New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 Summary
The New York Slave Conspiracy — or Slave Plot — was a series of events that took place in the City of New York in 1741. At that time, the people of New York were living in fear of attacks from England’s Catholic enemies — France and Spain — and Native American Indian Tribes. A recent influx of Irish immigrants and Spanish slaves fueled the fear they would help overthrow the English government. The first event was a robbery, which led to an investigation that uncovered what appeared to be a crime ring. The members of the ring were white tavern owners and black slaves. During the investigations, a series of fires occurred throughout the city that immediately reminded New Yorkers of the Slave Revolt of 1712. Then, some slaves were overheard talking and laughing about fire and another was seen running from a fire. White colonists were also aware of the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina that had taken place less than two years earlier. New York authorities believed the only answer to what was happening in the city had to be a widespread, organized attempt to undermine the authorities. Most of the “evidence” started with the testimony of a young girl, Mary Burton, who was essentially convinced to testify — or she would be sent to jail. The affair was eerily similar to the Salem Witch Trials in that the word of the accusers — with little to no physical evidence — was used to arrest and convict hundreds of people in the city. When upstanding, well-known citizens were mentioned as being part of the plot, the trials came to an end. In the aftermath, the slave laws were tightened, but more than 30 men and women had been tried and executed for crimes they may have likely been innocent of.
New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 Quick Facts
- It is also known as the “New York Conspiracy of 174,” the “Negro Plot of 1741,” the “Slave Insurrection of 1741,” and the “New York Conspiracy Riot.”
- One of the judges in the trials, Daniel Horsmanden, published his account of the proceedings in 1744 with the title, “The New-York Conspiracy or a History of the Negro Plot.”
- The main witness in the trials was a teenage girl, Mary Burton, whose word was taken at face value by the judges and jury.
- The so-called plot included nearly 200 people. Most were black slaves but at least 20 whites were arrested.
- At first, The whites were accused of providing meeting places for the slaves to plan their attacks. Later, they were accused of being Catholics and working to undermine the English government.
- One of the accused Catholics was John Ury, a schoolteacher. He was eventually identified as the mastermind behind the entire plot.
- Critics of the trials have compared them to the Salem Witch Trials, in which the word of a young girl was taken as evidence and used to persecute — and execute — people who were involved in a suspicious conspiracy.
History of the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741
On February 28, 1741, someone robbed the home of Robert Hogg, a merchant. In the investigation that followed, a crime ring was uncovered. It consisted of a white tavern owner, John Hughson, several other white men, and women, and a group of black slaves. The slaves apparently robbed their masters and others and took the items to the tavern and sold them. The main witness in the affair was a 16-year-old girl, Mary Burton, an indentured servant to Hughson who worked at his tavern.
The Fire At Fort George
Soon after the investigation started, a fire broke out on March 18 at Fort George that did considerable damage. At first, no one thought it was suspicious, but over the next two weeks, a series of fires occurred throughout the city. Under the right conditions, a small fire could easily spread through the city and burn all the buildings, which were made of wood. The evidence in some of the fires seemed to make it clear they were set on purpose.
Slaves Overheard Talking About Fires
On April 5, a group of slaves was walking down Broadway. A woman overheard them talking and laughing, and reciting a short poem about fires. She thought it was suspicious and reported it to the authorities. The next day, more fires broke out and arson was suspected.
The Impact of the New York Slave Revolt of 1712
The idea of slaves starting fires in protest of poor treatment was not new in the city. In 1712, a group of slaves set fire to a building and then attacked white New Yorkers who responded to the fire alarm. At least 9 whites were killed. In the aftermath of the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, the slaves who were tried and found guilty of carrying out the attack were brutally executed and the colony passed new Slave Laws. In the afternoon of April 5, a slave was spotted running from the scene of another fire. The people immediately recalled the events of 1712 and shouted the slaves “were rising.” The Lieutenant Governor of New York, George Clarke, who lost his home in the fire at Fort George, ordered the military to keep watch at night, which continued through the summer.
The New York Slave Conspiracy Begins
City officials met on April 11, led by Mayor John Cruger, and came to the conclusion the fires were part of a conspiracy. They asked Clarke to issue a proclamation, offering a reward — and a pardon — to “any white person” who had information about the suspected conspiracy. Any slaves with information were offered their freedom and a reward. It was also agreed that the city should be searched for stolen goods and “suspicious persons.” The Lieutenant Governor agreed and called out the militia to assist with the search.
New York Homes Searched
The search of the city took place on April 13 but nothing was found — no stolen goods; no suspicious people. However, a slave couple — Robin and his wife Cuba — were found to have some items that city officials suspected were stolen goods they had purchased from thieves. Both of them were arrested and detained. They joined a group of whites, including the Hughsons, and slaves, in prison.
The Grand Jury Convenes
On April 21, the trials started. The presiding justices were Frederick Philipse and Daniel Horsmanden. The Grand Jury was called, and the 17 members were:
- Robert Watts, merchant, foreman
- Jeremiah Latouche, merchant
- Joseph Read, merchant
- Anthony Rutgers, merchant
- John M’Evers, merchant
- John Cruger Jr., merchant
- John Merritt, merchant
- Adoniah Schuyler, merchant
- Isaac De Peyster, merchant
- Abraham Keteltass, merchant
- David Provoost, merchant
- Rene Hett, merchant
- Henry Beekman Jr., merchant
- David Van Home, merchant
- George Spencer, merchant
- Thomas Duncan, merchant
- Winant Van Zant, merchant
The Trials Being and Mary Burton Testifies
The trials started on April 22 and the first witness called was Mary Burton. However, she refused to testify and had to be forcibly brought into the courtroom by a constable. When she appeared, Judge Horsmanden noted that she:
“seemed to be under some great uneasiness, or terrible apprehensions; which gave suspicion that she knew something concerning the fires that had lately happened…”
She was informed of the reward and pardon she would receive if she testified, but she continued to refuse, indicating she feared for her safety if she testified. Because of her fears, the authorities decided that to keep her safe, she needed to be held in jail. As the constable was taking her there, she changed her mind and she testified later that afternoon.
When she took her seat, she was adamant she would only testify about the robbery at Hogg’s, but would not testify about the fires. This made it clear to the judges and the Grand Jury that she knew something about the supposed slave conspiracy. However, during the questioning, she talked about how the slaves congregated in large numbers at Hughson’s Tavern — which was against the law — and she said both the Hughsons and the slaves threatened to kill her if she ever spoke about the things they stole. According to Horsemanden’s notes, the slaves threatened to “burn her.” Further, she testified she heard the slaves talk about burning the town — in the presence of the Hughsons and another white woman, a prostitute called “Peggy, the Newfoundland Beauty.”
Mary Burton’s testimony shocked the judges and the Grand Jury. As Horsemanden wrote:
“This evidence of a conspiracy, not only to burn the city, but also destroy and murder the people, was most astonishing to the grand jury, and that any white people should become so abandoned as to confederate with slaves in such an execrable and detestable purpose, could not but be very amazing to everyone that heard it; what could scarce be credited; but that the several fires had been occasioned by some combination of villains, was, at the time of them, naturally to be collected from the manner and circumstances attending them.”
Important Dates in the New York Slave Conspiracy
Starting then, the hunt for the conspirators was on. Over the next few months — much like the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 — accusations flew and the conspiracy grew.
- May 1 — Two slaves, Caesar and Prince, were convicted of robbery.
- May 6 — John Hughson, his wife, Sarah Hughson, and Margaret Sorubiero — the real name of Petty the Beauty — were tried and convicted of receiving stolen items. Hughson’s daughter was also arrested.
- May 8 — Caesar and Prince were sentenced to death.
- May 11 — Caesar and Prince were hanged.
- May 12 — John Hughson, Sarah Hughson, and Margaret Sorubiero were charged with involvement in the slave conspiracy.
- May 22 — A slave boy named Sawney was interrogated by the court. He insisted he had no knowledge of the conspiracy. However, the members of the Grand Jury argued with him and convinced him to tell the “truth.” The boy finally consented and was asked a series of questions in which he confirmed the involvement of everyone that was accused of conspiracy.
- May 29 — Two slaves, Quaco and Cuffee, were tried and convicted of arson.
- May 30 — Quaco and Cuffee tried to confess, but were refused and executed. Both were burned at the stake.
- June 8 — John Hughson, Sarah Hughson (mother), Sarah Hughson (daughter), and Margaret Sorubiero were convicted for their involvement in the slave plot.
- June 12 — John Hughson, Sarah Hughson (mother), and Margaret Sorubiero were executed.
- July 29 — Another white man accused of being involved, John Ury, appeared before the court. He was accused of participating in the slave plot and secretly being a Catholic priest. Sarah Hughson, the daughter, testified against Ury in exchange for a pardon. Ury was convicted of the charges.
- August 29 — John Ury was executed by hanging.
From June 1–July 26 — More than 100 slaves were charged. Around 80 of them admitted, under coercion, to being involved. 31 were executed and at least 70 were sold to new owners and sent out of the country.
Mary Burton’s Reward
Mary Burton was eventually paid for her testimony, or as Horsmanden called it, “the evidence” that “detected the conspirators.” Her full reward — 100 £.
Significance of the New York Slave Conspiracy
The New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 is important to the history of the United States primarily because it is an example of the intense fear that people in 18th-century New York had over the possibility of slave uprisings. It also showed how intense the fear and hatred of Catholics could be, which was carried over from Europe by Puritans and other Protestants.
More Slave Uprisings in Colonial America
Daniel Horsmanden’s Description of the Conspiracy
Horsmanden was convinced the plot was real and he went to great lengths to describe just how detailed and organized the whole thing was. He believed that Hughsons’ Tavern and another tavern, owned by John Romme, were the headquarters for the leaders of what Horsmanden believed to be an organized paramilitary force that intended to take control of New York.
The Two Gangs Involved in the Conspiracy
“It seems, that the conspirators had divided the city, as it were, into two districts, and the confederates in each were distinguished by the denominations of the Fly Boys and the Long Bridge Boys; being remarkable places, the one towards the east, and the other towards the west end of the town. This may be drawn from Cuffee’s confession to Arthur Price, set forth in his deposition, 15th May, No. 3 & No. 6. And in these districts, it should seem, were several companies; for several of the officers were appointed captains, and others, as appears not only by this, but several other examinations, as well as depositions; and this seems to strengthen the evidence given by Peggy in her examinations, that the conspirators held their cabals at Romme’s as well as Hughson’s; the former being more convenient for the Long Bridge Boys, as Hughson’s for the Smith’s Fly Boys, for the mustering the companies, with regard to the respective distances from their homes. And if Peggy told the truth as to Romme, these were the two lodges in the two districts (as may be concluded from the course of the evidence) where the conspirators met; though the ringleaders…such as Caesar…Prince…and Cuffee might resort to both places, for transacting those deeds of darkness and inhumanity, in combination with the most flagitious, degenerated, and abandoned, and scum and dregs of the white people, and others of the worse hearts…”
Lieutenant Governor Clarke’s Letter to the Board of Trade
On August 24, 171, Lieutenant Governor George Clarke sent a letter to the British Board of Trade and provided an update on the status of the trials. In the letter, he broke the news to them that recent testimony had apparently uncovered a “Romish Priest” was behind the plot.
“In my letter of the 20 of June I did myself the honor to inform your Lordships of the Plot to destroy this Town and people, but whatever I then said or could say falls short of what has since appeared; We then thought it was projected only by Huson and the Negroes but it is now apparent that the hand of Popery is in it, for a Romish Priest having been tryed was upon full and clear evidence convicted of having a deep share in it we have besides several other white men in prison and most of them (it is thought) I wish Papists, one of whom is a dancing master, some of them Soldiers in the two companies posted in this town, and the father and three brothers of that Huson who was hanged, Where by whom or in what shape this plot was first projected is yet undiscovered that which at present seems most probable is that Huson an indigent fellow of a vile character casting in his thoughts how to mend his circumstances inticed some Negroes to rob their masters and to bring the stolen to him on promise of reward when they were sold but seeing that by this pilfering trade riches did not flow into him fast enough and finding the Negroes fit instruments for any villany he then fell upon the schemes of burning the fort and town and murdering the people as the speediest way to enrich himself and them, and to gain the freedom, for that was the Negroes main inducment. how long this Plot has been on foot is uncertain one of the Negroes who laid hold on my proclamation owned he was sworn by Huson last Christmas was three years, others two years ago others more lately but when or by what means the Priest and Huson became acquainted is but conjecture most likely it was by the means of Margaret Kerry who lived in Husons house and was executed with him for she being a profest Papist might disclose it to the Priest, be that as it will after he was acquainted with them the design seemed to proceed with more vigour. The conspirators had hopes given them that the Spaniards would come hither and join with them early in the Spring but if they failed of coming then the business was to be done by the Conspirators without them many of them were christen’d by the Priest absolved from all their past sins and whatever they should do in the Plott many of them sworn by him (others by Huson to burn and destroy and to be secret, wherein they were but too punctual how weak soever the scheme may appear it was plausible and strong enough to engage and hold the Negroes and that was all that the Priest and Huson wanted for had the fort taken fire in the night as it was intended the town was then to have been fired in several places at once, in which confusion much rich Plunder might have been got and concealed and if they had it in view too, to serve the enemy they could not have done it more effectually for this town being laid in Ashes his Majesties forces in the West Indies might have suffered much for want of provisions and perhaps been unable to proceed upon any expedition or peice of service, from whence they might promise themselves great rewards, I doubt the business is pretty nigh at an end for since the Priest has been apprehended and some more white men named, great industry has been used through out the town to discredit the witnesses and prejudice the people against them and I am told it has had in a great measure its intended effect I am sorry for it for I do not think we are yet got near the bottom of it, when I doubt the principal conspirators lie concealed.”
New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 for AP US History (APUSH)
The following resources are for students preparing for the AP US History Exam.
Jill Lepore On Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Manhattan in the 18th Century
In this video, author Jill Lepore reads from her book New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth Century Manhattan, an early history of “a city that slavery built,” and the story of a rarely recounted plot by Black slaves to burn colonial New York City to the ground in 1741.
Suggested Books About the New York Slave Conspiracy of 1741 and the Revolt of 1712
Please note that this section contains links to Amazon.com. If you click the links and purchase anything, American History Central may earn a commission.
The First Comprehensive Investigation into the First Uprising Against Slavery in North America. At 2 a.m. on April 7, 1712, a fire broke out in New York City’s North Ward. Unbeknown to the residents who roused themselves to combat the flames, the blaze had been started with murderous intent. A group of at least twenty-four enslaved West African men and women, mostly Akan from modern-day Ghana, had long plotted this moment. Armed with guns, daggers, swords, axes, and clubs, they fell upon their enslavers. In the next few frantic moments, eight Europeans were killed and seven were wounded. The perpetrators were rounded up, jailed, and put on public trial. Twenty enslaved men and one woman were executed or transported for carrying out the plot. As the first event of its kind to take place in the North American colonies, this revolt was the progenitor of those that followed—it inspired, the Stono Rebellion of 1739, the New York Conspiracy of 1741, and Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection (from Amazon.com).
In New York Burning, Bancroft Prize-winning historian Jill Lepore recounts these dramatic events of 1741, when ten fires blazed across Manhattan and panicked whites suspecting it to be the work of a slave uprising went on a rampage. In the end, thirteen black men were burned at the stake, seventeen were hanged and more than one hundred black men and women were thrown into a dungeon beneath City Hall (from Amazon.com).