New York Burning is a well-told tale of a once-notorious episode that took place in Manhattan in 1741. Though, as Jill Lepore writes, New York's "slave past has long been buried," for most of the 18th century one in five inhabitants of Manhattan were enslaved, making it second only to Charleston, South Carolina, "in a wretched calculus of urban unfreedom." Over the course of a few weeks in 1741, ten fires burned across Manhattan, sparking hysteria and numerous conspiracy rumors. Initially, rival politicians blamed each other for the blazes, but they soon found a common enemy. Based solely on the testimony of one white woman, some 200 slaves were accused of conspiring to burn down the city, murder the resident whites, and take over the local government. Under duress, 80 slaves confessed to the crimes and were forced to implicate others. When the trial was over, 13 black men were burned at the stake, 17 more were hanged (along with four whites accused of working with them), and 70 others were shipped off to the Caribbean where slavery conditions were even worse.
By necessity, Jill Lepore bases much of her research on a journal written in 1744 by New York Supreme Court Justice Daniel Horsmanden, which she describes as "one of the most startling and vexing documents in early American history" and "a diary, a mystery, a history, and maybe one of English literature's first detective stories." Adding cultural and political context to the available evidence, Lepore questions whether there was a conspiracy at all, or if it was blind fear run amok that led to the guilty verdicts for so many slaves. As she points out, fear of slave revolt was a real and consistent theme throughout the early days of the colonies. Crisply written and meticulously researched (the book includes several detailed appendices), New York Burning is a gripping narrative of events that led to what one colonist referred to as the "bonfires of the Negroes." --Shawn Carkonen
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. With riveting prose and a richly imagined re-creation of a horrible but little-studied event, Bancroft Prize–winning historian Lepore (The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American Identity) deftly recounts the circumstances surrounding a conspiracy in pre-Revolutionary Manhattan. In 1741, its teeming streets erupted into fire in at least 10 locations. At first, rival political parties blamed each other for the conflagrations, but they joined forces against black slaves when a young white woman named Mary Burton testified that she had witnessed several slaves conspiring to kill whites and gain their liberty. The colony's leaders arrested and tried at least 100 black men and women. Eventually, the colonial Supreme Court sentenced 30 men to death; 17 were hanged (along with the four supposed white ringleaders) and 13 burned at the stake, based solely on Burton's testimony. Out of fear, several slaves testified against others, and the bulk were sent into brutal slavery in the Caribbean. Drawing primarily on New York Supreme Court justice Daniel Horsmanden's Journal of the Proceedings in The Detection of the Conspiracy formed by Some White People, in Conjunction with Negro and Other Slaves, Lepore demonstrates that whites' fear of black rebellion led them to blame any threat to the colony on the activity of slaves. In this first-rate social history, Lepore not only adroitly examines the case's travesty, questioning whether such a conspiracy ever existed, but also draws a splendid portrait of the struggles, prejudices and triumphs of a very young New York City in which fully "one in five inhabitants was enslaved." 17 illus., 1 map. (Aug. 29)
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