New York Burning

In 1741 the population of Manhattan was ten thousand, two thousand of whom were free or enslaved African Americans. In the appendix to New York Burning, Jill Lepore reports the basis for this fact and all the material about the colonial city that painstaking research in sources from the period has yielded. Lepore is careful to distinguish what is objective and what is subjective in her narrative. The result is a measured yet remarkable analysis of the political and cultural life of one city. The work gives clues to the forces at work in an emerging nation where the enslaved and the free coexisted.

The demographic and physical information about New York City that Lepore researches and reports gives a rich context to the historical events she chronicles. Maps and period portraits accent the text. Lepore’s prose style, while scholarly, has a lively vocabulary and a common-sense tone that engages the reader of this complex historical narrative.

At the heart of the difficulty Lepore faced in writing about the 1741 fires that plagued New York City is the authority of the single available record of event. Daniel Horsmanden’s Journal of the Proceedings in Detection of the Conspiracy Formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and other Slaves, for Burning the City of New York in America, and Murdering the Inhabitants (1744) is his subjective record of confessions and testimony related to the arrests, confessions, trial, and convictions. Horsmanden writes it to defend himself against growing criticism of the judicial process he supervised.

In her attempt to sift fact from fiction in this record, Lepore relies on other political, cultural, social, and historical findings about the period. She concludes that the conspiracy event and the flawed trial of the accused are worthy of restoration to history. Moreover, a close look at the event aids an understanding of the continuation, indeed growth, of slavery and racism in the American colonies, even as the cry for freedom grew within the white population: “Perhaps the paradox, the mystery, of liberty and slavery can never be solved. But in [this new analysis] a lantern can be held up to it,” says Lepore.

What happened? According to Horsmanden’s record, in early 1741, shortly after one of the fiercest winters the colonial city had known, ten fires broke out in Manhattan over a short period of time. In explanation of this event, a rumor grew that the fires had been set by a conspiracy of black slaves working under white men’s leadership. In her prologue, titled “The Plot,” Lepore puts together from Horsmanden’s Journal the story of the conspiracy’s origin as confessed to by the accused.

Thus, on a Sunday evening in January, 1741, free and slave black men and a group of Hispanic sailors came together at cobbler John Hughson’s tavern, meeting with Hughson, a white man, and three white women: Sarah, his wife; their daughter; and Peggy Kerry, a lodger. Hughson put out a tablecloth and gave them drinks of potent rum and a good meal. By the gathering’s conclusion all had sworn freely or under duress to set fire to Manhattan, murder all white men and carry off the white women as wives. In Horsmanden’s Journal accused slaves confessed to this meeting and many more, some including card games and cockfighting, fiddle music and dancing. Hughson explained the apt timing of their plan. England’s wars with Spain and France had thinned the militia present in New York; the Spanish and French would come to the aid of the black rebels. As one slave testified, “After they had conquered . . . they would know what it was to be free men.” Hughson would be king; Cuffee or Caesar, alleged plot leaders, would be governor.

In consequence of the alleged conspiracy, a total of 152 slave and free black persons were arrested, eighty-one accused. Eighty confessed. Over several months of the trial of the accused, “thirteen black men were burned at the stake. Seventeen more were hanged, two of their dead bodies chained to posts . . . left to bloat and rot. . . . Two white men and two white women, the alleged ringleaders, were hanged.” Pardons were granted to seven white men on condition of...

(The entire section is 1740 words.)


America 194, no. 1 (January 2, 2006): 24-25.

Booklist 101, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2005): 1745.

Library Journal 130, no. 13 (August 15, 2005): 100-102.

The Nation 281, no. 17 (November 21, 2005): 37-39.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (October 2, 2005): 28.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 18 (May 2, 2005): 183.