In 1741, New York City was thrown into an uproar when a sixteen-year-old white woman, an indentured servant named Mary Burton, testified that she was privy to a monstrous conspiracy against the white people of Manhattan. Promised her freedom by authorities if she would only uncover the plot, Mary reported that the black men of the city were planning to burn New York City to the ground. As the courts ensnared more and more suspects and violence swept the city, 154 black New Yorkers were jailed, 14 were burned ...
In 1741, New York City was thrown into an uproar when a sixteen-year-old white woman, an indentured servant named Mary Burton, testified that she was privy to a monstrous conspiracy against the white people of Manhattan. Promised her freedom by authorities if she would only uncover the plot, Mary reported that the black men of the city were planning to burn New York City to the ground. As the courts ensnared more and more suspects and violence swept the city, 154 black New Yorkers were jailed, 14 were burned alive, 18 were hanged, and more than 100 simply "disappeared"; four whites wound up being executed and 24 imprisoned. Even as the madness escalated, however, officials started to realize that Mary Burton might not be telling the truth.
Expertly written by the acclaimed author of Drop and Hunting in Harlem, The Great Negro Plot is a brilliant reconstruction of a little-known moment in American history whose echoes still reverberate today.
Mat Johnson is the author of the novels Hunting in Harlem and Drop. He received his M.F.A. from Columbia and now teaches at Bard College. He lives in New York's Hudson Valley with his family.
In 1741, New York City was confronted with its first terror scare. After a series of fires erupted in Manhattan in February and March, a 16-year-old white servant named Mary Burton was questioned; apparently hoping to avoid prosecution, Burton conjured up a vast network of co-conspirators. As a result of the ensuing manhunt, 14 black New Yorkers were burned at the stake, 18 were hanged, and more than 100 simply vanished. Nor did poor whites go unpunished: 24 were jailed and 4 died on the gallows. This retelling by novelist Mat Johnson captures the drama and the poignancy of this terrifying episode in our history.
Novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem) convincingly re-creates New York City's stratified colonial society in 1741, while reinterpreting the only historical account of the rumored slave revolt, hysteria and kangaroo trial that led to the executions of many black New Yorkers. (The uprising was also chronicled in Jill Lepore's New York Burning.) Narrated by a modern-day black man who acts as defense attorney for the executed, this account painstakingly refutes Daniel Horsmanden's 1744 book, The New York Conspiracy, in which the trial's judge, prosecutor and court recorder sought to justify the jailing of about 160 Africans, the hanging of 18 and the burning of 13 more at the stake. Johnson's strength is his ability to breathe movement and motivation into Horsmanden's witnesses, though trotting out one intimidated witness after another bogs down the latter half of the narrative. He repeatedly drumrolls an unsurprising conclusion: that 18th-century New York really was a racist and ignorant backwater. Fans of historical fiction or readers interested in the impact of slavery on African-American identity today will enjoy Johnson's daring reconstruction. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
In 1712 and again in 1741, black New Yorkers rose up, killed white owners and neighbors, and threatened the city with fire. Many paid with their lives-and then were all but forgotten. African-Americans had not forgotten, though, writes novelist Johnson (Hunting in Harlem, 2003, etc.), and when the African Burial Ground above Wall Street was discovered in the early 1990s, it became "a chance to grieve for the atrocities of the past and mourn for the nameless who came before them." Thanks to colonial recorder Daniel Horsmanden, the alleged perpetrators of the 1741 conspiracy to burn New York had names, most of them Spanish, with smatterings of Dutch. These black men and women-about 160 in all-were implicated through chains of denunciation at whose center stood a 16-year-old white servant named Mary Burton, who personally witnessed and overheard plans to make a great murderous conflagration-or so she said. Burton may or may not have done so, but no matter; as Johnson writes, "People believed that the Great Negro Plot, regardless of the evidence, was a real threat, and this in itself brought real consequences. White people believed it. Black people believed it." In the end, after the noose had been stretched, Burton began to change her story. Now it was not only blacks and a few evil white instigators who were alone rebellious; instead, Burton said, "There were some people with ruffles that were concerned," that is, members of the elite. With that, the witch-hunt ended, even as many of the 160 blacks were sent to plantations away from New York, even as others were burned alive. Most of this lies on ground Jill Lepore covers in the superior New York Burning (2005), which offers broaderhistorical context. Still, Johnson brings a storyteller's sensibility into play, and he makes excellent use of sources and testimonials.