Fear. In 1730 false rumors of an impending slave uprising swept through the colony of New York. That colony contained the largest number of slaves north of the Chesapeake colonies; one-sixth of New York City’s residents were slaves. A strict slave code was adopted in the 1730s, but it was only partially successful in controlling the behavior of slaves in the city. Rumors circulated in 1740 of plans to poison the city’s water supply, and the harsh winter of 1740-1741 further heightened anxieties.
Burton. In early 1741 a rash of arsons and thefts resulted in the posting of a reward of £100 for information leading to the arrest of the criminals. Mary Burton, a teenage indentured servant, claimed the reward with information about a theft ring that included her master. Subsequent evidence pointed to the existence of the ring, but Mary’s claims went further: she reported a plot to burn the city, kill the white males, and place her owner in charge as mayor.
Trials and Torture. Many New Yorkers believed Burton, despite inconsistencies in her story. The trials that followed during the next year fully displayed the city’s fear of a general slave uprising, as well as class and religious resentments. One hundred and fifty blacks and twenty-five whites were jailed. Eighteen slaves and four whites were hanged, and thirteen slaves were burned to death. Another seventy slaves were deported to non-English colonies after confessing. The confessions were extracted under threats—at least two while the fire was being lit beneath them—so the best way to save oneself from death was to “confess” and to implicate others. Truth mattered little, and pleas of innocence were ignored, as the law became an instrument of fear rather than of justice.
Aftermath. The trials came to an end when Burton’s accusations became even wilder and were extended to include prominent citizens. She left New York soon afterward. In the years that followed, rumors periodically surfaced of other plots, and New Yorkers increasingly preferred free laborers over slaves, more out of fear than of sympathy for unfree laborers.