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November 23, 2003

A Forgotten "Witch Trial" of Colonial Slaves

Why isn't this story as well known as the Salem Witch Trials?

In 1741 in New York City, a frenzy far beyond the Salem Witch Trials broke out.

A series of mysterious fires had raised fears among the elite of some kind of uprising from the poor masses increasingly desperate in the hard time hitting the city at the time. After one fire, a black man was seen near it, leading to his arrest. This intersected with the arrest of two slaves, one of who has a child with a white prostitute, and testimony of a 16-year old indentured servant, who, in exchange for her freedom, testified against them as participating in a supposed rising conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn the city.

The two slaves were burned at the stake, and as the fire licked at their feet, they confessed to burning a fort in the city and began wildly naming fifty others as complicit.

This set off a stamped of arrests, hangings and burning of slaves and associated whites. At the height of the hysteria, nearly half the city's male slaves over sixteen were in jail. A white "mastermind", deemed to be working on behalf of Spanish Catholics, was arrested and hanged.

By the end of the hysteria, four whites were hanged, seventeen blacks were hanged, and thirteen blacks were burned alive at the stake. Seventy-two were banished from New York.

Yet, in the end, looking back at the evidence, historians like Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, authors of Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (where this story is drarwn from), could see little evidence to support the so-called conspiracy

Instead, they note the alarm that the investigations revealed the "numerous points of contact and mutuality between the city's slaves and its burgeoning population of poor whites...a vast, restless, interracial underworld." In a time of rising political conflict in the city, this was seized on by the authorities to impose new order on the city's poor.

This led to closing down the bawdy houses where these groups mingled, but the ideological response in the trials was more telling- "the ultimate response, one on which prosecutors often fell back in their summations, was to drown out the noise of class conflict by beating the drums of racial hatred."

The hysteria of the "Great Negro Plot" of 1741 is a good reminder that the race card has a deep, deep history in this country in being used to divide and split any incipient alliance between poor whites and blacks in this country.

Posted by Nathan at November 23, 2003 04:37 PM