I’m a collector of Ulster County specifically and the Hudson Valley generally. On the 29th of March a lot offered at Swann, No. 13 in Sale No. 2471, attracted both my bid and, since receiving it, my intense interest.
Here it is:
"TO BE BURNED AT THE STAKE . . . UNTILL HE IS DEAD, AND AFTER THAT TO ASHES" (SLAVERY AND ABOLITION.) Trial account of an enslaved New York man for arson, with the order to burn him at the stake. 3 manuscript pages, 12 3/4 x 8 inches, on 2 leaves, the last leaf with the signatures and seals of twelve officials; folds and minor wear. Kingston, NY, 28 and 29 August 1730
Estimate $2,000 - 3,000
Arson was one of the most extreme forms of resistance available to slaves, and figured prominently in the New York slave insurrections of 1712 and 1741. As a deterrent, punishments were harsh. This trial took place in Ulster County along the Hudson River between Albany and New York City. The first of these two documents is the minutes of a meeting of the county's seven Justices of the Peace to hear the case of "a Negro man of Capt. Albert Pawling, called Jack, being accused of fellony for burning of the barn and barels, severall sheep, oats, pease &c of Richard Broadhead at Marbletown." Jack testified that he came from the nearby town of Wawarsing and "went into the cook room of Richard Brodhead and fetched fire and tryed to sett the barn afire but he missed. . . . The second time he went to Daniel Broadhead's house and took a brand end of fire there and then he set the barn in fire." The next morning, the prisoner was brought before the bar, was tried according to the evidence, confessed a second time to the crime, and was sentenced to be "burned untill he is dead and after that to ashes."
The second document is an order to the Ulster County constables to "deliver the prisoner Jack now in custody to the executioner London, negro man of Johannis Low, to be burned at the stake forthwith untill he is dead, and after that to ashes." It is signed by the seven justices and by "five of the principall freeholders of said county," most of them from the old Dutch settler families who predominated in Ulster Country at the time.
These documents were in the possession of Ulster County historian Jonathan W. Hasbrouck, and were published after his death in 1918 (Hoes, Old Court Houses of Ulster County, page 7). We have traced no other mention in the historical record of this disturbing incident.
Price Realized (with Buyer's Premium) $3,250
Collecting, in my experience, has been about recreating the thought process of a time. When, years ago, I collected the history of early Florida I sought to understand how Europeans and their ideas intersected with Florida’s indigenous population. The Europeans would emerge victorious by waging a two-pronged attack based on superior arms and human contempt. Refusal to accept that native Americans were human permitted unspeakable acts of brutality. Add to this the local lack of immunities to disease that generations of Europeans had developed left America’s native populations vulnerable to the point that entire peoples in North and South America were destroyed by diseases like measles and small pox.
In Florida two European perspectives competed for dominance; the Spanish view that the local population was to be converted to Catholicism, the English that they be considered less than human, denied basic rights, exterminated or transported to distant, unproductive land, to be forgotten. Neither was kind. The English won and America has since warred with itself over whether humanity is a grant or the basic human condition. Today, with America at the nadir of what Martin Luther King called “the arc of the moral universe” that is long, but bends toward justice, we confront the moral emptiness of the view held today by the twenty-something percent of Americans who believe that humans, who are of different color or pray to different gods, should be denied the very inalienable rights they themselves view as their birthright.
And long has it been so.
As this set of documents relating to the burning alive of a slave in 1730 in Ulster County for arson affirms, the abject dehumanization of non-whites, when left to local citizens, could happen, even in the very shadows of the churches such governing families attended on Sundays to be preached back into compliance with religious values.
We have come so far and, then again, we have not come far enough.
So, I’m grateful to have acquired this piece of Ulster County history, even if its implications are soul-deadening. Records of it are thin. The county histories have nary a mention but Swann, ever thorough, found references in a 1918 pamphlet, so its story, a flickering flame that local 19th century historians sought to forget, now lives on for another generation to ponder.