Probably no event of comparatively modern times certainly none in our history has occurred so extraordinary in some of its phases, as the Negro riot of 1741. We cannot fully appreciate it, not merely because of the incompleteness of some of its details, nor from the lapse of time, but because of our inability to place ourselves in the position or state of mind of the inhabitants of New York City at that period. We can no more throw ourselves into the social condition, and feel the influences of that time, than we can conceive the outward physical appearance of the embryo metropolis. It is impossible to stand amid the whirl and uproar of New York today, and imagine men ploughing, and sowing grain, and carting hay into barns, where the City Hall now stands. The conception of nearly all the city lying below the Park, above it farms to Canal Street, beyond that clearings where men are burning brush and logs to clear away the fallow, and still farther on, towards Central Park, an unbroken wilderness, is so dim and shadowy, that we can hardly fix its outlines. Yet it was so in 1741. Where now stands the Tombs, and cluster the crowded tenements of Five Points, was a pond or lakelet, nearly two miles in circumference and fifty feet deep, and encircled by a dense forest. Its deep, sluggish outlet into the Hudson is now Canal Street. In wet weather there was another water communication with the East River, near Peck Slip, cutting off the lower part of the island, leaving another island, containing some eight hundred acres. Through Broad Street, along which now rolls each day the stream of business, and swells the tumult of the Brokers’ Board, then swept a deep stream, up which boatmen rowed their boats to sell oysters. The water that supplied these streams and ponds is now carried off through immense sewers, deep under ground, over which the unconscious population tread. Where Front and Water Streets on the east side, and West Greenwich and Washington on the west side, now stretch, were then the East and Hudson Rivers, having smooth and pebbly beaches. There was not a single sidewalk in all the city, and only some half dozen paved streets. On the Battery stood the fort, in which were the Governor’s and secretary’s houses, and over which floated the British flag.
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But all this outward appearance is no more unlike the New York of today than its internal condition.
The population numbered only about ten thousand, one-fifth of which was Negroes, who were slaves. Their education being wholly neglected, they were ignorant and debased, and addicted to almost every vice. They were, besides, restive under their bondage amid the severe punishments often inflicted on them, which caused their masters a great deal of anxiety. Not isolated as an inland plantation, but packed in a narrow space, they had easy communication with each other, and worse than all, with the reckless and depraved crews of the vessels that came into port. It is true, the most stringent measures were adopted to prevent them from assembling together; yet, in spite of every precaution, there would now and then come to light some plan or project that would fill the whites with alarm. They felt half the time as though walking on the crust of a volcano, and hence were in a state of mind to exaggerate every danger, and give credit to every sinister rumor.
The experience of the past, as well as the present state of feeling among the slaves, justified this anxiety and dread; for only thirty years before occurred just such an outbreak as they now feared. On the 7th of April, in 1712, between one and two o’clock in the morning, the house of Peter Van Tilburgh was set on fire by Negroes, which was evidently meant as a signal for a general revolt.
The cry of fire roused the neighboring inhabitants, and they rushed out through the unpaved muddy streets, toward the blazing building. As they approached it, they saw, to their amazement, in the red light of the flames, a band of Negroes standing in front, armed with guns and long knives. Before the whites could hardly comprehend what the strange apparition meant, the Negroes fired, and then rushed on them with their knives, killing several on the spot. The rest, leaving the building to the mercy of the flames, ran to the fort on the Battery, and roused the Governor. Springing from his bed, he rushed out and ordered a cannon to be fired from the ramparts to alarm the town. As the heavy report boomed over the bay and shook the buildings of the town, the inhabitants leaped from their beds, and looking out of the windows, saw the sky lurid with flames. Their dread and uncertainty were increased, when they heard the heavy splash of soldiers through the mud, and the next moment saw their bayonets gleam out of the gloom, as they hurried forward towards the fire. In the meantime, other Negroes had rushed to the spot, so that soon there were assembled, in proportion to the white population, what in the present population of the city would be fully 10,000 Negroes.
The rioters stood firm till they saw the bayonets flashing in the fire-light, and then, giving one volley, fled into the darkness northward, towards what is now Wall Street. The scattered inhabitants they met, who, roused by the cannon, were hastening to the fire, they attacked with their knives, killing and wounding several. The soldiers, firing at random into the darkness, followed after them, accompanied by a crowd of people. The Negroes made for the woods and swamps near where the Park now stands, and disappearing in the heavy shadows of the forest, were lost to view. Knowing it would be vain to follow them into the thickets, the soldiers and inhabitants surrounded them and kept watch till morning. Many, of course, got off and buried themselves in the deeper, more extensive woods near Canal Street, but many others were taken prisoners. Some, finding themselves closely pressed and all avenues of escape cut off, deliberately shot themselves, preferring such a death to the one they knew awaited them. How many were killed and captured during the morning, the historian does not tell us. We can only infer that the number must have been great, from the statement he incidentally makes, that “during the day nineteen more were taken, tried, and executed some that turned State’s evidence were transported.” “Eight or ten whites had been murdered,” and many more wounded.
It was a terrible event, and remembered by the present inhabitants with horror and dismay. To the little handful occupying the point of the island, it was a tragedy as great as a riot in New York today would be, in which was a loss of 5,000 or more on each side.
Many middle aged men, in 1741, were young men at that time, and remembered the fearful excitement that prevailed, and it was a common topic of conversation.
The state of things, therefore, which we have described, was natural. This was rendered worse by the arrival, in the winter of 1741, of a Spanish vessel, which had been captured as a prize, the crew of which was composed in part of Negroes, who were sold at auction as slaves. These became very intractable, and in spite of the floggings they received, uttered threats that they knew would reach their masters’ ears. Still, no evidence of any general plot against the inhabitants was suspected, and things were moving on in their usual way, when, on the 18th of March, a wild and blustering day, the Governor’s house in the fort was discovered to be on fire. Fanned by a fierce southeast wind, the flames spread to the King’s chapel, the secretary’s house, barracks, and stables; and in spite of all efforts to save them, were totally consumed. The origin of the fire was supposed to be accidental, but a few days after, Captain Warren’s house, near the fort, was found to be on fire. Two or three days later, the storehouse of Mr. Van Zandt was discovered on fire. Still, no general suspicions were aroused. Three more days passed, when a cow stall was reported on fire, and a few hours later, the house of Mr. Thompson; the fire in the latter case originating in the room where a Negro slave slept. The very next day, live coals were discovered under the stable of John Murray, on Broadway. This, evidently, was no accident, but the result of design, and the people began to be alarmed. The day following, the house of a sergeant near the fort was seen to be on fire, and soon after, flames arose from the roof of a dwelling near the Fly Market. The rumor now spread like wildfire through the town that it was the work of incendiaries. It seems to us a small foundation to base such a belief on, but it must be remembered that the public mind was in a state to believe almost anything.
The alarm was increased by the statement of Mrs. Earle, who said that on Sunday, as she was looking out of her window, she saw three Negroes swaggering up Broadway, engaged in earnest conversation. Suddenly she heard one of them exclaim, “Fire! fire! Scorch! scorch! a little d n by and by!” and then throwing up his hands, laughed heartily. Coupled with the numerous fires that had occurred, and the rumors afloat, it at once excited her suspicions that this conversation had something to do with a plot to burn the city. She therefore immediately reported it to an alderman, and he, next day, to the justices.
Although the number of buildings thus mysteriously set on fire was, in reality, small, yet it was as great in proportion to the town then, as three hundred would be in New York today. Less than that number, we imagine, would create a panic in the city, especially if the public mind was in a feverish state, as, for instance, during the recent civil war.
Some thought the Spanish Negroes had set the buildings on fire from revenge, especially as those of the Government were the first to suffer. Others declared that it was a plot of the entire Negro population to burn down the city. This belief was strengthened by the fact that, in one of the last fires, a slave of one of the most prominent citizens was seen to leap from the window, and make off over garden fences. A shout was immediately raised by the spectators, and a pursuit commenced. The terrified fugitive made desperate efforts to escape, but being overtaken, he was seized, and, pale as death, lifted on men’s shoulders and carried to jail.
Added to all this, men now remembered it lacked but a few days of being the anniversary of the bloody riot of thirty years ago. They began to watch and question the Negroes, and one of the Spanish sailors, on being interrogated, gave such unsatisfactory, suspicious answers, that the whole crew were arrested, and thrown into prison. But that same afternoon, while the magistrates, whom the alarming state of things had called together, were in consultation about it, the cry of “Fire!” again startled the entire community. The ringing of the alarm bell had now become almost as terrifying as the sound of the last trumpet, and the panic became general. The first step was to ascertain if there were any strangers in town who might be concealed enemies, and a thorough search was made the militia being ordered out, and sentries posted at the ends of all the streets, with orders to stop all persons carrying bags and bundles. This was done on the 13th of April. None being found, the conclusion became inevitable that some dark, mysterious plot lay at the bottom of it all, and the inhabitants thought the city was doomed, like Sodom. First, the more timorous packed up their valuable articles and fled into the country, up toward Canal Street. This increased the panic, which swelled until almost the entire population were seen hurrying through the streets, fleeing for their lives. The announcement of an approaching army would not have created a greater stampede. Every cart and vehicle that could be found was engaged at any price, into which whole families were piled, and hurried away to the farms beyond Chambers Street, in the neighborhood of Canal Street. It was a strange spectacle, and the farmers could hardly believe their senses, at this sudden inundation into their quiet houses of the people of the city. The town authorities were also swept away in the general excitement, and Negroes of all ages and sexes were arrested by the wholesale, and hurried to prison. The Supreme Court was to sit in the latter part of April, and the interval of a few days was spent in efforts to get at the guilty parties. But nothing definite could be ascertained, as the conspirators, whoever they were, kept their own secret. At length, despairing of getting at the truth in any other way, the authorities offered a reward of a hundred pounds, and a full pardon to any one who would turn State’s evidence, and reveal the names of the ringleaders. This was pretty sure to bring out the facts, if there were any to disclose, and almost equally sure to obtain a fabricated story, if there was nothing to tell. A poor, ignorant slave, shaking with terror in his cell, would hardly be proof against such an inducement as a free pardon, and to him or her an almost fabulous sum of money, if he had anything to reveal, while the temptation to invent a tale that would secure both liberty and money was equally strong.
On the 21st of April the court met, Judges Philips and Horsmander presiding. A jury was impaneled, but although there was no lack of prisoners, there was almost a total want of evidence sufficient to put a single man on trial. The reward offered had not borne its legitimate fruits, and no one offered to make any revelations.
Among the first brought up for examination was Mary Burton, a colored servant girl, belonging to John Hughson, the keeper of a low, dirty Negro tavern over on the west side of the city, near the Hudson River. This was a place of rendezvous for the worst Negroes of the town; and from some hints that Mary had dropped, it was suspected it had been the head-quarters of the conspirators. But when, brought before the Grand Jury, she refused to be sworn. They entreated her to take the oath and tell the whole truth, but she only shook her head. They then threatened her, but with no better success; they promised she should be protected from danger and shielded from prosecution, but she still maintained an obstinate silence. They then showed her the reward, and attempted to bribe her with the wealth in store for her, but she almost spat on it in her scorn. This poor Negro slave showed an independence and stubbornness in the presence of the jury that astonished them. Finding all their efforts vain, they ordered her to be sent to jail. This terrified her, and she consented to be sworn. But after taking the oath, she refused to say anything about the fire. A theft had been traced to Hughson, and she told all she knew about that, but about the fires would neither deny nor affirm anything. They then appealed to her conscience painted before her the terrors of the final judgment, and the torments of hell, till at last she broke down, and proposed to make a clean breast of it. She commenced by saying that Hughson had threatened to take her life if she told, and then again hesitated. But at length, by persistent efforts, the following facts were wrenched from her by piecemeal. She said that three Negroes giving their names had been in the habit of meeting at the tavern, and talking about burning of the fort and city and murdering the people, and that Hughson and his wife had promised to help them; after which Hughson was to be governor and Cuff Phillipse king. That the first part of the story was true, there is little doubt. How much, with the imagination and love of the marvelous peculiar to her race, she added to it, it is not easy to say. She said, moreover, that but one white person beside her master and mistress was in the conspiracy, and that was an Irish girl known as Peggy, “the Newfoundland Beauty.” She had several aliases , and was an abandoned character, being a prostitute to the Negroes, and at this time kept as a mistress by a bold, desperate Negro named Caesar. This revelation of Mary’s fell on the Grand Jury like a bombshell. The long sought secret they now felt was out. They immediately informed the magistrates. Of course the greatest excitement followed. Peggy was next examined, but she denied Mary Burton’s story in toto, swore that she knew nothing of any conspiracy or of the burning of the stores; that if she should accuse any one it would be a lie, and blacken her own soul.
It is rather a severe reflection on the courts of justice of that period, or we might rather say, perhaps, a striking illustration of the madness that had seized on all, that although the law strictly forbade any slave to testify in a court of justice against a white person, yet this girl Mary Burton was not only allowed to appear as evidence against Peggy, but her oath was permitted to outweigh hers, and cause her to be sentenced to death. The latter, though an abandoned, desperate character, was seized with terror at the near approach of death, and begged to be allowed another examination, which was granted, and she professed to make a full confession. It is a little singular that while she corroborated Mary Burton’s statement as to the existence of a conspiracy, she located the seat of it not in Hughson’s tavern, but in a miserable shanty near the Battery, kept by John Romme, who, she said, had promised to carry them all to a new country, and give them their liberty, if they would murder the whites and bring him the plunder. Like Mary Burton’s confession, if truthful at all, it evidently had a large mixture of falsehood in it.
On Saturday, May 9th, Peggy was again brought in, and underwent a searching examination. Some of her statements seemed improbable, and they therefore tested them in every possible way. It lasted for several hours, and resulted in a long detailed confession, in which she asserted, among other things, that it was the same plot that failed in 1712, when the Negroes designed to kill all the whites, in fact, exterminate them from the island. She implicated a great many Negroes in the conspiracy; and every one that she accused, as they were brought before her, she identified as being present at the meetings of the conspirators in Romme’s house. The court seemed anxious to avoid any collusion between the prisoners, and therefore kept them apart, so that each story should rest on its own basis. By this course they thought they would be able to distinguish what was true and what was false.
Either from conscious guilt, or from having got some inkling of the charge to be brought against him, Romme fled before he could be arrested. His wife, however, and the Negroes whose names Peggy gave, were sent to jail.
On the 11th of May, or twenty days after the court convened, the executions commenced. On this day, Caesar and Prince, two of the three Negroes Mary Burton testified against, were hung, though not for the conspiracy, but for theft. They were abandoned men, and died recklessly. Peggy and Hughson and his wife were next condemned. The former, finding that her confession did not, as had been promised, secure her pardon, retracted all she had said, and exculpated entirely the parties whose arrest she had caused.
An atmosphere of gloom now rested over the city; every face showed signs of dread. In this state of feeling the Lieutenant-governor issued a proclamation, appointing a day of fasting and humiliation, not only in view of this calamity, but on account also of the want and loss caused by the past severe winter, and the declaration of war by England against Spain. When the day arrived, every shop was closed and business of all kinds suspended, and the silence and repose of the Sabbath rested on the entire community. Without regard to sect, all repaired to the places of worship, where the services were performed amid the deepest solemnity.