"The New York Plot" Trials (1741)

In 1741, English colonists in New York City felt anxious. They worried about Spanish and French plans to gain control of North America. They felt threatened by a recent influx of Irish immigrants, whose Catholicism might incline them to accept jobs as Spanish spies. And, above all, they feared that the city's growing slave population, now numbering about 20% of the 11,000 residents of Manhattan and increasingly competing with white tradesmen for jobs, might revolt. When a series of thirteen fires broke out in March and April of 1741, English colonists suspected a Negro plot--perhaps one involving poor whites. Much as in Salem a half century before, hysteria came to colonial America, and soon New York City's jails were filled to overflowing. In the end, despite grave questions about the contours of the suspected conspiracy, thirty-four defendants were executed. Thirteen black men burned at the stake and seventeen more hanged. In addition, four alleged white ringleaders--two men and two women--made trips to New York City's gallows.

"Fire!"

On March 18, 1741, as the coldest New York winter anyone could remembered neared its end, smoke began rising from the roof of the Lieutenant Governor Clarke's mansion inside the stone walls of Fort George, the hilltop fort built in 1626 along the city's harbor that stood as the city's principal protection from foreign invaders. The city's alarm bell rang. Two horse-drawn wagons carrying fire engines set off toward the fort...