Salem-Like Trials In Colonial New York?:

A Review of The Great New York Conspiracy


Monday, July 7, 2003

Peter Charles Hoffer, The Great New York Conspiracy: Slavery, Crime and Criminal Law (Kansas Univ. Press 2003)

As a result of the trials, more than three dozen people - most, though not all, African-American slaves - lost their lives. The executions were public and often grotesque.

Professor Peter Charles Hoffer's The Great New York Conspiracy: Slavery, Crime and Criminal Law is a micro-historical study of the period and of the trials. Hoffer treats this little-remarked episode in American history in engaging detail. He also offers the excesses of 1741 as a caution for our own times.

Slavery In Early New York, and the Questions That Surround the "Conspiracy"

What exactly happened in 1741? Was there indeed a "Great New York Conspiracy," as prosecutors insisted - or was this the Salem Witch Trials redux, with an even more accessible and vulnerable group of victims at hand? This is a history book, not a Vanity Fair article, and so there are no easy answers to that question.

Professor Hoffer is understandably hobbled in this regard by the sources available. There is one soup-to-nuts recounting - sometimes verging on a transcription - of the affair. But this account was prepared not by an independent observer, but rather by the lead prosecutor in the conspiracy trials. Otherwise, there is very little primary material, and so the author (and the reader) are left with an imperfect, incomplete record. Still, some facts about both the times and the trials are clear.

In 1741, one in five inhabitants of what we now call New York City was a slave. Indeed, slavery persisted as an institution in New York until the eve of the nineteenth century when it was abolished.

While Northern slaveholders patted themselves on the back for their relative gentility as compared with the plantation masters of the South, this was, of course, an obscenity. The fundamentals of the peculiar institution were the same. Just as in the South, slavery in the North drew its legal existence from the properly-reviled Barbados Code, adapted in the laws of the various colonies, which grafted commercial law and property concepts onto human bondage.

In March 1741 a handful of fires (a considerable threat in a thronging tinderbox city) were set. The Crown fort was damaged considerably and there was some other property damage, though no one was seriously injured, much less killed.

The fires set off considerable alarm in the colony. The alarm turned to panic when it was revealed that a handful of slaves, apparently acting in concert, had committed the arsons. As a result, the prosecutorial machinery of the colony was turned on the underground social life of the New York slaves and the white tavern-keepers who tended to them.

The slave codes provider for a "freeholder court" system of summary justice. But colonial authorities - in a move that perhaps highlight how great a threat they perceived - chose instead to investigate and prosecute the arsons through the grand jury and the colonial courts.

In doing so, they used techniques - chiefly the promise of pardon, or at least leniency, for cooperators - that would be familiar to any prosecutor or defense lawyer today. But another aspect of the proceedings would have appalled modern attorneys: Not one of the defendants, it should be noted, had the benefit of defense counsel.

The result was that the colonial authorities either found - or caused themselves to wrongly believe they had found - evidence of a massive conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the entire colony.

With each additional finger that was pointed, a new witness was found to draw the circles of conspiracy broader yet. A few key cooperating witnesses were willing to paint broad groups in the most negative tones. Their melodramatic testimony became the backdrop against which grand juries returned scores of indictments, and trial juries, scores of convictions.

Late night mutterings - real or invented - became the stuff of capital conspiracy. The trials culminated in the conviction of a suspected Catholic priest, based on a theory that the conspiracy was a popish plot.

Well-Done History, But An Unconvincing Analogy with the Modern War on Terrorism

Hoffer presents an interesting, and disturbing, piece of our history. But he falters when he attempts to draw a lesson from it. The introductory and concluding discussions in the book - which endeavor to connect the events of 1741 with the current war on terrorism - are unconvincing. I found this, analogy to be superficial and not ultimately enlightening.

Of course, at the grossest level - which is the only level at which the parallel works - one can find common themes: A shadowy conspiracy, and the prosecution of a feared "other" group. But the attempt to draw a deeper analogy fails.

First, and most basically, the judicially-cloaked and sanctioned season of violence and brutality that met the "Great New York Conspiracy of 1741" was not in the least at odds with the political culture of the times. Rather, it was an offshoot of a violent and brutal institution - slavery - that poisoned the culture and the times as a whole.

What about another possible parallel: The use of the courts as a potential instrument of persecution? There is no doubt that just as our society is being tested by terrorism, our judicial system is being mightily tested by the war against terrorism. Lines drawn and trammels indulged in our current moment will no doubt be revisited in the months and years ahead. But again, the parallel to 1741 is weak.

Still, we must retain a healthy skepticism of government and remain ever mindful that governments, certainly no less than individual men or women, are not only fallible but also especially prone to misstep and overreach in times of stress and challenge. Our ability to curb the natural tendencies towards excess will be the measure of our society and our judicial system in particular.

It perhaps cannot be said enough in these times that extremism in the defense of liberty is indeed a vice of the first rank. A village, or a way of life, destroyed in order that it would be saved is destroyed nonetheless.

Matthew Herrington practices law in Washington, D.C.

FindLaw Career Center

    Select a Job Title

      Post a Job  |  Careers Home

    View More