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The "Great Negro Plot" Trial: 1741

Defendants: More than 170 people, including: Caesar and Prince; John and Sarah Hughson, Sarah Hughson (daughter); Margaret Sorubiero, alias Kerry; Quack; Cuffee; and John Ury.
Crimes Charged: Entering, theft (Caesar, Prince); receiving stolen goods, conspiracy to commit arson (John and Sarah Hughson, Sorubiero); conspiracy to commit arson (Sarah Hughson, daughter); arson, conspiracy to murder inhabitants of New York (Quack, Cuffee); conspiracy to commit arson and being a Catholic ecclesiastic (Ury)
Chief Defense Lawyer: None
Chief Prosecutors: James Alexander, Richard Bradley, John Chambers, Abraham Lodge, Joseph Murray, Richard Nicolls, and William Smith
Judges: James De Lancey, Daniel Horsmanden, and Frederick Philipse
Dates of Trials: 1741: May 1, (Caesar, Prince); May 6, (John and Sarah Hughson, and Sorubiero for receiving stolen goods); May 29, (Quack, Cuffee); June 4, (John and Sarah Hughson, Sarah Hughson, daughter, and Sorubiero, for conspiracy with Quack and Cuffee); July 29, (Ury).
Place of Trials: New York, Colony of New York
Verdicts: Guilty
Sentences: 70 blacks, 7 whites banished from British North America; 16 blacks, four whites hanged; 13 blacks burned at the stake. Of the defendants named above: Hanging (Caesar, Prince, John and Sarah Hughson, Margaret Sorubiero, Ury); hanging, but pardoned in exchange for testimony, particularly against Ury (Sarah Hughson, daughter); burning at the stake (Quack, Cuffee)

SIGNIFICANCE: This series of cases served as a brutal example of the consequences of panic when legal procedures become dispensable.

The panic over the "Great Negro Plot" has been likened to the hysteria of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. The "plot" was thought to be a conspiracy to stage an uprising among slaves who would burn New York and murder the white citizens. A conspiracy is defined as an agreement to commit a crime. The crime of conspiracy exists separately from the crime or crimes agreed upon. The key question of the "Great Negro Plot" is the kind of conspiracy that existed, if any. That a few people conspired to burn and loot some buildings appears to be true. That some slaves occasionally indulged in talk about revolt is plausible. Beyond that, the conspiracy was a delusion bred of fear.

In February 1741, Robert Hogg's tobacco shop was burglarized. An investigation led to the arrest of two slaves, Caesar and Prince, who frequented a tavern owned by John Hughson. Following the arrests, Mary Burton, a 16-year-old indentured servant in Hughson's tavern, dropped hints about the burglary. When questioned, Burton claimed that the Hughson family dealt in stolen property, assisted by a woman living at the tavern, Margaret (Peggy) Kelly or Sorubiero. (Caesar was rumored to be the father of her child.) Constables found the goods, arrested Hughson, and held the other three as accomplices.

Soon after the arrests, New York suffered several mysterious fires, starting with the city's fortress, Fort George. Subsequent fires, accompanied by theft, suggested arson. Indications that slaves were involved helped spark the conspiracy theories. Soon two slaves, Quack and Cuffee, were in custody.

They denied everything, even when convicted. Faced with the stake, they tried to save themselves with confessions. But the sheriff could not fight the mob that came to see them die.

By the time Mary Burton testified to the grand jury, the story she told was that John Hughson led a conspiracy that included Caesar, Prince, and Cuffee. They met at Hughson's to plan the fires and the massacre of the white population.

Caesar should be governor, and Hughson … king … that she has seen twenty or thirty negroes at one time in her master's house … the three aforesaid negroes … were generally present… that the other negroes durst not refuse to do what they commanded them … That she never saw any white person … when they talked of burning the town, but her master, her mistress, and Peggy.

Mary Burton's testimony became wilder as the number of people she accused grew. Prosecutor Richard Bradley used the legally inadmissible testimony of convicted thief Arthur Price, who swore that several of the accused made damning admissions to him while in jail—admissions denied by defendants. Bradley also used hearsay evidence and testimony of frightened defendants trying to obtain mercy or to direct suspicion elsewhere. The court permitted Bradley's legal violations. Since no lawyer in New York would agree to defend any of the accused, no one objected. Next, Governor James Oglethorpe of Georgia wrote authorities in other colonies, warning them to beware of Spanish plots and spies. This led New York authorities to link this conspiracy to Spain and English schoolmaster John Ury.

Ury, skilled in Latin and theology, faced the flimsiest testimony "proving" he was a Catholic priest and the real head of the conspiracy. This contradicted earlier claims that Hughson was the leader. Ury produced witnesses to attest to his whereabouts during alleged plotting sessions. Nevertheless, he was hanged.

There were no more grand jury indictments, but Judge Daniel Horsmanden's obsession with the conspiracy led to one last death, a slave named Tom.

Teddi DiCanio

Suggestions for Further Reading

Davis, T.J. A Rumor of Revolt. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

Horsmanden, Daniel. The New York Conspiracy. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971 [reprint].

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1637 to 1832