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Breaking News From 1741

Issue 285

Two prosecutors who used fears of a slave revolt to execute nearly three dozen mostly-Black New Yorkers could be posthumously disbarred.

Theodore Hamm Feb 16

Prior to Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s siege of the Attica ­prison in 1971, the events of 1741 were the largest si­ngle episode of deadly government-initiated violence in New York’s history. Nearly three dozen people were executed, 30 of them Black. Scores more were deported. 

Was New York’s response to the alleged “slave conspiracy” the result of prosecutorial misconduct? A leading figure in the state’s venerable ranks of criminal defense lawyers says so. 

And he even filed a complaint with the state, albeit ineffectual commission on prosecutor misconduct, seeking posthumous accountability for prosecutors Joseph Murray and John Chambers, for whom streets in Lower Manhattan are named. 

Russell Neufeld is a retired defense attorney best known for his work combatting death penalty cases brought by Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. He now devotes his time to writing about New York history. His complaint regarding Murray and Chambers appears in the Winter 2024 issue of Atticus, the newsletter of the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. 

A series of fires broke out in the cold winter of 1741 in Lower Manhattan. The town’s elite immediately suspected that enslaved people — estimated to comprise over one-sixth of New York City’s local population of 11,000 — were the culprits. 

Officials particularly targeted the goings-on at Hughson’s Tavern, located just north of Trinity Church. Slaves were allowed to socialize alongside whites at the establishment. John Hughson, the proprietor, was also a fence for stolen goods. This was helpful for bondsmen, who were not permitted to possess money, causing them to barter with Hughson.

An indentured servant named Mary Burton, 16, worked at the tavern. Burton, who took offense at having to serve slaves, would become the prosecution’s key witness. 

It was clear that many of the fires were intentionally set, as properties belonging to the elite — including enslaver Joseph Murray — had been targeted. But the motive was not clear, with one member of the ­Governor’s Council asserting that larceny may have been the cause. (“Villains prey on their neighbor’s goods under pretense of assisting [by] removing them for security from the danger of the flames,” he noted.)

A series of fires broke out in the cold winter of 1741 in Lower Manhattan. The town’s elite immediately suspected that enslaved people were the culprits. 

Amid the outbreak of theft, Burton and another indentured servant, Arthur Price, went to jail on charges of theft. The two then hatched a plan that would gain favor from the town elite: They blamed the fires on bondsmen, including alleged ringleaders named Caesar and Prince. Burton claimed that the enslaved duo had concocted their plan during a Christmas meal at Hughson’s Tavern. 

Burton’s statements set in motion a set of conspiracy cases brought by prosecutors Murray and Chambers, with Judge Daniel Horsmanden presiding. All three played up ties by enslaved defendants to the colony’s Spanish rivals, and Neufeld argues that historians including Jill Lepore have given too much credence to false confessions elicited during the trials.  

Burton’s accusations proved pivotal for the prosecution, and her targets expanded to include Irish soldiers and an Irish schoolteacher. Robin, a bondsman owned by Chambers, was one of 13 burned at the stake (17 others went to the gallows). Hughson and his wife were also executed. 

By the summer, Mary Burton started telling locals that “there was no plot.” But the damage had been done and the scars would endure. Racial tensions simmered through the American Revolution, when many of New York’s enslaved people fought for the British, who offered emancipation in exchange. 

Neufeld explains that even by the standards of 1741, the actions of Murray and Chambers amounted to prosecutorial misconduct. Encouraging (aka “suborning”) perjury was punishable by imprisonment at the time. Neufeld thus asks the current prosecutor misconduct commission to retroactively disbar Murray and Chambers. 

As The Indypendent recently documented, action of any kind from the commission, dormant since its creation in 2021, would be a welcome surprise for the entity’s creators. Meanwhile, the City Council should strongly consider renaming the two Lower Manhattan streets that honor bad prosecutors.

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