Quack (?-May 30, 1741), enslaved man executed for his alleged role in a 1741 plot to burn the British colony of New York and supplant the King and Governor, is known primarily from the colonial records about that event. It is not known whether he was born in Africa, the Caribbean, or British North America, but he was resident in Manhattan at a time when around 2000 Black people (one-fifth of the city’s population) was enslaved. He was owned by John Roosevelt, a prominent business leader and politician, who was a direct ancestor of 26th U.S. President, Teddy Roosevelt and the president’s niece, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Another enslaved New Yorker executed for his alleged role in the conspiracy about whom we know have few biographical details was Cuffee (?-May 30, 1741). The anglicized names Cuffee and Quack, suggest their possible origins in the Akan peoples of present-day Ghana, where Kofi is a name traditionally given to male children born on a Friday and Kwaku to male children born on a Wednesday. Cuffee’s owner, Adolphe Philipse, was also a prominent New Yorker, a merchant who had served as Speaker of the colonial assembly. Historian Jill Lepore notes that Cuffee “knew both his father and brother,” (New York Burning, 35) an example of the strong family ties that some enslaved New Yorkers forged, despite the constant threat of spouses and children being sold and families split apart. Cuffee spoke both Spanish and English, was literate, and could play the violin.
The Conspiracy of 1741 was relatively unusual in colonial history as it was –according to some witnesses—a collaboration between poor whites and enslaved Blacks. Starting with two seemingly disparate crimes, the robbery of a local shop owned by Robert Hogg on February 28th and the burning of Fort George on March 18th, fears of a planned uprising developed among New Yorkers after the outbreak of a series of ten or more fires, which were initially thought to be accidental and unconnected.
Fire was the same weapon used by the enslaved in the city’s 1712 rebellion, but New Yorkers did not initially suspect that another insurrection was under way. In 18th century life where coal and candles were everyday tools, fires were not particularly uncommon. In 1731 New York passed a law for fire prevention, which required citizens to work together to extinguish fires. The stipulations of this law came into play on March 18th, 1741 when Fort George, and Governor George Clarke’s mansion inside the fort, went up in flames. In the extraordinarily harsh winter of 1741 the fire spread swiftly from the original site, also destroying the Secretary’s Office north of the Fort. Fires would continue successively over the next two weeks, with the next three fires each happening on consecutive Wednesdays. With the great number of fires raising suspicion, city officials began looking into possible culprits.
Cuffee and Quack soon came under suspicion. Cuffee had visited Robert Hogg’s shop on the day of the robbery with two other Black men and two white Englishmen who were later arrested for robbing it. Cuffee was not arrested, but according to one witness, he was present at the Fort George fire. Not only did he refuse to help put it out, he allegedly “huzzahed, danced, whistled, and sang” in celebration of the destruction of the symbol of colonial authority. (Lepore, 43). Fatally for Cuffee, he was also observed at the April 5 fire at a warehouse that, like himself, was owned by the wealthy Phillipse family. A large mob then chased him through the streets and he was captured and jailed. It was with Cuffee’s arrest that white New Yorkers came to believe that the fires were deliberately started as part of a planned rebellion of the enslaved. As many New Yorkers were well aware of the city’s 1712 Revolt, the 1733 Insurrection at St. John in the Virgin Islands, Court and Tomboy’s alleged conspiracy in Antigua, and Jemmy’s Stono Rebellion only two years earlier in South Carolina, the panic that ensued cannot be underestimated.
With Cuffee chased down and arrested, along with other many other Spanish speaking Black men, city officials began their investigations. By this time it was evident that four of the fires attacked the property of some of the city’s most prominent people. Still, little evidence was brought forward about a larger conspiracy—even after the Common Council agreed to issue rewards (£ 100 for whites and £45 for Free Blacks). Enslaved informants were offered freedom and £20 for turning people in. After much badgering and conniving, one of the city Justices, Daniel Horsmanden, gathered evidence from Irish indentured servant Mary Burton, white prisoner Arthur Price, Irish sex-worker Peggy Kerry, and an enslaved boy named Sandy.
When questioned, Burton initially claimed to know nothing of a conspiracy. Yet, upon being faced with time in the dungeon, she told a tale of a conspiracy quite similar to the 1712 revolt, but with a twist: this time poor whites would work alongside the enslaved, burning the city and killing the white people who came to extinguish the fires. Once the city was destroyed, a new line of power would emerge: the enslaved Caesar would be governor and a poor white tavern owner, John Hughson, would be King. Hughson, like Caesar, was involved in the robbery of Hogg’s shop. It was Arthur Price who first accused Quack (Roosevelt), of burning Fort George. Price claimed that Cuffee told him of Quack’s involvement while they were drunk in their cells from liquor that Justice Horsmanden supplied. After being promised that he would not, himself, be tortured, Sandy named 15 Black slaves who were allegedly part of the conspiracy to burn New York. One of them, Fortune, confirmed Price’s account and reported that, two days before the fire, Quack told him the fort would be burned, and after the fire, told him that “the business is done.” Fortune also implicated Cuffee. (Lepore, 92).
On May 28th, both Quack and Cuffee pled not guilty to charges of conspiracy to burn the city and murder its inhabitants. On May 29th their joint trial began. Court proceedings were one-sided: there were multiple prosecuting attorneys but no defense attorneys. Additionally, Quack and Cuffee did not receive separate trials but instead had the same set of witnesses and evidence tried against them. At Horsmanden’s command, jurors were denied basic provisions like water, food, and light until they reached a unanimous verdict. With lack of a proper legal defense, general prejudice against Black people, and sweeping fear of insurrection, it did not take long for the jury to find Quack and Cuffee guilty. They were both given the death sentences and were condemned to be burned at the stake.
The next day, Saturday, May 30th, 1741, the sheriff escorted Quack and Cuffee to a cart that carried them to their execution site, a place at the edge of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. They were followed by a riotous crowd of New Yorkers, anxious to watch them burn. As part of a public spectacle, Quack and Cuffee were urged to confess their crimes. Quack confessed that he burned Fort George by placing a torch between the shingles and the roof of Governor Clarke’s mansion, where Quack’s wife Barbara worked. The pair also confessed details that implicated over thirty others. Despite the confessions, no mercy or pardon was offered. Instead, the Sheriff decided that the rowdy spectators would be too upset if Quack and Cuffee were escorted back to the jail instead of executed. Thus, Quack and Cuffee were burned at the stake that Saturday evening. In the end, around 30 Black people and 4 white people were executed. Even the whites involved received public executions, though they were not nearly as gruesome as the burnings and gibbeting of the Black conspirators.
Lepore, Jill. "New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan." Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation 2, no. 2 (2021): 19-25. https://doi.org/10.25971/6sgg-kx22 .
“New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan.” Journal of Slavery and Data Preservation.https://jsdp.enslaved.org/fullDataArticle/volume2-issue2-new-york-burning/
“A Short History of Slavery in NYC.” NYCUrbanism.com. https://www.nycurbanism.com/blog/2019/6/18/a-short-history-of-slavery-in-nyc
“Trials Relating to the New York Slave Insurrection, 1741.” Historical Society of the New York Courts. https://history.nycourts.gov/case/slave-conspiracy-trials/
Horsmanden, Daniel. “The New York Conspiracy of 1741.” gilderlehrman.org. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/new-york-conspiracy-1741
Sutherland, Claudia. “New York Slave Conspiracy (1741).” blackpast.org, March 6, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/new-york-slave-conspiracy-1741/
Lepore, Jill. New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan. Vintage Books, 2006.
Michigan State University