em, burn ’em” burst from the multitude. Mr. Moore then asked the sheriff to delay execution till he could see the Governor and get a reprieve. He hurried off, and soon returned with a conditional one. But, as he met the sheriff on the common, the latter told him that it would be impossible to take the criminals through the crowd without a strong guard, and before that could arrive, they would be murdered by the exasperated populace. They were then tied up again, and the torch applied. The flames arose around the unhappy victims. The curling smoke soon hid their dusky forms from view, while their shrieks and cries for mercy grew fainter and fainter, as the fierce fire shrivelled up their forms, till at last nothing but the crackling of the flames was heard, and the shouting, savage crowd grew still. As the fire subsided, the two wretched creatures, crisped to a cinder, remained to tell, for the hundredth time, to what barbarous deeds terror and passion may lead men.
Some of the Negroes went laughing to the place of execution, indulging in all sorts of buffoonery to the last, and mocking the crowd which surrounded them.
All protested their innocence to the last, and if they had confessed previously, retracted before death their statements and accusations. But this contradiction of themselves, tomorrow denying what today they had solemnly sworn on the Bible to be true, instead of causing the authorities to hesitate, and consider how much terror and the hope of pardon had to do with it, convinced them still more of the strength and dangerous nature of the conspiracy, and they went to work with a determination and recklessness which made that summer the bloodiest and most terrific in the annals of New York. No lawyer was found bold enough to step forward and defend these poor wretches, but all volunteered their services to aid the Government in bringing them to punishment. The weeks now, as they rolled on, were freighted with terror and death, and stamped with scenes that made the blood run cold. This little town, on the southern part of Manhattan Island was wholly given to panic, and a nameless dread of some mysterious, awful fate, extended even to the scattered farm houses near Canal Street. Between this and the last of August, a hundred and fifty-four Negroes, exclusive of whites, were thrown into prison, till every cell was crowded and packed to suffocation with them. For three months, sentence of condemnation was on an average of one a day. The last execution was that of a Catholic priest, or rather of a schoolmaster of the city, who was charged with being one. Mary Burton, after an interval of three months, pretended to remember that he was present with the other conspirators she had first named as being in Hughson’s tavern.
His trial was long, and apparently without excitement. He conducted his own case with great ability, and brought many witnesses to prove his good character and orderly conduct; but he, of course, could not disprove the assertion of Mary, that she had some time or other seen him with the conspirators at Hughson’s tavern for the latter, with his wife and Peggy, and the Negroes she had before named, had all been executed. Mary Burton alone was left, and her evidence being credited, no amount of testimony could avail him.
Although the proceedings were all dignified and solemn, as became an English court, yet the course the trial took showed how utterly unbalanced and one-sided it had become. To add weight to Mary’s evidence, many witnesses were examined to prove that Ury, though a schoolmaster, had performed the duties of a Catholic priest, as though this were an important point to establish. The attorney general, in opening the case, drew a horrible picture of former persecutions by the Papists, and their cruelties to the Protestants, until it was apparent that all that the jury needed to indorse a verdict of guilty was evidence that he was a Catholic priest. Still it would be unfair to attribute this feeling wholly to religious intolerance or the spirit of persecution. England was at this time at war with Spain, and a report was circulated that the Spanish priests in Florida had formed a conspiracy to murder the English colonists. A letter from Ogilthorpe, in Georgia, confirmed this. Ury, who was an educated Englishman, but had led an adventurous life in different countries, could not disprove this, and he was convicted and sentenced to be hung. He met his fate with great composure and dignity, asserting his innocence to the last. He made the eighteenth victim hung, while thirteen had been burned at the stake, and seventy-one transported to various countries.
At the average rate of two every week, one hanged and one burned alive, they were hurried into eternity amid prayers, and imprecations, and shrieks of agony. The hauling of wood to the stake, and the preparation of the gallows, kept the inhabitants in a state bordering on insanity. Business was suspended, and every face wore a terrified look. The voice of pity as well as justice was hushed, and one desire, that of swift vengeance, filled every heart. Had the press of today, with its system of interviewing, and minuteness of detail and description, existed then, there would have been handed down to us a chapter in human history that could be paralleled only in the dark ages.
A swift massacre, a terrible slaughter, comes and goes like an earthquake or a tornado, and stuns rather than debases; but this long, steady succession of horrible executions and frightful scenes changed the very nature of the inhabitants, and they became a prey to a spirit demoniacal rather than human. The prayers and tears of those led forth to the stake, their heartrending cries as they were bound to it, and their shrieks of agony that were wafted out over the still waters of the bay, fell on hard and pitiless hearts. The ashes of the wood that consumed one victim would hardly grow cold before a new fire was kindled upon them, and the charred and blackened posts stood month after month, hideous monuments of what man may become when judgment and reason are surrendered to fear and passion. The spectacle was made still more revolting by the gallows standing near the stake, on which many were hung in chains, and their bodies left to swing, blacken, and rot in the summer air, a ghastly, horrible sight.
Where this madness, that had swept away court, bar, and people together, would have ended, it is impossible to say, had not a new terror seized the inhabitants. Mary Burton, on whose accusation the first victims had been arrested and executed, finding herself a heroine, sought new fields in which to win notoriety. She ceased to implicate the blacks, and turned her attention to the whites, and twenty-four were arrested and thrown into prison. Elated with her success, she began to ascend in the social scale, and criminated some persons of the highest social standing in the city, whose characters were above suspicion. This was turning the tables on them in a manner the upper class did not expect, and they began to reflect what the end might be. The testimony that was sufficient to condemn the slaves was equally conclusive against them. The stake and the gallows which the court had erected for the black man, it could not pull down because a white gentleman stood under their shadow.
Robespierre and his friends cut off the upper crust of society without hesitation or remorse; but unfortunately the crust next below this became in turn the upper crust, which also had to be removed, until at last they themselves were reached, when they paused. They had advanced up to their necks in the bloody tide of revolution, and finding that to proceed farther would take them overhead, they attempted to wade back to shore. So here, so long as the accusations were confined to the lowest class, it was all well enough, but when they were being reached, it was high time to stop. The proceedings were summarily brought to a close, further examinations were deemed unnecessary, and confessions became flat and unprofitable; and this strange episode in American history ended.
That there had been cause for alarm, there can be no doubt. That threats should be uttered by the slaves, is natural; for this would be in keeping with their whole history in this country. Nor is it at all improbable that a conspiracy was formed; for this, too, would only be in harmony with the conduct of slaves from time immemorial. The utter folly and hopelessness of such a one as the blacks testified to, has been urged against its existence altogether. If the argument is good for anything, it proves that the conspiracy thirty years before never existed, and that the Southampton massacre was a delusion, and John Brown never hatched his utterly insane conspiracy in Harper’s Ferry. There have been a good many servile insurrections plotted in this country, not one of which was a whit more sensible or easier of execution than this, which was said to look to the complete overthrow of the little city. That the fires which first started the panic were the work of Negro incendiaries, there is but little doubt; but how far they were a part of a wide laid plan, it is impossible to determine.
Unquestionably, success at the outset would have made the movement general, so that nothing but military force could have arrested it.
There is one thing, however, about which there is no doubt that a panic seized the people and the courts, and made them as unreliable as in the days of the Salem witchcraft. But these striking exhibitions of the weakness of human nature under certain circumstances have been witnessed since the world was made, and probably will continue to the end of time, or until the race enters on a new phase of existence. Panics, even among the most veteran soldiers, sometimes occur, and hence we cannot wonder they take place amid a mixed population. Popular excitements are never characterized by reason and common sense, and never will be. In this case, there was more reason for a panic than at first sight seems to be.
In the first place, the proportion of slaves to the whites was large. In the second place, they were a turbulent set, and had shown such a dangerous spirit, that the authorities became afraid to let them assemble together in meetings. This restriction they felt sorely, and it made them more restive. All were aware of this hostile state of feeling, and were constantly anticipating some outbreak or act of violence. Besides, it was but a few years since the thing they now feared did actually take place. And then, too, the point first aimed at was significant, and showed a boldness founded on conscious strength. Right inside the fort itself, and to the Governor’s house, the torch was applied. It certainly looked ominous. Besides, the very wholesale manner in which the authorities thought it best to go to work increased the panic. In a very short time over a hundred persons were thrown into prison. The same proportion to the population today would be over ten thousand. Such a wholesale arrest would, of itself, throw New York into the wildest excitement, and conjure up all sorts of horrible shapes. Add to this, an average of two hundred burned at the stake, and two hundred hung every week, or more than fifty a day, and nearly three times that number sentenced to transportation, and one can faintly imagine what a frightful state of things would exist in the city. The very atmosphere grew stifling from the smoke of burning men and , while the gallows groaned under its weight of humanity. Had this been the wild work of a mob it would have been terrible enough, but when it was the result of a deliberate judicial tribunal, which was supposed to do nothing except on the most conclusive evidence, the sense of danger was increased tenfold. The conclusion was inevitable, that the conspiracy embraced every black man in the city, and was thoroughly organized. In short, the whole place was, beyond doubt, resting over a concealed volcano, and the instinct of self preservation demanded the most summary work. Let the inhabitants of any city become thoroughly possessed of such an idea, and they will act with no more prudence or reason than the people of New York at that time did. An undoubted belief in such a state of things will confuse the perceptions and unbalance the judgment of a community anywhere and everywhere on the globe.
Still, consistent as it is with human history, one can hardly believe it possible, as he stands in New York today, that men have there been burned at the stake under the sanction of English law, or left to swing and rot in the winds of heaven, by order of the Supreme Court of the city.