A Salem Resident Cautions New York on the Dangers of Hysteria

Fires were not uncommon in New York in the early 18th century. The city's ever-present fear of destruction by fire was heightened by the suspicion that the fires of 1741 were ignited by rebellious slaves. Arson was used by enslaved New Yorkers in 1712. Reports of slave revolts in Antigua (1736) and Charleston, SC (Stono rebellion of 1739) were fresh in the minds of New Yorkers. When a series of 10 fires broke out in 1741 an investigation was conducted that resulted in the arrest of more than 150 New York slaves. When the proceedings were finished 80 confessions had been "extracted," more than 30 slaves were hanged or burned at the stake, 4 whites were executed and 70 slaves were sold to various points South. What follows is an anonymous letter sent to a New York official after these events transpired. (In her book New York Burning, Jill Lepore credits historian Douglas Winiarski for discovering Josiah Cotton, slave owner and Harvard graduate as the author of this letter).

Sir

I am a stranger to you & to New York....I observe in one of the Boston News letters dated July 13th that 5 Negros were executed in one day at the Gallows, a favour indeed, for one next day was burnt at the stake, where he impeached several others, & amongst them some whites. Which with the former horrible executions among you upon this occasion puts me in mind of our New England Witchcraft in the year 1692 Which if I dont mistake New York justly reproached us for, & mockt at our Credulity about....What grounds you proceed upon I must acknowledge my self not sufficiently informed of; but finding that these 5 who were put to Death in July denied any Guilt, It makes me suspect that your present case, & ours heretofore are much the same, and that Negro & Spectrre evidence will turn out alike. We had near 50 Confessors, who accused multitudes of others, alledging Time & Place, & Various other circumstances to render their Confessions credible, that they had their meetings, form'd confederacies, sign'd the Devils book &c. But I am humbly of Opinion that such Confessions unless some certain Overt Act appear to confirm the same are not worth a Straw; for many times they are obtain'd by foul means, by force of torment, by Surprise, by flattery, by Distraction, by Discontent with their circumstances, through envy that they may bring others into the same condemnation, or in hopes of a longer time to live, or to dy an easier death &c....It is true I have heard something of your Forts being burnt, but that might be by Lightning from Heaven, by Accedent, by some maliceous person or persons of our own colour...But 2 things seem impossible to me...That the whites should join with the Blacks, or that the Blacks (among whom there are no doubt some rational persons) should attempt the Destruction of a City when it is impossible they should escape the just & direfull Vengeance of the Countries...which would immediately & unavoidably pour in upon them and destroy them....

Possibly there have been some murmurings amongst the Negroes & a mad fellow or 2 has threatened & design'd Revenge, for the Cruelty & inhumanity they have met with....if nothing will put an end hereto till some of higher degree & better circumstances & Characters are accused (which finished our Salem Witchcraft) the sooner the better, lest all the poor People of the Government perish in the merciless flames of an Imaginary Plot.

In the mean time excuse me & dont be offended, if out of Friendship to my poor Countrymen & compassion to the Negros (who are flesh & blood as well as we & ought to be treated with Humanity) I intreat you not to go on to Massacre & destroy your own Estates by making Bonfires of the Negros & perhaps thereby loading yourselves with greater Guilt than theirs. For we have too much reason to fear that the Divine Vengeance does & will pursue us for our ill treatment to the bodies & souls of our poor slaves.

Source | Jill Lepore, New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan (New York: Vintage, 2006), 203-205.
Creator | [Josiah Cotton]
Item Type | Diary/Letter
Cite This document | [Josiah Cotton], “A Salem Resident Cautions New York on the Dangers of Hysteria,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 21, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/716.