On the 21st of April the court met, Judges Philips and Horsmander presiding. A jury was impaneled, but although there was no lack of prisoners, there was almost a total want of evidence sufficient to put a single man on trial. The reward offered had not borne its legitimate fruits, and no one offered to make any revelations.
Among the first brought up for examination was Mary Burton, a colored servant girl, belonging to John Hughson, the keeper of a low, dirty negro tavern over on the west side of the city, near the Hudson River. This was a place of rendezvous for the worst negroes of the town; and from some hints that Mary had dropped, it was suspected it had been the head-quarters of the conspirators. But when, brought before the Grand Jury, she refused to be sworn. They entreated her to take the oath and tell the whole truth, but she only shook her head. They then threatened her, but with no better success; they promised she should be protected from danger and shielded from prosecution, but she still maintained an obstinate silence. They then showed her the reward, and attempted to bribe her with the wealth in store for her, but she almost spat on it in her scorn. This poor negro slave showed an independence and stubbornness in the presence of the jury that astonished them. Finding all their efforts vain, they ordered her to be sent to jail. This terrified her, and she consented to be sworn. But after taking the oath, she refused to say anything about the fire. A theft had been traced to Hughson, and she told all she knew about that, but about the fires would neither deny nor affirm anything. They then appealed to her conscience painted before her the terrors of the final judgment, and the torments of hell, till at last she broke down, and proposed to make a clean breast of it. She commenced by saying that Hughson had threatened to take her life if she told, and then again hesitated. But at length, by persistent efforts, the following facts were wrenched from her by piecemeal. She said that three negroes giving their names had been in the habit of meeting at the tavern, and talking about burning of the fort and city and murdering the people, and that Hughson and his wife had promised to help them; after which Hughson was to be governor and Cuff Phillipse king. That the first part of the story was true, there is little doubt. How much, with the imagination and love of the marvelous peculiar to her race, she added to it, it is not easy to say. She said, moreover, that but one white person beside her master and mistress was in the conspiracy, and that was an Irish girl known as Peggy, “the Newfoundland Beauty.” She had several aliases , and was an abandoned character, being a prostitute to the negroes, and at this time kept as a mistress by a bold, desperate negro named Caesar. This revelation of Mary’s fell on the Grand Jury like a bombshell. The long sought secret they now felt was out. They immediately informed the magistrates. Of course the greatest excitement followed. Peggy was next examined, but she denied Mary Burton’s story in toto, swore that she knew nothing of any conspiracy or of the burning of the stores; that if she should accuse any one it would be a lie, and blacken her own soul.
It is rather a severe reflection on the courts of justice of that period, or we might rather say, perhaps, a striking illustration of the madness that had seized on all, that although the law strictly forbade any slave to testify in a court of justice against a white person, yet this girl Mary Burton was not only allowed to appear as evidence against Peggy, but her oath was permitted to outweigh hers, and cause her to be sentenced to death. The latter, though an abandoned, desperate character, was seized with terror at the near approach of death, and begged to be allowed another examination, which was granted, and she professed to make a full confession. It is a little singular that while she corroborated Mary Burton’s statement as to the existence of a conspiracy, she located the seat of it not in Hughson’s tavern, but in a miserable shanty near the Battery, kept by John Romme, who, she said, had promised to carry them all to a new country, and give them their liberty, if they would murder the whites and bring him the plunder. Like Mary Burton’s confession, if truthful at all, it evidently had a large mixture of falsehood in it.
On Saturday, May 9th, Peggy was again brought in, and underwent a searching examination. Some of her statements seemed improbable, and they therefore tested them in every possible way. It lasted for several hours, and resulted in a long detailed confession, in which she asserted, among other things, that it was the same plot that failed in 1712, when the negroes designed to kill all the whites, in fact, exterminate them from the island.