The New York Conspiracy of 1741 was an alleged plot created in tandem by enslaved Black people and poor white settlers to burn down and overthrow New York City, then a British colony.
At the time, England had been engaged for the previous two years in a conflict with Spain—the War of Jenkins' Ear—and there was a real fear that a Spanish attack on New York City was possible. Additionally, the economy in New York City had suffered a recent decline. Suffice to say, tensions were running high among the white colonists, who were petrified of losing their jobs and status.
This overwhelming sense of paranoia made the situation ripe for finger-pointing and suspicion. Although the details of the events surrounding the conspiracy are recorded in numerous places, much of the information remains murky and contradictory. What we do know is that a fire on March 8th, 1741 at Fort George was the catalyst for everything that came next.
The fires around the city continued to occur at steady intervals. In April, four fires were set in one day, with rumors circulating that a Black enslaved man was seen running from one of them; however, whether there was any validity behind this rumor was never established. Nonetheless, the commonly held belief was that the fires were acts of arson by enslaved Black individuals.
A series of robberies occurred around the same time, but their connection to the fires was also never officially confirmed. In one instance, three enslaved people had robbed a store owned by a white couple, and one of the robbers brought their loot down to a tavern owned by a man named John Hughson. Hughson was known for dealing in stolen goods from enslaved people and selling them alcohol.
While the threat of a Spanish attack loomed over the colonies, a group of Black Spaniards who had been free citizens in Spain before being captured by the British and sold into slavery in Manhattan inflamed the colonists' paranoia by continuously declaring themselves free men and prisoners of war, not slaves. Additionally, the colonists worried that the recent flow of Catholic immigrants from Ireland might be susceptible to working as spies for the Spanish. Religious tolerance was practically nonexistent in the New York Colony; a 1700 law barred Catholic priests from entering the colony under penalty of life imprisonment.
For the white upper class, fears for their livelihood and a disruption of the status quo had begun to reach a boiling point.
A jury was called together to investigate the purported string of attacks. A man named Daniel Horsmanden, a British expatriate, served as the judge. Horsmanden was eager to uncover the plot and its perpetrators, and the trial quickly escalated to something akin to a witch hunt. On April 21st, a teenager named Mary Burton, who worked as an indentured servant at John Hughson’s tavern, was called to testify.
Much of the “evidence” to prove the conspiracy’s validity was based upon Burton’s testimony, though many believe she was pressured to give the answers the court wanted to hear. She was only 16 years old, and was promised a substantial reward (enough to buy her way out of indentured servitude) in return for what she had to say. Subsequently, Burton was known to “remember” certain pieces of evidence when questioned with enough force, and made several “admissions” while placed under courtroom duress. According to Burton, the fires and robberies had been part of a plot created by white masterminds who had hired Black enslaved individuals to do their bidding, with the ultimate goal of overthrowing the government.
Horsmanden was eager to uncover more details of this alleged plot and its co-conspirators. He offered rewards to anyone who could provide further evidence of the conspiracy, and over the course of three months, 172 people were arrested, the vast majority of whom were Black. 30 Black men, two white men, and two white women were executed, including John Hughson and a man accused of being a Catholic priest and undercover agent for Spain. Others were deported, some to face the grueling conditions of slavery in the Caribbean.
So, did the plot actually exist? Unfortunately, we will likely never know for sure. To this day, historians disagree about whether the plot to overthrow the government actually existed, or whether it was the result of the white elite’s overwhelming fear of race riots and a Spanish-Catholic attack.
Because so much of the information we have is contradictory, it is hard to know what is true and what was fabricated. What we do know as fact, however, is that anti-Black and anti-Catholic sentiments combined with classism and a gross abuse of power likely exaggerated the dangers of any plot that did exist beyond what was actually called for.