Mar 18, 2019
On March 18 in 1741 a fire broke out at New York governor George Clarke's home. This was the first of 13 fires set during the trial of John Hughson, a poor white tavern owner, and two black slaves, Caesar and Prince. The Tavern Hughson owned was a hangout for black and white slaves, as well as poor whites and free blacks (at the time this was not at all uncommon, as the lower classes intermingled and even had children together). Hughson was accused of receiving stolen liquor from Caesar and Prince.
The elite were nervous about the different lower classes socializing together and worried of an uprising of poor whites and blacks working together, so the constables watched the tavern constantly, in an effort to catch illegal activity so it could be shut down. As the trial went on more fires spread across Manhattan and panic arose over a fear of the underclasses revolting. Hughson, Prince, and Caesar were executed, their bodies left in public to rot. A 16-year-old Irish slave, Mary Burton, was arrested for theft and facing a similar fate instead testified about a supposedly growing conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn down the city, kill the white men and take the white women for themselves, and hopefully remove the governor and replace him for a king of their choice; solidifying the fears of the government.
A witch hunt ensued in which those arrested named others in the conspiracy in hopes of leniency, leading to 160 blacks and 21 whites being arrested. As the panic continued Mary Burton and others began naming rich elite as conspirators as well causing the public to realize little if any of the conspiracy had truth to it. By then 17 blacks and 4 whites had been hanged, 13 blacks were burned slowly at stake, and 70 blacks and 7 whites were banished from New York.
Also, Mary Burton received a reward of ₤100 from the city, which she used to buy her freedom.
Editor's Note: In understanding this story it should be noted that slavery in early America looked somewhat differently then it did by 1865. Early slaves in America came in many forms including white europeans (mostly Irish, Scottish, or German), American Indians, and Africans. A common form of slavery for these groups was also called 'indentured servitude', but make no mistake that this form was any better. These slaves could 'work off' their debt and eventually become free but many were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, starvation, and as it was not illegal to kill a slave, many were simply worked to death before their indebted time was up.
That said, in the 1700s it was not uncommon for slaves of any color to spend their personal time in public, carrying weapons, conducting side work for extra money, and fraternizing with free people.
It was only after riots and rebellions of white and black slaves working together (demanding a better life) that measures were made to cause racial tensions and soon enough 'chattel' slavery became the norm.