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“Fire, Fire, Scorch, Scorch!”: Testimony from the Negro Plot Trials in New York, 1741

On March 18, 1741, the first of a series of suspicious fires broke out in New York’s Fort George. When a few weeks later a black man was seen running from the scene of one of these fires the cry went up: “The negroes are rising!” The extent of the plot, or even if there really was a plot, has never been absolutely proven. What is true is that the threat of a slave uprising was enough to send the city’s white population into hysteria. Of the 181 people arrested during the “Great Negro Plot,” 34 were sentenced to death and 72 were transported from New York. In this excerpt from the trials, several important witnesses provided evidence. Peggy was a white prostitute who lived in the home of John Hughson, a riverfront tavenkeeper and, like shoemaker John Romme, a receiver of stolen goods. Peggy’s room was paid for by Caesar, a slave with whom she had a child. Today the trial transcripts are valuable for what they reveal about the shady, waterfront world shared by slaves, free blacks, and poor whites in 18th-century New York.


Many hours were taken up in Peggy’s examination yesterday and this day; which was committed to writing, as felloweth.

Examination taken before the judges. No. 1. Margaret Salingburgh, alias Kerry, saith,

1. "That some time last fall she took lodgings with one Frank, a free negro, fronting the new battery, within this city, about three or four doors from the house of John Romme, shoemaker, and continued there till the beginning of February last, during which time she employed the said Romme in making shoes for her; and on that account became acquainted with him and his wife, and used often to go backwards and forwards to and from the said house; by which means she had the opportunity of seeing many negroes there at several different times, who used to resort thither to drink drams, punch and other strong liquors, the said Romme keeping a public house ; and that often numbers of them have continued at the said Romme’s house till two or three o’clock in the morning, to her knowledge, drinking, singing and playing at dice.

2. "That on or about the beginning of November last, on a Sunday evening, between the hours of 11 and 12, she (the examinant) being returning home to her said lodging, by the way of Whitehall, saw two negroes coming towards her with each of them a firkin [a small barrel] upon their shoulders, and saw them turn into Romme’s gate; and that presently after the same two negroes returned from the said Romme’s house, and went by the examinant (who stood under Hunt’s shed) at some distance towards the water side; and returned again by her, with each of them one firkin more upon each of their shoulders, and went with them also in at the said Romme’s gate, and returned by the examinant a second time, and went towards the water side; and in the same manner made as many turns, till the examinant counted that the said negroes had carried into the said Romme’s gate, sixteen of the said firkins; and the reason of the examinant’s staying under the said Hunt’s shed to observe the motions of the said negroes was, because she suspected them to be stolen goods.

3. "That one evening, some time about Christmas last, about eight or nine o’clock, she was at the house of the said John Romme, where she saw in company, together with the said Romme and his wife, ten or eleven negroes, all in one room, and the said John Romme was observing to the negroes, how well the rich people at this place lived, and said, if they (meaning the negroes, as she understood) would be advised by him, they (including himself and the negroes as she understood) should have the money. To which Cuff (Mr. Philipse’s negro) replied, how will you manage that? Well enough, said Romme, set them all a light fire; burn the houses of them that have the most money, and kill them all, as the negroes would have done their masters and mistresses formerly [Romme is referring to the slave uprising that took place in New York in 1712] That he (Romme) should be captain over them (meaning the negroes, as the examinant understood) till they could get all their money, and then he (Romme) would be governor. To which Cuff said, they could not do it. Yes, says Romme, we’ll do well enough; we’ll send into the country for the rest of the negroes to help, because he could write, and he knew several negroes in the country that could read. And he encouraged them, and said, he would stand by them, and that the sun would shine very bright by and by, and never fear, my lads: But that if it should happen that any thing should come out, he would make his escape, and go to North Carolina, Cape Fear, or somewhere thereabouts; or into the Mohawks country, where he had lived before; but besides, the D—l could not hurt him; for he had a great many friends in town, and the best in the place would stand by him; or the said Romme expressed himself in words to the effect before mentioned.

4. "That during all the discourse of the said Romme to the negroes as above mentioned, she did not observe any of the said number of ten or eleven, to make any answer to Romme’s discourse aforesaid, excepting Cuffee (Phiiipse’s) Curracoa Dick, Pintard’s Caesar, Will (Weaver’s, since dead) and Mr. Moore’s Cato; but Cuffee spoke the most, and said, ‘The Devil take the failer;’ though the other four seemed to be as forward for the plot as Cuff.

5. "That the other negroes that were present at the above discourse, whose persons or names she now remembers, were Patrick (English’s,) Jack (Breasted’s,) and Brash (Mr. Jay’s.)

6. "That, at the same meeting, there were several other negroes, which made up the number ten or eleven, whose names, or the names of their masters, she does not now remember; but believes she should remember their faces again if she should see them.

7. "That at the same meeting, the said John Romme proposed to the said negroes present, ‘To burn the fort first, and afterwards the city; and then to steal and rob, and carry away all the money and goods they could procure;’ and that they should be brought to Romme’s house, and he would take care to hide them away.

8. “That Romme said further, that if the fire did not succeed, and they could not compass their ends that way; then he proposed to the negroes present, that they should steal all that they could from their masters; then he would carry them to a strange country, and give them their liberty, and set them free. After this, Romme asked them, if it would do? That is whether the negroes then present liked his proposals, (as she understood.) To which Cuff answered, 'There’s great talking, and no cider;” and so they broke up: And the negroes remaining at that time all departed; some of them, to wit, Brash, Patrick, Jack, and the several other negroes (whose names the examinant cannot at all remember) having left the company about an hour before ; but Cuff, Curacoa Dick, Weaver’s Will, Cato, and Pintard’s Caesar staid till the last.

9. "That she well remembers, that Cuff, Curacoa Dick, Weaver’s Will, Pintard’s Caesar, and Mr. Moore’s Cato; and also Auboyneau’s Prince, and Vaarck’s Caesar, used much to frequent that house in the evenings, and to stay often late in the night, drinking and playing at dice; but she never heard any discourse amongst them concerning burning the fort, or setting fire to the town, but the time above mentioned.

10. "That immediately after the negroes broke up the meeting before mentioned, the said John Romme insisted upon this exarninant’s being sworn to secrecy, that she would not discover any thing that she knew had passed in his house, either relating to the butter, or the fire, or discourse at the said meeting, which she accordingly was and kissed a book; what book it was, knows not.

11. “That Romme’s wife was by, all or most part of the time, during the meeting and discourse aforesaid; and Romme insisted that this examinant should be sworn as aforesaid, as well as his wife; for the said Romme declared, they were both sworn to secrecy, and all the negroes; but the examinant saith, that the said Romme’s wife did not at all join in any of the discourse before mentioned.”

Elizabeth Romme, wife of John Romme, was sent for and examined concerning what Peggy had, declared to have passed at her house.

Examination.—1. She denied, "That she knew any thing at all about the conspiracy for firing [burning] the fort and the town, and murdering the people.

2. "Denied there were ever such companies of negroes met at her house as Peggy declared.

3. "She confessed there had been some firkins of butter brought thither about the time mentioned by Peggy; but said that they were received by her husband, and she knew nothing of them.

4. "Denied she had ever heard or knew of any oath of secrecy imposed by her husband; or administered by him to her or Peggy, or any other person whatsoever, with regard to secrecy concerning the stolen butter, or any other goods, or concerning the conspiracy.

5. "Confessed, that a negro (the father of Mr. Philipse’s Cuffee) kept gamefowls at their house, and used to come there to bring them victuals, but never used to stay long. Confessed that he was there about Christmas last. And

6. "That the last winter Cuff’s father brought them sticks of wood now and then, and she believed he had them out of his master’s yard.

7. "Confessed, that negroes used to come to their house to drink drams, but never used to stay; that Caesar (Vaarck’s negro) used to come morning and evening often; Auboyneau’s Prince sometimes; Mr. Moore’s Cato once or twice, and not oftener, as she remembered; never saw Breasted, the hatter’s negro, there at all; nor Mr. Jay’s Brash; nor Patrick, (English’s negro) but had seen Bastian (Vaarck’s negro) there, and Mr. Pintard’s Caesar; but never saw above three negroes at a time there, and that very seldom; and that when there were three, they were always Cuffee, (Philipse’s) Caesar (Vaarck’s) and Piince (Auboyneau’s.)‘’

This afternoon orders were given for apprehending the several negroes mentioned by Peggy, to have been present at Romme’s, at the time she said Romme and the negroes were talking of the conspiracy; those of them whom she knew by name, and were not before committed, were soon found and brought to jail.

In the evening the judges came to the cityhall, and sent for Peggy, and had the several negroes brought one by one, and passed in review before her, viz. Patrick (English’s) Cato (col. Moore’s) Curacoa Dick, Caesar, (alderman Pintard’s) Brash (Mr. Jay’s) and Jack (Breasted’s) and she distinguished them every one, called them by their names, and declared, those were at the above mentioned meeting.

These negroes were each of them separately examined, and denied being at any such meeting, or that they knew any thing of the conspiracy.

At first, Cork (English’s negro) was brought by mistake instead of Patrick, and Peggy declared, he was not English’s negro which she meant; Cork was unfortunately of a countenance somewhat ill-favoured, naturally of a suspicious look, and reckoned withal to be unlucky too; his being sent for before the magistrates in such a perilous season, might be thought sufficient to alarm the most innocent of them, and occasion the appearance of their being under some terrible apprehensions; but it was much otherwise with Cork; and notwithstanding the disadvantage of his natural aspect, upon his being interrogated concerning the conspiracy, he shewed such a cheerful, open, honest smile upon his countenance (none of your fictitious hypocritical grins) that every one that was by, and observed it (and there were several in the room) jumped in the same observation and opinion, that they never saw the fellow look so handsome: Such an efficacy have truth and innocence, that they even reflect beauty upon deformity!

On the contrary, Patrick’s visage betrayed his guilt: those who are used to negroes may have experienced, that some of them, when charged with any piece of villainy they have been detected in, have an odd knack or (it is hard what to call or how to describe it) way of turning their eyes inwards, as it were, as if shocked at the consciousness of their own perfidy; their looks, at the same time, discovering [revealing] all the symptoms of the most inveterate malice and resentment: this was Patrick’s appearance, and such his behaviour upon examination, as served to induce one’s credit to what Peggy had declared; so far at least, that he was present at a meeting when the conspiracy was talked of, and was one of the persons consenting to act a part in that infernal scheme; so that he was committed to jail, and the rest of them, whom Peggy declared, as they were produced, to be the persons she meant.

These negroes, impeached by Peggy, and committed upon her information, and which had passed in review before her, were likewise shewn to Mary Burton, who declared, that she did not remember, that ever she saw any of them at Hughson’s, which seemed to add strength to what Peggy had declared in her examination, that this villainous scheme was carrying on at Romme’s as well as Hughson’s.

Deposition taken before one of the judges,—Abigail Earle, being sworn, deposeth, "that just before the going in of the afternoon church, on the same Sunday that coals were found in Mr. Murray’s haystack, she saw three negro men coming up the Broadway; that she was then looking out of her window up one pair of stairs in the house where Mr. Williams now lives; and as they passed under the window, she heard one of them say, viz. Fire, fire, scorch, scorch, A LITTLE, damn it, BY AND BY! and then threw up his hands and laughed. That after the said negroes were gone by she went into Mrs. George’s house and told her what she had heard: and about an hour after, when church was out, she saw the same negroes coming down the Broadway; and then shewed Mrs. George the negro that had spoke the aforesaid words: whereupon Mrs. George said, that is Mr. Walter’s Quaco."

Lydia George being sworn, deposed, “that she heard the above written deposition of Abigail Earle read, and knows that all therein mentioned, which any ways relates to her the deponent, is true.”

Upon these depositions Quaco was recommitted this evening.

Source: Daniel Horsmanden, The New-York Conspiracy, or a History of the Negro Plot, with the Journal of the Proceedings Against the Conspirators at New-York in the Years 1741–2. New York: Southwick and Pelsue, 1810, 53–59.