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New York Conspiracy of 1741

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1526 San Miguel de Gualdape
(Spanish Florida, Victorious)
c. 1570 Gaspar Yanga's Revolt
(Veracruz, New Spain, Victorious)
1712 New York Slave Revolt
(British Province of New York, lost)
1733 St. John Slave Revolt
(Danish Saint John, Suppressed)
1739 Stono Rebellion
(British Province of South Carolina, Suppressed)
1741 New York Conspiracy
(Province of New York, Suppressed)
1760 Tacky's War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1791 Mina Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1795 Pointe Coupée Conspiracy
(Louisiana (New Spain), Suppressed)
1791–1804 Haitian Revolution
(French Saint-Domingue, Victorious)
1800 Gabriel Prosser
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1803 Igbo Landing
(Georgia, Suppressed)
1805 Chatham Manor
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1811 German Coast Uprising
(Territory of Orleans, Suppressed)
1815 George Boxley
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1816 Bussa's Rebellion
(British Barbados, Suppressed)
1822 Denmark Vesey
(South Carolina, Suppressed)
1831 Nat Turner's rebellion
(Virginia, Suppressed)
1831–1832 Baptist War
(British Jamaica, Suppressed)
1839 Amistad, ship rebellion
(Off the Cuban coast, Victorious)
1841 Creole case, ship rebellion
(Off the Southern U.S. coast, Victorious)
1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation
(Indian Territory, Suppressed)
1859 John Brown's Raid
(Virginia, Suppressed)

The Conspiracy of 1741, also known as the Negro Plot of 1741 or the Slave Insurrection of 1741, was a supposed plot by slaves and poor whites in the British colony of New York in 1741 to revolt and level New York City with a series of fires. Historians disagree as to whether such a plot existed and, if there was one, its scale. During the court cases, the prosecution kept changing the grounds of accusation, ending with linking the insurrection to a Popish plot of Spanish and other Catholics.[1]

In 1741 Manhattan had the second-largest slave population of any city in the Thirteen Colonies after indentured servant, Mary Burton, arrested in a case of stolen goods, testified against the others as participants in a supposedly growing conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn the city, kill the white men, take the white women for themselves, and elect a new king and governor.[1]

In the spring of 1741 fear gripped Manhattan as fires burned all across the island. The suspected culprits were New York's slaves, some 200 of which were arrested and tried for conspiracy to burn the town and murder its white inhabitants. As in the Salem witch trials and the Court examining the Denmark Vesey plot in Charleston, a few witnesses implicated many other suspects. In the end, over 100 people were hanged, exiled, or burned at the stake.

Most of the convicted people were hanged or burnt – how many is uncertain. The bodies of two supposed ringleaders, Caesar, a slave, and John Hughson, a white cobbler and tavern keeper, were gibbeted. Their corpses were left to rot in public. Seventy-two men were deported from New York, sent to Newfoundland, various islands in the West Indies, and the Madeiras.


  • Background 1
  • The Fires 2
  • Working-class conspiracy 3
  • Trials 4
  • Representation in fiction 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
    • Primary sources 7.1
  • External links 8


With the increase of enslaved Africans in New York during the early decades of the 18th century, there were both real revolts and periodic fears in the white community about revolts. Fears about slavery were used by different political factions to fan other tensions, as well. By 1741 slaves comprised one in five of New York's total population of 10,000; it was the second-largest slave population of any city in British North America after that of Charleston, South Carolina.[2] Between 1687 and 1741, a slave plot was "discovered" on average every two and one half years.[3]

Some residents remembered the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, when more than 20 slaves met to destroy property and abusers in retaliation for the injustices they had suffered. One of the slaves, Kofi, (called Cuffee by whites), set fire to his master’s outhouse. When townspeople gathered to put it out, the slaves attacked the crowd, killing nine whites and injuring six. The governor tried and executed 21 slaves.

With the increase of slaves in New York, poor whites had to compete economically. Some slaveholders were artisans who taught their slaves their trade. They could subcontract their work and underbid other white artisans. This created racial and economic tension between the slaves and competing white craftsmen. The governor of New York in 1737 told the legislature, “the artificers complain and with too much reason of the pernicious custom of breeding slaves to trades whereby the honest industrious tradesmen are reduced to poverty for want of employ, and many of them forced to leave us to seek their living in other countries.”[4] Some whites went out of business because of this.

The winter of 1740–1741 was a miserable period for the poor in the city. An economic depression contributed to declining food and fuel supply, aggravated by record low temperatures and snowfall. Many people were in danger of starving and freezing to death. These conditions caused many denizens, especially the poor whites and slaves, to grow resentful of the government.[5] The tension between the whites and the blacks was great, as slaves comprised the majority of the population. “A mere hint of restiveness among black New Yorkers could throw whites into a near panic”.[6] In 1741, the fear of a slave revolt was high following slave revolts in South Carolina (1739) and in the Caribbean (1734 on St. John.)

In addition, Britain had recently gone to war with Spain (War of Jenkins' Ear), which added to the tensions in the seaport and increased anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish feelings by the authorities. At the time, Spain was frequently viewed by slaves in Anglophone colonies as a liberator due to the fact the Spanish had offered freedom to any slave who joined their cause.[7] To attack Cuba, the British recruited soldiers from New York, and reduced the number of troops normally kept there. The upper classes were nervous and tensions during the winter reminded them of the times of the Slave Revolt of 1712. The government banned slave meetings on street corners. They limited slaves in groups to three, but allowed twelve at funerals. The government reduced other rights of assembly and movement.

The Fires

With frame buildings and wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, fire was always a risk in the city. Chimney fires were frequent. On March 18, 1741, the governor’s house in Fort George caught on fire, and soon the church connected to his house was ablaze too. People tried to save it, but the fire soon grew beyond control. The fire threatened to spread to another building, where all the city documents were kept. The governor ordered the windows smashed and documents thrown out to save them. Later the practice was to keep them in the City Hall.[8] A week later another fire broke out, but was put out quickly. The same thing happened the next week at a warehouse. Three days later a fire broke out in a cow stable. On the next day a person walking past a wealthy neighborhood saw coals by the hay in a stable and put them out, saving the neighborhood.

As the number of fires increased, so did the suspicion that the fires were not accidents but planned arson.[9] When on April 6, a round of four fires broke out, and a black man was spotted running away, a white man yelled out, “A negro, a negro.” The man’s cry was taken up quickly by a crowd and soon turned to, “The negroes are rising!” They captured the running slave, Cuffee. He was jailed. Within a few days, 100 slaves were jailed. Many people believed the fires were due to a conspiracy.

Working-class conspiracy

Initially tackling the problem of stolen goods and Hughson's tavern, the city council decided to launch an investigation. They turned it over to Daniel Horsmanden, the city recorder and one of three justices on the provincial supreme court. Horsmanden set up a grand jury that he “directed to investigate whites who sold liquor to blacks- men like John Hughson.” Given legal practice then and his own inclinations, he exercised great influence in interrogations and directing the grand jury's investigations.

John Hughson was a poor, illiterate cobbler who came to New York from Yonkers in the mid-1730s with his wife, daughter, and mother-in-law. Unable to find work, he opened a tavern. His neighbors were offended because he sold to clients they considered unsavory. In 1738, Hughson opened a new tavern when he moved to the Hudson River waterfront, near the Trinity Churchyard. It soon became a rendezvous point for slaves, poor whites, free blacks, and soldiers. The elite were nervous about such lower class-types socializing together. Hughson’s place also was a center of trade in stolen property. “City slaves laughingly referred to his place as 'Oswego', after the Indian trading post on Lake Ontario.”[6] Though the constables watched his place constantly, they failed to catch Hughson for thievery.

In February, two weeks before the first fire, Hughson was arrested for receiving stolen goods from slaves Caesar and Prince, who were also jailed. Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee were considered part of the "Geneva Club", named after an incident in which they stole some "Geneva", or Dutch gin. They were black Freemasons. (The slaves were punished by whipping.)

Horsmanden, one of three justices on the court and leader of an investigation, pressured 16-year-old indentured servant, Mary Burton, to testify against her master Hughson on theft charges. While a grand jury heard that case, the first of 13 suspicious fires broke out. On March 18, a fire broke out at New York governor [3] She was a prostitute to blacks. The room she lived in was paid for by Caesar, with whom she had a child.

Though Burton's testimony did not prove that any crime had been committed, the grand jury was so afraid that more fires would occur that they decided to believe her. The city council also decided to pay a high reward to anybody who provided useful information about the conspiracy: £100 to a white person, £45 to a free black or Indian, and £20 and freedom to a slave. Such prices attracted more testimony.

On May 2, the court found Caesar and Prince guilty of burglary and condemned them to death. The next day seven barns caught fire. Two blacks were caught and immediately burned at stake. On May 6, the Hughsons and Peggy were found guilty of burglary charges. Peggy, “in fear of her life, decided to talk.” Some of the blacks who had been imprisoned in the dungeons also decided to talk. Two who did not talk were Caesar and Prince, who were hanged on May 11.


African American slave being burned at the stake after New York Conspiracy of 1741 17 black men, two white men, and two white women were hanged at the gibbet next to the Powderhouse on the narrow point of land between the Collect Pond and the Little Collect, 13 were burned at the stake a little east on Magazine Street[10][11]

Having gathered witnesses, Horsmanden started the trials. Kofi (Cuffee) and another slave Quaco (Quack) were the first to be tried. They were convicted, although each of their masters defended them. Respectable white men whose testimony normally would have been given considerable weight, they stated that each of the slaves had been at home the evening in question. The slaves were convicted anyway.[12] Immediately before being sentenced to being hanged on May 30, they confessed and identified dozens of other so-called conspirators.[13] Moore asked to save them as future witnesses, but the officers of the court decided against it because of the rage of the crowd. Each of the slaves was hanged.

More trials followed quickly. The trials and testimony in courtrooms were filled with conflicting evidence. Both the Hughsons and Peggy Kerry were tried on June 4. They were sentenced to hang eight days later.[13] At the height of the hysteria, half of the city’s male slaves over the age of 16 were implicated in the plot and jailed.[14] Arrests, trials and executions continued through the summer. "The 'epidemic of mutual incrimination' reached such proportions that officials were forced to suspend circuit courts for the rest of 1741. The jails simply could hold no more people."[12] An anonymous letter was sent to the city of New York, cautioning them against the epidemic of suspicion and executions, as the writer claimed to have seen in the Salem witch trials.

Five men known as the "Spanish Negroes" were among those arrested. Dark-skinned Spanish sailors who had been sold into slavery by a privateer, they contended they were full Spanish citizens and unfairly enslaved. Because Britain was at war with Spain, this did not earn them much sympathy; it even raised suspicions against them as infiltrators. The British colonists were worried about anyone with Spanish and Catholic ties. The five Spanish blacks were convicted and hanged.[15]

As the investigation wore on, Horsmanden came to believe that a man named John Ury was responsible. Ury had just arrived in town and had been working as a school teacher and a private tutor. He was an expert in Latin, which was enough to make him suspect by less educated Protestants as possibly being a Roman Catholic priest. Horsmanden arrested him on suspicion of being a priest and secret agent to the Spanish. Burton suddenly "remembered" that Ury had been one of the plotters of the conspiracy and testified against him.

Ury was put on trial. His defense was that he was a dissenter from the New England. This added to suspicions about Ury, and the teacher was convicted. He was hanged on the last day of August.

Gradually the fears died down. When Burton and other witnesses began to accuse members of the upper class and family members of the judges as conspirators, the case became a major embarrassment to Horsmanden. In addition, the political leadership of the city was changing. The case was finally closed. Those slaves and whites still in jail were released.[16]

By the end of the trials, 160 blacks and 21 whites had been arrested. From May 11 to August 29, 1741, seventeen blacks and four whites were convicted and hanged, 13 blacks were burned at stake, and 70 blacks were banished from New York. Seven whites were also deported.[17] The following year, Mary Burton finally received her reward of ₤100 from the city, which she used to buy her freedom from indenture, and had money left over.[13] The executions were conducted near the Poor House at the north end of the city and its boundary of Chambers Street.

North of there was the African Burial Ground, which was rediscovered in 1991 during survey work for construction of a federal courthouse in lower Manhattan. In consultation with the African-American community, the remains of 400 people, including children, were removed and studied. They were reburied in a formal ceremony. Likely the site of up to 20,000 African burials during the colonial period, it has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Historians remain divided about the events of 1741. Some historians, notably Edgar J. McManus and Jill Lepore, believe that wartime hysteria, together with Horsmanden's desire to advance his name, exaggerated the extent and basis of a slave plot. Lepore used GIS and other data to produce a detailed ethnographic analysis of New York society and residential neighborhoods, as well as witnesses and suspects in the trials. A majority of scholars, however, believe the evidence suggests some plot did exist (but not necessarily that all of those charged and executed were guilty). T.J. Davis, Graham Russell Hodges, Leslie Harris, Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and Peter C. Hoffer all regard the numerous fires in quick succession as evidence of a slave conspiracy.

Historians published new works on these events in the same period (2005-2007) in which the New-York Historical Society produced two major exhibits about slavery in New York, their first ever. These explored the prevalence of slavery in the city, as well as the many ties at the time of the American Civil War between city merchants and planters and officials of the South. One-half of the city's exports were related to southern cotton, and upstate textile mills processed southern cotton. The mayor of New York proposed secession in order not to damage the business ties.

Representation in fiction

  • The events are the subject of the novel The Savage City (1955) by Jean Paradise, published by Ace Books.
  • These events are used as part of a revenge plot in the novel On Maiden Lane (1981) by Bruce Nicolaysen, a 5-volume family saga encompassing the history of New York/Manhattan from 1613-1930.
  • These events figure in the plot of Pete Hamill's novel Forever (2003).
  • In 2007, Mat Johnson published The Great Negro Plot: A Tale of Conspiracy and Murder in Eighteenth-Century New York, a novel set during these events.


  1. ^ a b Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) p 24
  2. ^ Daniel Kilbride, "Review: 'New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan' by Jill Lepore", Pennsylvania History, Vol. 73, No. 2, SPRING 2006, accessed 13 November 2014 (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b John V. Morris, "The Hysteria Fire: New York, 1741", Whole Earth Review, Winter 1999, accessed 9 Apr 2009
  4. ^ James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan, New York: DaCapo Press, Inc., 1930; reprint, 1991 ISBN 0-306-80431-X, p. 27
  5. ^ Hoey, Edwin. (June 1974). "Terror in New York—1741", American Heritage Magazine, June 1974, accessed 9 Apr 2009
  6. ^ a b Edwin G. Burrows; Mike Wallace (19 November 1998). Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Oxford University Press. p. 147.  
  7. ^  
  8. ^ Lepore, Jill (2005)– New York Burning; Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan ISBN 1-4000-4029-9
  9. ^ , University of Missouri - Kansas City, School of Law, 2009Famous TrialsLindor, Douglas O., "The 'Negro Plot Trials': An Account",
  10. ^ Digital History: Title: Fear of Slave Revolts Author: Daniel Horsmanden [3]
  11. ^ "COLONIAL NEW-YORK CITY; Burning of Negroes Amid the Hills of Five Points. GRIM RESULTS OF AN ALLEGED PLOT" The Gibbet on Powder House Island Bore Strange Fruit for Many Months in the Year 1741, New York Times
  12. ^ a b Edwin Hoey, "Terror in New York – 1741", American Heritage, June 1974, accessed 9 Apr 2009
  13. ^ a b c George Dewan, "Legacy: A Panicked Response To the 'Great Negro Plot'", Newsday, 9 Apr 2009, accessed 9 Apr 2009
  14. ^ Johnson, p.177
  15. ^ "Witchhunt in New York: The 1741 rebellion", Africans in America, PBS, accessed 9 Apr 2009
  16. ^ Johnson p.207
  17. ^ "A List of White Persons taken into Custody on Account of the 1741 Conspiracy", Africans in America, PBS, accessed 9 Apr 2009

Further reading

  • Bond, Richard E. "Shaping a Conspiracy: Black Testimony in the 1741 New York", Early American Studies, vol. 5, n. 1 (Spring 2007). University of Pennsylvania Press: ISSN 1543-4273
  • Berrol, Selma Cantor. The Empire City: New York and Its People, 1624–1996. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997 ISBN 0-275-95795-0
  • Burrows, Edwin G. and Wallace, Mike, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 ISBN 0-19-514049-4
  • Campbell, Ballard C. Campbell, ed. American Disasters: 201 Calamities That Shook the Nation (2008) p 24
  • Christensen, Gardello Dano [4]. Colonial New York. New York: Thomas Nelson Press Inc., 1969.
  • Davis, Thomas J. "A Rumor of Revolt: The “Great Negro Plot", Colonial New York ISBN 0-02-907740-0
  • Hoffer, Peter Charles. The Great New York Conspiracy of 1741: Slavery, Crime and Colonial Law ISBN 0-7006-1246-7
  • Zabin, Serena R., ed. The New York conspiracy trials of 1741 : Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the proceedings with related documents ISBN 0-312-40216-3
  • Kammen, Michael. Colonial New York: A History. Millwood, NJ: K+O Press, 1975. ISBN 0-19-510779-9
  • Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. "'The Outcasts of the Nations of the Earth,'" in The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8070-5006-7
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006. ISBN 0-313-33271-1
  • Williams, George W., History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1., 1882 Project Gutenberg EBook
  • Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-century Manhattan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.

Primary sources

  • Horsmanden, Daniel. The trial of John Ury for being an ecclesiastical person, made by authority pretended from the See of Rome, and coming into and abiding in the province of New York, and with being one of the conspirators in the Negro plot to burn the city of New York, 1741

External links

  • “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch!”: Testimony from the Negro Plot Trials in New York, 1741, History Matters, George Mason University
  • "'Great Negro Plot' Tells of Manhattan on the Edge", News and Notes, National Public Radio, February 7, 2007. (Links to RealPlayer or Windows Media Audio)
  • "Rumors of a Slave Revolt", Leonard Lopate Show, WNYC, February 28, 2007. (Links to MP3 audio)
  • Slavery in New York, 2005-2007, New-York Historical Society
  • "A Forgotten 'Witch Trial' of Colonial Slaves", Nathan Newman blog
  • "The Power of Fear", The Nation
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