BOOKENDS: Harvard Scholar Faces the Ghosts of Old New York

Hist and Lit chair Lepore to speak at Harvard Book Store on 18th century witch hunt

Bloodthirsty black slaves, villainous Catholic priests, and a tavern-keeper who plotted to crown himself king conspired to burn New York City to the ground in 1741. The damage was minimal, thanks in part to the dogged work of the judiciary. The wrongdoers confessed and were punished, and the city was saved.

That, at least, is the story according to Daniel Horsmanden, who compiled the “Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and other Slaves, for Burning the City of NEW-YORK in America, And Murdering the Inhabitants.” In spite of the official sounding title, the journal was a biased document with a clear agenda. Horsmanden served on the judiciary, and he wanted to persuade readers that the court had executed the right 34 people. To this day, the question remains: was there a conspiracy?

In her elegant and excellent new book, “New York Burning,” the chair of Harvard’s History and Literature program, Jill M. Lepore, uses Horsmanden’s journal–placed alongside other contemporary material—to try to reconstruct just what happened that fateful year. In addition to the fires and the trials, she deftly interweaves tidbits about 1741 New York–from how slaves interacted with each other to how people obtained clean water–that vividly bring the city to life. The result is a compelling narrative—a sort of colonial-era, historically accurate version of the Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York”—that throws significant doubt on Horsmanden’s conspiracy theory and sheds light on the dangers of an out-of-control, bigoted legal system.

Lepore, who also teaches the fall semester core course Historical Study B-38: “Liberty and Slavery: The History of an American Paradox,” will speak about the book today at 3 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store on 1256 Mass Ave.

In 18th century New York, crises never seemed far around the corner. Discontent slaves revolted with guns and knives in 1712, killing nine whites. Then the 1730s saw a sharp challenge to the overbearing and pompous governor, William Cosby, who was the leader of the so-called Court Party. White intellectuals revolted with words, and formed the opposition Country Party. The printer John Peter Zenger’s acquittal of seditious libel in 1735 rocked Cosby and encouraged the governor’s opponents. After Cosby died, his critics denied the authority of the lieutenant governor and formed a shadow government. To one resident, “we had all the appearance of a civil War.”

Royal intervention staved off that opposition, but nothing stopped the one a decade later. “The 1741 conspiracy and the 1730s opposition party were two faces of the same coin,” Lepore explains in the book. “But one was very much more dangerous than the other.” White intellectual protest was one thing. This time, black slaves were allegedly plotting the murder of the white people. This was too much. And the government, still reeling from the Zenger trial and the vocal white opposition of the 1730s, responded with a ruthless repression of the city’s blacks.

The supposed conspiracy came to light in the wake of a series of fires that destroyed several buildings, including the governor’s mansion. Even in a city of wooden houses that was—both literally and figuratively—a tinderbox, the number and frequency of the blazes sparked anxiety. And then a slave was caught running from the scene of one fire, and wary New Yorkers–who read all about slave revolts in the Caribbean and South Carolina–began to cry, “The Negroes are rising!” Blacks out on the streets were corralled and tossed in jail.

The trials were conducted in front of the provincial Supreme Court, on which Horsmanden was a justice. During the grand jury investigations, Mary Burton, a servant of the white tavern-keeper John Hughson, admitted under threat of imprisonment that her master was plotting to overthrow the government and make himself the first monarch of New York City. (Of course, New York would not have an absolutist ruler for another 152 years, when the city elected Rudolph Giuliani as mayor.)

According to Burdon, Hughson planned to burn down Fort George, in what is now the heart of Manhattan’s downtown financial district. Burton testified that, according to Hughson’s scheme, “when as the white People came to extinguish it, [the conspirators] would kill and destroy them.” Burton named names.

Justice Horsmanden believed Burton’s story completely, and he distrusted and disliked blacks. However, the ambitious justice also saw an opportunity to advance his own career. Instead of holding summary executions or judge-decided trials, as was normal when dealing with slaves, Horsmanden organized jury trials before the Supreme Court. (He was no stranger to taking advantage of situations: he married a rich widow in her 70s when he was 54 to escape debt).

Surprisingly, the defendants were allowed to cross-examine and call witnesses, but that did not affect the verdict. Even though the testimony of the prosecution’s witnesses was laughably unreliable, the alleged slave ringleaders were convicted and burned alive at the stake. The white mastermind, Hughson, was hanged. In terms of the fairness of the proceedings, the trials resembled less “Law and Order” than “Judge Judy.”

As the prisons and the gallows filled alarmingly, the governor began offering pardons for those who confessed to the crime and alerted authorities to other, previously unknown accomplices. A waterfall of confessions followed, although they often contradicted each other. According to some, the conspiracy was hatched at Hughson’s (located near what is now Ground Zero). No, said others, meetings were at the house of cooper Geradus Comfort next door. And no, still others said, they were at both Hughson’s and Comfort’s. These confessions, made under obvious duress, were enough to condemn the accused to death.

The trials finally ended when a Catholic priest was implicated as the brains behind the fires. Justice Horsmanden could crow, “the Old proverb has herein … been verified That there is Scarce a plot but a priest is at the Bottom of it.” Burton suddenly “remembered” the presence of a priest at Hughson’s, and other witnesses were mustered who agreed. The priest was hanged. When Burton started remembering that “People in Ruffles”–influential men who were held above suspicion–participated too, the trials came to a hasty close.

By that point, some New Yorkers were already wondering whether they had been fools “in the merciless Flames of an Imaginary Plot.” Horsmanden compiled his journal to show them the evidence. And in “New York Burning,” Lepore shows just how shoddy the evidence was that sent 13 slaves to the stake and 17 more to the gallows along with four white co-conspirators.

In contrast to the frightening (alleged) slave revolt, New York’s nascent opposition party seemed comparatively innocuous. But the threat of a black uprising also meant that the city’s whites – even with the emergence of two-party politics – remained united. “New York is not America,” Lepore writes, “but what happened in that eighteenth-century slave city tells one story, and a profoundly troubling one, of how slavery destabilized—and created—American politics.”

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at