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
--This text refers to the
From Publishers Weekly
Juilliard graduate and Broadway actress McDonald offers a wry and meaty interpretation of Lepore's intense social history of the Manhattan slave uprising of 1741. That winter, black and Spanish slaves allegedly set 10 fires around the city, resulting in widespread panic and a draconian roundup of any slave who was rumored to be even tangentially involved in the conspiracy. McDonald does a fine job with the text, which is heavy on trial transcripts and newspaper reportage. Her voice and Lepore's descriptions create an almost visceral portrait of the events, including-note to the faint of heart-some shocking, CSI-worthy descriptions of the ensuing executions, which included burning at the stake. McDonald sometimes butchers the pronunciation of the Spanish names mentioned in the proceedings, but in general her rendering is spot-on, and her voice is by turns animated, disapproving or conspiratorial. The first two hours can be a bit abrupt and confusing, as this abridgment has omitted much of the background information that helped print readers make sense of the large cast of characters. However, this condensation makes for an exciting recital, and by the second half, listeners will be on the edge of their seats.
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--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.