DOI: 10.1093/alh/ajh021 American Literary History 16(3), © Oxford University Press 2004; all rights reserved.
Reading and Writing Terror: The New York Conspiracy Trials of 1741 Andy Doolen
This article returns to the mysterious string of 13 fires that ripped through and alarmed New York City in the spring and sum- mer of 1741, beginning with a conflagration that turned Fort George, one of British America’s strongest fortifications, into ashes. In the days that followed, each blaze contributed to the mystery until the report of a slave running from the scene of the tenth fire per- suaded the people of New York that the puzzling fires were really opening salvos in a massive slave insurrection. City officials acted quickly, interrogating more than 200 people, black and white, and soon uncovered what they believed to be a gang of dispossessed slaves and Irish indentured servants, who, it seems, had planned to burn New York City to the ground and kill their masters. Stunned by the boldness of the plot, authorities immediately began to investi- gate and to prosecute hundreds of alleged conspirators. Although authorities knew disgruntled indentured servants to be key conspir- ators, blame fell squarely on the city’s large slave population. In the end, the colony of New York executed 30 slaves and 4 white ring- leaders, publicly flogged 50 slaves, and transported over 70 more to the Caribbean slave markets, never to return.1
Was there really a conspiracy to burn New York City in 1741? Unlike an uprising or rebellion, conspiracy was a crime of reckless speech rather than action, a verbal plan that threatened social order, and thus difficult to prove in any era. “Conspiracy lies in asserting and agreeing,” Thomas Davis writes, “in ‘loose talk’ of doing a deed” (“Conspiracy and Credibility” 169). The recent controversy over the Vesey conspiracy of 1822 reminds us that while Anglo- American conspiracy law might set the limits on prohibitive speech, none of the legal niceties mattered much when whites thought they heard “loose talk” coming from slaves. When we read the official archive of a slave conspiracy, we encounter a written record authored by whites in a slave society, a culture of terror that
When we read the official archive of a slave conspiracy, we encounter a written record authored by whites in a slave society, a culture of terror that defended white power at all costs.
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defended white power at all costs. One method of defense was the mass execution of alleged slave conspirators, almost always made possible by a special class of laws. For instance, during the conspi- racy panic in New York, the court relied exclusively on the law of Negro evidence, which had been designed to prosecute potential slave uprisings. Negro evidence was defined as the incriminating testimony of one slave against another—the court needed no other proof than this to sentence a slave to death in 1741.2
Prosecutors went to great lengths to acquire such testimony. Often the inducement was the King’s mercy: either testify against coconspirators and earn a lesser punishment or face a capital charge and certain execution. Prosecutors employed coercive tactics like the threat of the gallows and hanging the dead bodies of the con- demned in gibbets, offered “immunity” or protection in the form of a general pardon, and conducted dragnets, sweeping slaves off the streets for interrogation with the presumption of guilt. As a result of these practices, our view of the conspiracy trials must necessarily pass through an archive distorted by this violence; for the historian trying to sort out testimony according to degrees of coercion, connecting the dots in the ashes of 1741 is a treacherous, perhaps impossible, undertaking.
The search for a verdict based in unimpeachable evidence inspires the historiography of slave conspiracies, even when we know how white authorities elicited “facts.” The historian who wishes to retry the New York Conspiracy trials is even further handicapped by a valuable missing archive, the supreme court records, destroyed with other judicial documents from the era, ironically enough, in a fire. Furthermore, there are few revealing letters, journals, or poems about the trials or executions, and colonial newspapers simply reported the plot’s existence and then kept track of executions. A single “eyewit- ness” account remains, A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy, written by Daniel Horsmanden, the city’s recorder and one of the three judges at the trials. He compiled his documentary account from the prosecutors’ notes, his memory of the suspects’ examinations, addresses to the court by prosecutors and defendants, and both his firsthand reflections on the motivations of particular sus- pects and his proud commentary on the court’s timely vigilance. His “official” record of the proceedings has always been the heart of all investigations into what really took place in 1741. Publishing this record in 1744 as a way to silence public criticism of the court, Justice Horsmanden wanted to justify the court’s verdicts and punishments. To put it simply, this deeply flawed text—which Philip Morgan calls an “exercise in post-hoc justification of a controversial prosecution”—is the key piece of evidence in all subsequent historical examinations of the New York Conspiracy trials (164).
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Thus, although even the finest historians readily regard this mine as contaminated by the court’s practices of intimidation, coer- cion, and torture, they still descend into it to extract raw materials for interpretation. Some historians believe that no slave conspiracy occurred in New York in 1741 but that there may have been a conspir- acy among the prosecutors, whose deep-rooted racism and fear of African Americans escalated the violence into a witch hunt. A second perspective holds that what prosecutors saw as a vast conspiracy to overthrow English authority was actually loosely affiliated gangs who set fires as a way to cover their crimes. A third, and related, perspective claims that a vast conspiracy did exist, although leaders were not interested in establishing their own government. Instead, disgruntled slaves desired personal freedoms, and reacted against the master class by joining whites in stealing from the rich and setting their homes on fire. Finally, a fourth perspective believes that there was a conspiracy in 1741 to overthrow the imperial administration and take over the colony. From any perspective, the historian must find a way to resolve the problem of tainted evidence. There is only Horsmanden’s problematic text; no bodies of murdered white people, no organized escape to the northern frontier, no slave caught with a torch, and most important, no confessions from those thought to be the principle conspirators. In A Rumor of Revolt, Davis resolves the lack of reliable evidence by choosing to write an historical fiction that necessarily takes its dialogue, central characters, and motiv- ations from Horsmanden’s account. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh create a fascinating narrative of heroic slaves carrying their knowledge of insurrection into all parts of a fluid Atlantic world in a “Caribbean cycle of rebellion” (193), which finally reached New York City in 1741. Even if one considers this a possible cause for a revolutionary conspiracy, the only proof of its effects were mys- terious fires, forced confessions, and a suspect historical text. Finally, Peter Charles Hoffer, swayed by Horsmanden’s insider per- spective, simply decides to accept the representation of events as “at least partially true” (8) and avoid the troublesome facts of coercion, torture, and false confessions. Like other historians before them, these can only construct their case from circumstantial evidence. Sooner or later everybody returns to Justice Horsmanden’s under- standing and memory of the critical evidence, of the conspirators themselves, and of their confessions and motivations.3
This article, then, goes in a different direction and elects not to sift through the evidence in the hopes of convicting the true culprits or determining the extent to which a conspiracy existed. On the con- trary, I am interested less in the planning of conspiracy, more in how the events of 1741 converge with an imperial conflict known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Positioning Horsmanden’s documentary history
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in this international context, my investigation considers how white panic, caused by conspiracy and war, shaped public perception of the fires. Two years before signs of a plot appeared in New York, the colony embraced this imperial war fought between England and Spain over “American” trade routes in the West Indies; from the beginning, a bellicose patriotism of empire, sweeping England and her colonies, characterized the War of Jenkins’ Ear. By the time of the first fire in 1741, rumors of slave insurrections in other colonies had already alarmed New York, while war hysteria made many colon- ists suspicious of the slave population’s loyalty to England. Many wondered if their slaves were covert enemies who might join forces with Spain upon an invasion.4
Read alongside the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Justice Horsmanden’s text becomes something more than a prosecutor’s dubious justifi- cation of the trials and, instead, offers us an unforeseen opportunity to understand the effects of England’s global ambition on colonial identity. In New York the war led the prosecutors to suspect the city’s slaves—approximately 20 percent of the population in 1741— as being involved in an international conspiracy to overthrow the colony. Instead of a documentary history of the trials, I want to sug- gest that Horsmanden’s text is a war narrative; it tells a story about how an evil Spanish empire, enticing the enslaved with promises of freedom, turned New York’s once loyal, obedient, and dutiful slaves into fierce enemies of the state. In my reading the war and the con- spiracy scare work together to reinforce white racial solidarity in New York.
My investigation of this dynamic will begin with an analysis of the conceptual strategies Justice Horsmanden uses as he composes his official record of the conspiracy trials. How does Justice Horsmanden attempt to stabilize a racial hierarchy unsettled by the war and charges of conspiracy? How does historical writing define, support, and/or escalate the terror that rules all slave cultures, particularly one mired in an acute crisis? The next two sections investigate how the War of Jenkins’ Ear might have shaped Horsmanden’s historical understanding of the conspiracy. Vexed by what it considered to be a war on two fronts—Spain on the Atlantic frontier and slave rebels within the colony—New York experienced a militarism that made a white identity the only safe identity. How did New York’s own imperial fantasies of Caribbean colonies help to transform the local conspiracy scare into a geopolitical crisis connected to the fears of a Spanish invasion? How did the war’s Caribbean theater of action shape racial formation in New York?
These strands come together in the final section, which explains why Horsmanden’s history is left open, unfinished, the threat of insurrection still hovering over the city. The refusal to end
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the narrative, to claim a world free of conspirators, is the political content of the form itself, the action of a colonial official attempting to rebuild social order by warning the public of imminent disaster. This crafted insecurity is our own cautionary tale. It is a sign of a fractured colonial discourse that, once threatened, will work com- pulsively toward a single aim: to govern the shadowy territory between fact and fiction, innocence and guilt, white and black, and in the process reconstitute its dominance. While Horsemanden attempts to construct a history of the trials that monopolizes the evidence, this article explores his failure to tell a story of a colony safe from future threats.
1. Artful Chronicle
During New York’s political wars of the 1730s, Horsmanden rose to prominence because he was skilled at using the written word to defend Governor Cosby’s imperial administration against a rival group led by Lewis Morris, chief justice of the provincial court. When the administration grew irritated with the opposition’s crit- icism, it charged the opposition’s public voice, the New York Weekly Journal, and its editor, John Peter Zenger, with publishing seditious material. Governor Cosby appointed Horsmanden to a council as a political attack dog “to point out . . . the particular seditious para- graphs” in the opposition press (Dictionary 249). Zenger’s eventual acquittal made the trial a milestone in defining the legal freedom of the press as well as the limits of imperial power. Despite the acquittal, Horsmanden established a reputation as a skillful partisan and was handsomely rewarded with a special license from the governor to purchase 6,000 acres along the Hudson River near Albany.
Nobody considers the New York Conspiracy Trials to be a milestone on the grand march toward American constitutionalism, perhaps because of the court’s unprecedented assault on the col- ony’s slaves; nevertheless, both cases reveal a new power of print in the American colonies. As Michael Warner remarks, official docu- ments “metonymically represented the aura of imperial adminis- tration” (18) and opposition could potentially disrupt the “networks of power uniting the colonies and deriving from the English courts” (19). At the height of the conspiracy trials, there was no public resistance to either the prosecution or the administration, but, as the sense of panic diminished during the two years following the trials, critics began to question the court’s actions. Attempting to reinforce their political authority, the imperial administration enlisted Justice Horsmanden to publish a spirited defense and strengthen colonial authority.
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After Zenger, the conspiracy trials accelerated Horsmanden’s rise to prominence. Appearing before the common council in April 1741, he was one of the first public officials to argue that the random fires were actually a conspiracy to overthrow the city; while sitting on the Supreme Court, he directed the prosecution, interrogated defendants, and sentenced those found guilty. His partisanship poses a problem for Horsmanden the author. Attempting to put to rest any doubts that his personal involvement might unfairly influence his opinions, Horsmanden reassures the reader that he will represent the proceedings in an objective, neutral form. “[A] journal would give more satisfaction,” he writes, “inasmuch as in such a kind of pro- cess, the depositions and examinations themselves, which were the ground-work of the proceedings, would appear at large” (5). Lacking a controlling narrator, the chronicle form (what he refers to as a “journal”) promises the reader a clear view of the evidence. Simply by exhibiting the “ground-work” of depositions, testimony, confes- sions, and summations in chronological order, Horsmanden believes the chronicle will unfold the “most natural view of the whole” and make skeptics “undeceived” (5).
More than any piece of evidence, the chronicle’s narrative con- dition persuades Horsmanden’s readers that justice was done in 1741. A prominent narrator, such as Edward Gibbons, Francis Parkman, or Lewis Mumford, defines the “history proper,” a form of history writing that Horsmanden calls “historical relation.” Con- sequently, the chronicle form is often viewed as possessing fewer signs of narration or fiction-making. This objective pose, however, can be the chronicle’s most persuasive feature because the narrator’s apparent neutrality works to conceal the artfulness of the narrative’s construction.5 With this in mind, one can see the outlines of the coherent story that Horsmanden’s chronicle fashions out of a murky historical field. Every culture cultivates particular story types that help a people make sense of the past. In the eighteenth-century colonial world, the insurrection story captured white fears of a slave uprising. In New York, the insurrection story resonated in historical memory, beginning with the 1712 slave uprising, dotted with the many real episodes of slave insurrections and failed plots in the North American colonies as well as the many rumors and half-truths, and capped with the puzzling fires of 1741. As with contemporary reports by government officials and media outlets about terrorist attacks and the semiotic range of color-coded alerts, it hardly mattered if the slave conspiracy was real or imagined—this ambiguity, and the sen- sation it evokes of imminent danger, gave the story its explanatory effect. The insurrection story, with its gripping story line of racial antagonism and terrifying imagery, helped white colonists rationalize an inchoate fear caused by both the fires and the war.
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Fiction-making was precisely what critics accused the courts of doing, which explains why Horsmanden stresses his role as the dutiful city Recorder. He gathers the prosecutors’ notes, transcribes the court’s official statements, and creates a simple calendar for the events. Yet, underlying his “judicial realism” is the insurrection story, and we see signs of it in his first step in composing the chronicle. With the unproven fear of insurrection driving the court’s interpre- tation, he takes control of historical time, a move that also has the effect of inscribing the court’s disciplinary power. The most basic element of the chronicle form—the mere act of selecting and propel- ling details through a chronological cycle—compromises his neutral stance by sowing the first seeds as well as the first impressions of a plot: the first-day, second-day chronology is the flashing red light of a conspiracy that inevitably grows into a security threat with each passing day. Because Horsmanden aims to identify the origins of the plot, the first detail also happens to evoke the final threat of a poten- tial slave conspiracy. A group of slaves walk down the street after yet another mysterious fire in the spring of 1741, and a white woman, Mrs. Earle, looking out her window, overhears one of them, Quack, boast “with a vaporing sort of an air, ‘Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch, A LITTLE, damn it, BY-AND-BY,’ and then [he] threw up his hands and laughed” (27). The sequential ordering of events is fundamental to the chronicle’s rhetorical effectiveness; as the curse is presented as evidence, it acts as a secret code in the narrative, something the testimony that follows will inevitably decipher. Beginning with this first suspicion of a plot and tracing the gradual accretion of rumors as they become verifiable truth, the chronicle has the effect of re-creating and highlighting the suspense felt by the public during the year of the trials.
At this point, the sequence has already signaled the chronicle’s polemic because local culture possesses knowledge of the underlying story type; no narrator needs to interrupt and explain the curse’s meaning. Fire may have been a handy weapon for the insurrectionary slave, but it was legendary in the white imagination. A mysterious fire could often appear to whites, even if only as a nagging doubt, as the first assault in a race war. The curse of “Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch” was particularly alarming to New Yorkers because arson had been the slaves’ weapon in the 1712 Revolt. Thus the curse does not prophesize a swift inferno but a city terrorized in degrees, bit by bit and day by day; it is heightened by “damn it, BY-AND-BY,” a terrifying threat precisely because of its ambiguity. Moving beyond the temporality of a threat realized immediately, in a little while, or in the future, the “by-and-by” also suggests that the threat may never come, that it resides solely in an overwrought imagination. Because the trials lacked both confessions from the alleged arsonists and direct
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physical evidence, this opening narrative is critical for Horsmanden because it provides an interpretive frame for the court reports that come next.
Like any good storyteller, Horsmanden lets the reader hear as well as see the symbolic origin of the conspiracy, and he allows the image of Quack’s resistance to remain. He goes as far as to punc- tuate the slave rebel’s curse with the unnerving sound of his laugh. Laughter, like the torch, constitutes a sign of resistance to white power, precisely the effect Horsmanden is aiming for in these early pages. At this point he is content to allow the image of resistance to remain without contesting it and robbing Quack of his temporary agency. “Laughter is a free instrument in their hands,” Mikhail Bakhtin declared famously about medieval peasants, and for the sake of his plot Horsmanden will let the sound reverberate. The nar- rative’s opening requires the sensation of three slaves dreaming of burning the city and then reveling in it, a folkloric image bent on massacring the city’s white people.
2. War and Conspiracy: Patriotism
If indeed the conspiracy really happened, then Justice Horsmanden’s chronicle was undoubtedly written by the court and for an anxious public. The problem of context is a fundamental issue for historians studying the New York Conspiracy. Rediker and Linebaugh’s recent interpretation is based on their conviction that slave resistance made the 1730s a pivotal period in slavery’s history: “The magnitude of the upheaval was, in comparative terms, extra- ordinary, encompassing more than eighty separate cases of conspiracy, revolt, mutiny, and arson—a figure probably six or seven times greater than the number of similar events that occurred in either the dozen years before 1730 or the dozen after 1742” (193). On the other hand, Morgan believes that the ideology and practice of white supremacy in a slave society should make us feel less certain about our accounting of racial unrest. He cites the “near-hysterical propor- tions” of whites when faced with rumors of rebellion, suggesting this history of conspiracy scares “may well reveal less a ‘cycle of rebellion,’ as Linebaugh and Rediker would have it, than a time of acute social tensions when rumors fed on themselves and whites” (166). Although we can be fairly certain about an insurrection, like the one that occurred along the Stono River in South Carolina in 1739, how do we distinguish the real from the imagined conspira- cies or judge degrees of truth in a coerced confession?
Doubts about the New York Conspiracy have made it a neglected event in our national history. Set in a Northern colony with
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no real slave hero like Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner, lacking all original trial transcripts, and influenced by war hysteria, the New York Conspiracy has been classified as a minor historical case. Although some might view New York’s incomplete archive as a seri- ous disadvantage, the Vesey Conspiracy illustrates how court records can actually constrict historical investigations. New York’s missing archive may be an advantage, particularly since we can never forget, when encountering Horsmanden’s portal to the conspiracy, the imag- inary component of his history. Thus, the New York Conspiracy affords us the opportunity to understand how white power trans- formed an inchoate fear of a slave uprising into a narrative that terri- fied the public. In Charleston, as in New York, some part of the “upheaval” occurred in the white public’s imagination; as Davis ulti- mately concludes, it is the “various perceptions of that peril on which the historian may fruitfully focus” (“Conspiracy and Credibility” 173).
The insurrection story itself organized these perceptions of racial unrest; although each story type is generic in a fundamental sense, in New York in 1741 the presence of Spanish sabotage became part of the emerging plot. Depicting the city’s crisis as a guerilla battle in a war for empire, Horsmanden represents the magis- trates as true patriots whose vigilance saved the city. This dominant motif celebrates patriotic union and white solidarity simultaneously, both as overall effects of the war. Wars between England and other European powers rarely fostered solidarity among North American colonies. In fact, the English colonies—after a century of colonia- lism, of competing for precious export markets, of fighting countless Indian wars—were often pitted against each other in competition for native allies, land, labor, settlers, and resources. American partici- pation in the war effort marked the first time England had called upon her colonies to contribute money, troops, and other support to a foreign war away from their homes. For the first time in a genera- tion, the North American colonies experienced an emerging sense of solidarity as they went to war against a rival empire.
The first years of the war produced a constant flow of informa- tion in North American newspapers, private correspondence, combat reportage, and government documents that intensified the common purpose against the Spanish. The War of Jenkins’ Ear came at a pivotal moment in the British Empire, when English merchants at home and in the colonies were pushing into new markets and antagonizing the Spanish Guarda Costa. On the North American mainland, colonists peered into the glow of this “American” war and imagined fertile islands, like Cuba, that they would transform into free English colo- nies. While having the tactical aim of controlling Spanish markets and trade routes, British imperial ideology interpreted every open market, every commodity exported to England, as physical extensions of
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English liberty. English patriots proclaimed that Spanish tyranny, which encompassed all the evils of a long detested rival, undercut these essential freedoms. Indeed, for over a decade Whig patriots had characterized such depravity as the “death of liberty” (187), and talk of seizing Spanish islands became a remedy for reaffirming the nationalist ideals of “honor, justice, Property, and Laws” (Shields 179). Construed within the crucible of war, English hawks translated liberty as freedom of trade in the Caribbean, a freedom they accused Spain of attacking. For many mainland supporters of the War of Jenkins’ Ear—whether driven blindly by profit, by a firm belief in English imperialism, or by a combination of the two—taking Spanish warships and territories would strengthen the empire by removing Spanish corruption while expanding English liberty to the edges of the American frontier.6
This new patriotism of empire transformed the racial climate in New York City; when the fort burned to the ground, followed by the governor’s home, people were conditioned to see a Spanish-led conspiracy rather than an accidental overturning of a lantern, a home- grown group of disgruntled slaves, or a local gang of thieves. For example, one potent image circulating in reports on the war was of slave forces fighting on both sides, reports that surely caused many New Yorkers to worry about war’s potential effects upon the slave population. The Caribbean practice of using slave militias in armed conflict made mainland observers fearful that the example of orga- nized, fighting slaves might spread to plantations and colonies (Pares 253). This fear appeared to come true when authorities in South Carolina reported that slaves involved in Stono’s Rebellion, before their capture, were making their way toward the Spanish out- post at Saint Augustine. Despite the long distance from the border war between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, New York worried about a Stono-style rebellion spreading to their city, particularly after authorities suspected a plot in New Jersey in 1740, and the New York Gazette published new reports of yet another outbreak of a slave uprising in South Carolina that same year. Finally, one won- ders if colonists were thinking about their own efforts at undercut- ting Spanish rule; the English imagined many “schemes of liberation in Spanish America,” most of which involved inciting racial groups, such as the Creoles, Africans, or Indians, against each other or directing them against the Spanish government (Pares 72).
The particular insurrection story emerging from this context was not regional but international in scope, including a scenario in which slaves would rise up when Spain’s ships appeared on the …