A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy (1744): Conclusion

Conclusion by Justice Daniel Horsmanden



At a common council Mary Burton, the evidence who detected the conspirators, having applied to the board for the reward offered by the proclamation, issued pursuant to an order of the common council of the 11th of April, 1741, promising the sum of one hundred pounds to any white person that should discover any person or persons concerned in setting fire to any dwelling houses, store-houses, or other buildings within this city: It was ordered, that the mayor should issue his warrant to the treasurer to pay to Mr. Moore, for Mary Burton's use and benefit, the sum of eighty-one pounds, which with the sum of nineteen pounds before paid by the corporation for the freedom and other necessaries to and for the use of the said Mary, made in the whole the sum of one hundred pounds, in full of the reward offered.

The mayor accordingly issued his warrant, and the money was paid to Mary Burton.

Conclusion By the course of the evidence, it appears, that a design was conceived to destroy this city by fire, and massacre the inhabitants: that fire was to be put to several quarters of the town, at one and the same time; that the English church was to be set on fire at a time when it was most likely there would be the fullest congregation, and the avenues from the church were to be guarded by these ruffians, in order to butcher those that should attempt to escape the flames; this part of the scheme, it seems, Dry, the priest, had particularly at heart.

The winds were consulted which would be most proper to attempt the fires with. They were to begin at the east end of the town with a strong easterly wind, which (as it was projected) according to the course of its situation, would probably destroy the whole town; but the king's fort was first to be burnt, because most likely to annoy these furies when their hellish devices were put in execution. The Negro confederates were each of them to set fire to his master's house, and proceed to the assassinating their respective masters and families; and these fires were calculated for the night. St. Patrick's night was the time appointed. Accordingly we find, as a proof that they were in earnest, the attempt upon the fort was made on St. Patrick's night, though, through the providence of God, the fire did not take effect until the next day at noon, when the villain who first put it, had renewed his effort, by blowing up the same brand that he had placed for the purpose the night before.

If it be considered, that many of the Irish Catholics, unknown to the captains, runagates, or perhaps purposely sent out, had been enlisted in some of the independent companies posted here, some whereof were detected of being confederated with the conspirators; they could not have pitched upon a fitter season for perpetrating their bloody purposes; for on this night, according to custom, their com­memoration of their saint might be most likely to excite in those of the infernal league, boldness and resolution, for the execution of this horrible enterprise, and others innocently partaking of their jollity, might in such an event, be thereby incapacitated for service; so that, according to this device, all (it might seem probably to them) would lie at their mercy. But the fire at the fort happening in the day, contrary to the purpose of the conspirators, and the town having been much alarmed at the misfortune, though not apprehending the treachery; yet, a military watch being kept all the night following, the villains were thereat somewhat intimidated, and stopt their progress for a while: nevertheless, from the nightly cabals of the conspirators, at Hughson's, and the encouragement given by Dry the priest, the night after the fort burnt, who told them, now God had prospered them in the beginning, in burning the fort, they need not fear; we must be resolute and proceed in the work, and no doubt God will prosper us in all; execrable wretch! From hence they took courage again, and it was resolved amongst them, that they should proceed. Accordingly after one week had passed, they did, we see, set fire to several houses within the compass of a fortnight, sometimes many in a day, undiscovered; and made several other attempts, in which they were frustrated, till at length some Spanish prize negroes having been seized and committed upon suspicion, a stop was put to their career. But more than a fortnight passed after the last of these fires, before the least intimation was given touching the occasion of them, that they were the effects of a diabolical conspiracy; till Mary Burton, servant to John Hughson, was brought before the grand jury, as a witness to a different matter, concerning which she had testified before the magistrates; she at first refusing to be sworn to give her evidence in that case to the grand jury, at length rather than go to jail, submitted, but withal bolted out, that she would give no evidence concerning the fires; this hint afforded sufficient handle to the gentlemen of the grand jury, to exert their diligence in sifting out her meaning, and to prevail with her to disclose the secret; which, after much entreaty and persuasion, they effected, though at the same time, the girl disburthened herself with apparent dread and great unwillingness, from the apprehension of the danger she should be in of being murdered by the conspirators for the discovery, as she afterwards declared.

By the evidence of this girl, it appears, that her master Hughson was a principal engine, agent and instigator of these deeds of darkness amongst the slaves here, ever since she came into his service; and by the evidence of others, whites and blacks, it also appears, that he having kept a public house for some years, had long since made it a practice to entertain numbers of negroes, often 20, 30, 40, or 50 at a time, and by degrees deluded them to engage in the conspiracy, upon his promises that they should all be freemen, and that other fine things should be done for them; that upon their consenting, Hughson always bound them to their engagements by horrible oaths, not only to perform what they undertook to do, viz. to burn and massacre, but also to keep all secret, though they were to die for it; that these oaths were reiterated at all future meetings, in order to confirm them; and for their encouragement, Hughson often swore himself over again, and had sworn his wife and daughter into the confederacy also. That Hughson provided arms and gunpowder, further to convince these deluded wretches how much he was in earnest; but the butchery to be executed by the negroes after they had set fire to their master's houses, was calculated to be done with knives; for those weapons, it seems, they judged would make no noise: this the whole current of negro evidence agrees in, and it is corroborated by whites. That a knife designed for this purpose was actually found in the chest of one of the negro conspirators, and most others of them were provided with knives.

That Hughson employed some of the head negroes as agents under him, to decoy other negroes, and their instructions were, not to open the conspiracy to any but those that were of their own country (as they are brought from different parts of Africa, and might be supposed best to know the temper and disposition of each other) and when they brought a convert to Hughson, or one likely to become such, Hughson always gave them drams till they were intoxicated, and then the conspiracy was proposed to them; and they generally consented without much difficulty, upon his specious promises, and sometimes upon the bare proposal; but if they were unwilling to engage, they were terrified by threats of being murdered, till they complied; then all such were constantly sworn, invited to Hughson's feasts, and these commissioned to seduce others. Many, before they knew any thing of the secret, were invited to Hughson's by himself or others: for, by way of introduction, as well as confirmation, Hughson, it seems, kept open house for the negroes, and entertained them at all times, those that had no money at free cost; he assured them, they should be always welcome to him: these compliments be artfully placed as he judged most proper; for as to such as were his special agents and dexterous fellows, they were to pay in money if they had it, or money's worth, by pilfering and stealing as they could, to raise supplies for carrying on the common cause; and they were to bring all to him: more especially upon the grand catastrophe, when the town should be all in flames, and the negroes had butchered their respective families, the most valuable things easiest to be removed (particularly plate) were to be brought to Hughson's, and it seems they had already carried on so successful a trade, and Hughson's house was become a mart of so great note amongst the negroes, that with them it had obtained the name of Oswego, after the province trading-house. They were likewise enjoined to steal their master's arms, powder, etc. and lodge all in Hughson's custody: he had many barrels of gunpowder at a time. It appears that this hellish project was set on foot here, by agent Hughson, four or five years before it was ripened for execution; and it must needs have been a work of time to seduce so many slaves as have been detected.

The white conspirators were sworn by Dry the priest in chief, and the negroes sometimes by Hughson, and sometimes by Dry in a ring surrounded by them, and he, while the oath administering, holding a crucifix over their heads. They were persuaded that the French and Spaniards were soon to come and join them; and if they did not come in a set time, they were to begin and do all themselves. Further to encourage the town negroes, they were told the confederates had many whites and blacks to come out of the country to their assistance, particularly from Long-Island, and Hughson was to give the word when they were to begin. The Negroes were flattered they were to be formed into companies, several officers of them were named for the purpose, captains, etc. and the town was divided into districts. Thus all was to be their own; and if any of them were squeamish, Dry the priest could forgive them all they had committed, or should commit, provided they performed what they had engaged in, and kept all secret to their last breath.

But however true these matters have been found to be, so chimerical, wicked, abominable and inhuman was the device, that those at a distance might have been apt to think it all a dream, or a fiction, were it not for the last proof of a reality, which cannot be withstood, the several fires which did happen in the manner we saw; which consideration was a great motive to this publication. The witnesses, whites and blacks, that gave any evidence, or made any confession at all, agree in the most considerable article concerning it; the design of burning the town, and murdering the inhabitants; and that popish priests were concerned in it; which verified, what is sarcastically cited in Dry's defense as proverbial, that there can be no mischief in a country, but a Roman priest (if there) must be in it; but we may venture to go one step further, and say, if such priests had not been here (and some of capacities much superior to Dry's) there would have been no such plot; for upon this and no other footing can it be accounted for. Let us suppose then (and we shall find just grounds for the supposal) that such priests or monks etc. call them what you please, had conceived a design for such a horrible, detestable purpose, as the devastation of this city, and the massacre of its inhabitants, to be perpetrated by the hands of our own slaves, in conjunction with the most abandoned whites, the dregs and disgrace of their complexion; and that at a critical time, when their successful wickedness would have frustrated the supply of provisions and necessaries to his majesty's fleet, then upon an expedition against his enemies in the West-Indies, upon which perhaps their subsistence was in some measure to rely; and that for the purpose, emissaries of these kind of gentry were despatched into his majesty's colonies in several different disguises, as those of dancing masters, school-masters, physicians, etc. who under these colourable appearances, might not be likely to gain admittance and confidence in private families, and thereby have opportunities of debauching their slaves, and acquainting themselves of such white people as might be most likely to be seduced to their detestable purposes: who then so seemingly proper instruments to be pitched upon amongst us, by such infernal agents, as John Hughson and such like? for as the way to hell must be trod by gradual steps, and no one commences consummate villain in an instant; so Hughson had already taken some hopeful degrees in the school of wickedness; he had for many years entertained negroes at his house in all hours of darkness; and to support that expense, and promote his own lucre, encouraged them to pilfer and steal what they could from their masters, and he readily received their spoils: this might be thought a promising earnest of his qualifications: sure such a one must be judged by these craftsmen, a hopeful tool to make experiments upon; for he that could consort with slaves in one kind of villainy, would probably make the less difficulty of going some steps further. But then his religion! why truly, from what has already been observed, it might be thought to little purpose to talk about that: but his wife (good woman!) was already a professed papist, as common fame has it; so the business might be near half done; for her persuasion joined to a Roman priest's assistance, artifice and dainty-fine promises, free and full remission, pardons, indulgences, and absolution for sins past, present, and to come, and a passport for heaven on the condition of performing engagements (to do the devil's business) bound with the sanction of reiterated oaths, to keep all secret to the last breath; he might perhaps (as others before him have been) be buoyed up in full expectation of becoming rich and great here, and of a fool's paradise hereafter, and thus be seduced to enter into their abominable measures.

But we may remember, that the principal witness in this shocking case, and happy instrument of this detection, was Mary Burton, Hughson's indented servant; who (however it was) no one so much as insinuated to have been sworn of the confederacy. As she was the prime cause of the discovery, as before related, their envenomed arrows have been chiefly pointed at her; and no doubt, say they, she must have been the wickedest of mortals, to bring so many innocents to this shameful, miserable and untimely end. And what have they to impute to her, sufficient to invalidate her testimony? Why, one particular, say they, enough to outweigh all: she deposed, in her first examination before the grand jury, that she never saw any white person in company when they (the conspirators) talked of burning the town but her master, her mistress, and Peggy. It is true, she did so; and indeed it was very ill done: but, should that one false step preponderate to invalidate her whole evidence? Much might be said to aggravate this offence, much also in extenuation of it. We cannot expect evidence concerning these deeds of darkness, from witnesses of unblemished characters, free of all exception. Say she was sworn to the conspiracy; though it did not appear that she was so; and if it was true, it were something strange, one would think, that not a criminal under execution, or otherwise, who confessed their own guilt and impeached others, should have declared it; but on the contrary, confirmed her testimony against themselves in the torments of flames, attesting, that "she had spoke .... the truth, and could name many more," i.e. that her account of the conspiracy and conspirators, given at their trial was true; which is the utmost attestation that can be to the credibility of any person, as to the matter treated of. And if they had known she was engaged in the conspiracy, from the resentment they must have borne to her as a principal evidence in their conviction, it might have been expected, it would naturally have bolted out from them; nor did Sarah Hughson, the daughter, so much as insinuate it, whose spleen was very inveterate towards her, as the cause of their detection: but perhaps Hughson's daughter was more artfully instructed; for if it came out that Burton was sworn in a party, that might add strength to her testimony, and fix the guilt more strongly upon the parties she accused, by an implied confession of the most material part of her evidence; and if she were not sworn of the confederacy, it might seem strange to some that the conspirators trusted her so much with their secrets.

There are allowances to be made, with regard to the special circumstances this girl was under in this case, and some passions and qualities which seemed natural to her: she came over young into this country, an indented servant, a year or two before her first master, after some service, assigned over her indenture to John Hughson for the remainder of her term, the midsummer before this iniquity broke out, when she was between fifteen and sixteen years of age: the girl thus becoming under the power of Hughson, a stranger in the country, and not a friend to advise with; her situation was surely somewhat deplorable; for, being in the hands and under the influence of so hopeful a family, and held to secrecy by her apprehensions of the danger she was beset with from these assassins, she might think her condition helpless, and that she could only wish for deliverance: she was of a warm hasty spirit, had a remarkable glibness of tongue, and uttered more words than people of her supposed education usually do; such a temper, one might think, could ill brook the ceremony of attending and serving upon slaves, and such a band of black and white ruffians; which, it seems, was the service enjoined her, neither could they think themselves safe with her, unless they could seduce her to their wicked purposes, which they might have hopes they should compass at last; and though at first they might think she was not to be trusted at all adventures; yet it so happened, that by degrees, it seems, the conspirators (as depending upon a master's influence over one in her circumstances, added to the terrors of their threatenings to murder her if she made discovery) flattered themselves they had her sure, and at length became so familiarized and unreserved towards her, that they heeded not saying or doing any thing before her; and thus she might be let into their secrets, upon a persuasion that she durst not tell.

The girl, doubtless, must be under terrible apprehensions when her life was thus endangered, both from blacks and whites, if she made discovery; this must have been matter of great restraint to her, and, in her hurry and confusion of thought, might occasion her to utter that through inadvertency, which, upon calm reflection, she became conscious was wrong, though at the time, it might be an involuntary suppression only of part of the truth, arising from an over hastiness in answering, and want of due reflection: which, therefore perhaps, after making all candid and ingenuous allowance, will not be rigorously construed a willful and deliberate falsehood.


But it so happened that for some time before this grand jury was discharged, there arose great clamor against Mary Burton; for so many negroes being daily taken into custody (though not solely through her evidence, but rather principally upon discovery made by the confessions of their black associates already in custody, and their testimony corroborated with hers) some people began to be afraid of losing their slaves; for, as matters were then likely to turn out, there was no guessing where or when there would be an end of impeachments; everyone had reason to fear that their own negro would be

sent for next; and indeed all things duly considered, it was most probable there was but few of them that were not in the secret; and the girl had declared, that there were many negroes concerned, whose persons she could or might probably remember, but many whose names she knew not; so that it should seem, at length some masters of these slaves, as well as the conspirators, endeavored to bring the witnesses, and the notion of a plot, into discredit, if perchance it might put a stop, not only to further prosecution, but further inquiry and discovery also: and these attempts, luckily for some, had such an effect, that several whites, as well as negroes, escaped justice; who, had the same evidence appeared against them a few weeks before, would scarce have been thought objects of mercy; nor, from what we may have observed, would Mary Burton's evidence have stood single against them.

However, when the first grand jury drew near their discharge, they were importunate with Burton, to discover all the persons she knew to be engaged in this villainous design; for about this time she had suggested to some, that there were white people of more than ordinary rank above the vulgar, that were concerned, whom if she told of they would not believe her. This having been intimated to the grand jury, they were very pressing with her to discover all she knew, whoever they were; but the girl stood mute; nor could the grand jury prevail with her to name any, not with threatenings of imprisonment; at length, being tired with her obstinacy, they delivered her over to two of the judges, requesting them to endeavor to sift the matter out; but they could not prevail with her to be explicit. She complained (as it seems she had before done to the grand jury) that she had been very ill used; that her life had been threatened by conspirators of both complexion, and frequently insulted by people of the town for bringing their negroes in question, and that people did not believe what she said, so what signified speaking? or to this purpose she expressed herself. She intimated withal, that there were some people in ruffles (a phrase as was understood to mean persons of better fashion than ordinary) that were concerned. At last, having been threatened to be imprisoned in the dungeon, she named several persons which she said she had seen at Hughson's amongst the conspirators, talking of the conspiracy, who were engaged in it; amongst whom she mentioned several of known credit, fortunes and reputations, and of religious principles superior to a suspicion of being concerned in such detestable practices; at which the judges were very much astonished; others again were imperfectly described by her, whose reputed religious profession might square with such wicked designs, concerning whom the girl had long before given broad hints, but said she did not know their names, or what part of the city they lived in; but it came out at last, that one of them was a doctor (a professed papist, as common fame had it) whom she had seen several times afterwards in the streets, and who upon sight of her, always turned another way, to avoid meeting her: however it was, this person had the discretion to remove himself out of this province soon after; and it is said, into foreign dominions; and it were much to be wished, that such others, as were justly liable to impeachment, would act with the same prudence and follow his example, for the sake of their own safety, as well as the peace and security of ourselves. But upon the whole, there was reason to conclude, that this girl had at length been tampered withal; might it not be suggested to her, that the reward offered by proclamation for the discovery, she was already sure of, for she was entitled to it; and might she not be tempted to make further advantage of the affair? upon this supposition, the conspirators could not have devised a more effectual means (if they could but prevail with her) to put a stop to further inquiry, to procure the names of persons to be called in question at last, concerning this scene of villainy, whose fortunes and characters set them above suspicion: they very well knew (for papists or priests as Dry intimated, as "too wise and too cunning") if they could but prevail in this, they would thereby not only put a stop to further discovery, but likewise have some pretence, according to their usual custom, to clamour loudly, there was no plot at all: it was a mere dream! and to serve this turn, they had luckily with them some owners of slaves, who happened to humour this artifice, though upon a different view.

It was fit this matter should be stated in its proper light; that on the one hand the evidence of this witness (but for whom next under the interposition of divine providence, this city would in all probability have been laid waste in ashes, so far as deserving of credit) and on the other hand, that where she may be justly suspected to have exe­cuted the bounds of truth, there a step may be made, to consider, and conjecture, how it might have come to pass, that she told some things incredible at the winding up of this affair; and weigh impartially also, the whole current of the other evidence, remarking how it appears to confirm and establish her testimony, so far as it has been judged proper and fitting to publish it.


That a plot there was, and as to the parties and bloody purpose of it, we presume there can scarce be a doubt amongst us at this time; the ruins of his majesty's house in the fort, are the daily evidence and moments of it, still before our eyes: if the other frights and terrors this city was alarmed with, to their great consternation, are, as to some amongst us, so soon slipped into oblivion; yet surely others will think we ought once a year at least, to pay our tribute of praise and thanksgiving to the Divine Being, that through his merciful providence and infinite goodness, caused this inhuman horrible enterprise to be detected, and so many of the wicked instruments of it to be brought to justice, whereby a check has been put to the execrable malice, and bloody purposes of our foreign and domestic enemies, though we have not been able entirely to unravel the mystery of this iniquity; for it was a dark design, and the veil is in some measure still upon it!

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