Sarah was an enslaved woman owned by the widow Mary Burk in New York City in the early 1700s. The stories of enslaved people were only recorded under extraordinary circumstances. For this reason, we know nothing about Sarah’s life before her own extraordinary circumstances began in the spring of 1741.
Sarah’s story begins with a series of fires that swept New York City. On March 18, a fire broke out at Fort George. The governor’s house was destroyed. Officials declared that the fire was started by a hot soldering iron left near a stack of hay. On March 25, April 1, April 4, and April 5, more fires broke out at private homes and warehouses. One started from embers left by the bed of an enslaved person. Another started from embers that had been deliberately placed in hay. People started to worry that there was an arsonist on the loose. White New Yorkers had heard stories about recent slave uprisings in South Carolina and Antigua, and they began to wonder if the city’s enslaved people were starting the fires. One woman reported hearing an enslaved man named Quack laugh about the fires and predict there would be more. As an enslaved woman who lived and worked in the city, Sarah would have heard the rumors.
On April 6, five fires broke out across the city, and people panicked. A volunteer firefighter claimed to see an enslaved man named Cuffee running from one of the burning buildings. A mob grabbed Cuffee and brought him to the city’s jail. Quack was also imprisoned. Officials interrogated them, but they denied knowing anything about the fires. The government offered a £100 reward to any white person who turned in someone involved in the fires.
On April 22, Mary Burton, a white indentured servant, told officials that her masters, John and Sarah Hughson, conspired with Cuffee, Quack, and dozens of other enslaved people on a plan to overthrow the colonial government and kill all the white masters. She explained that the fires were set to draw white people out of their homes so they could be easily killed. This plan was so similar to a slave uprising that had taken place in New York in 1712 that the officials were convinced. They went back to Cuffee and Quack, and told them that if they did not confess and give the names of their co-conspirators, they would be executed. The men started naming names. Dozens of people were arrested. Each person named even more people. Soon, the whole city was convinced it had barely escaped a violent revolution.
Sarah was the only enslaved woman accused of being part of the plot. Four different suspects said she was present at the meetings where plans were made, and one of them claimed Sarah had pressured them to join. Under New York law, an enslaved person could be convicted based on the evidence of just one other enslaved person. With four accusers, Sarah was arrested.
During her first court appearance on May 25, Sarah gave the names of over thirty people before collapsing into fits and foaming at the mouth. When she recovered, she tried to take back some of the names she had given. The judges took her behavior as evidence that she was trying to cover up the conspiracy. But it is also possible that she was panicking, trying to balance saving her own life against condemning her friends and neighbors.
Sarah was jailed in terrible conditions with dozens of other suspects. She was aggressively interrogated three times. Her third interrogation was held at five in the morning, perhaps to disorient her. Given these conditions, some historians wonder whether there was any conspiracy at all. They think it is possible that the fires were unfortunate coincidences, and the entire story was invented by the suspects to give the judges what they wanted.
Sarah was the only enslaved woman accused of being part of the plot.
Sarah’s statements were used as evidence during ten different trials from June 1 through July 3, and led to the executions of at least six suspects. Every day Sarah learned more news of trials and executions, while she waited to find out what her own fate would be.
On July 7, Sarah was brought in for sentencing. The judges acknowledged that she had given useful evidence, but complained she had been difficult to work with. They sentenced her to be hanged the next morning.
Sarah must have returned to her cell and immediately started plotting a way to survive. She joined forces with Sarah Hughson, the daughter of the white couple who were named by Mary Burton as leaders of the conspiracy. Early on June 8, Sarah Hughson was visited by a court official, who gave her one more chance to confess. She refused. But only an hour later Sarah asked to meet with officials, and told them Sarah Hughson had confessed everything to her. They brought Sarah Hughson into the room, and she tearfully confessed. Her execution was delayed until the court could hear her testimony, and Sarah’s execution was delayed because she had brought about the confession. By working together, both women survived another day.
On July 10, Sarah’s execution was rescheduled to take place on July 18, perhaps because the court wanted to see if they could get any more information out of her. On July 15, she was brought into court again and her sentence was changed. Instead of execution, she was sent to work on a Caribbean sugar plantation. Conditions in the sugar fields were so terrible that this was equal to a death sentence, but it gave Sarah more time and opportunities to improve her future.
Nothing more is known about Sarah after her final sentencing, but her experiences in the 1741 trials speak volumes about the suspicion and danger that shadowed the lives of all enslaved people in the city. Before the conspiracy trials ended in August 1741, thirteen Black people were burned alive, seventeen Black people were hanged, four white people were hanged, and seventy Black and seven white people were transported from the colony. Every single case was decided based only on rumor; not a single piece of hard evidence was ever found. Mary Burton, whose testimony kicked off the trials, received her £100 reward and used it to buy out her indenture contract. And as Sarah’s story demonstrates, most of the rest of the testimony was probably invented by the defendants in a desperate attempt to save their own lives.