Conflagration 1793 is a short historical fiction which takes us back to a little-known episode in the history of Albany, the state capital of New York. The story begins with the drive-by shooting of three African American teenagers near the State Capitol in December, 2016. Two die on the spot but one girl, Dinah Valker, awakens in the distant past. She discovers that not only is she a slave of the local merchant Volkert Douw but that her friends Pompey and Bethany are also living in that other world.
NYS Capitol, site of the hanging
of three young slaves in 1793
Here's the moment of Dinah's awakening after she was shot on Elk Street behind the State Capitol:
“Girl! Come here, I say, girl!” Mistress Douw turned in exasperation to her husband. “Meister Douw, do ye see what I be saying? The wench has gone daft.”
“How long is it that the wench is so bespelled?”
“Above half an hour, I ken. She was able and cheerful as ever when she woke and ‘sisted with all the morning chores. Then of a sudden she is in such state as this, stock still and staring as if stricken with an apoplexy.”
“I doubt it be an apoplexy, mistress mine.” Volkert van Douw took the clay pipe from his mouth and went up close to the girl, waving his broad hand before her face. “She has scarce fifteen years.”
“Ye said the Ulsterman you bought her of said she was hale n’ hearty.”
“He did.” Volkert pinched the girl’s arm with getting any reaction. He pulled both her ears. She did not move.
“The dusky ones are said to be prone to sickness.”
“I’ve as oft heard the contrary to be true. My father was fond of saying that the darker the hue, the sturdier the stock.” He sat down at kitchen bench and re-lit his pipe. “Tho I will confess, my heart, that the Ulsterman did drop his price without much cavil.”
“I’ve always said you were too quick to take the lowest priced goods.”
“Oh, tush your self, my dear Anna, we’ve had good service of this wench for near two year. Perhaps if you slap her soundly?”
“In the face?”
“Try the rump. “Twill not leave her marred.
“And wherefore should I be the one to chastise the wench?”
“I’d take it as a favor, for I’m too kind-hearted to strike the maiden meself, black as coal tho she is.”
Mistress Van Douw reached down a wooden spoon from a peg on the wall and stepping behind the apparently frozen girl, proceeded to strike her first once, then twice and three times. On the fourth blow, the girl yelped and gave a little jump.
“Fuck! What’d you do that for, lady?”
Ten years after the end of the Revolutionary War, New York had not yet taken any legal steps toward the abolition of slavery the enslaved population of the Hudson Valley was the highest of any state north of the Mason-Dixon line. The greatest number of slaves worked on the large plantations owned by the Livingstons, Van Rensselaers and other wealthy families, but well-to-do families in Albany, New York and other towns relied on slaves as their household servants. Slave masters, however, were uneasy at newspaper reports of the bloody rebellion that had broken out in Haiti two years earlier. It was in this climate of fear that a fire broke out in Albany on the night of November 17, 1793, destroying the central section of the town, bounded by Market Street, State Street, Middle Lane and Maiden Lane. The primitive fire-fighting methods available, principally a bucket brigade to the river, did nothing to stop the blaze until a sudden sleet storm put out the fire.
Maiden Lane at the present time
Dinah finds herself implicated in setting this fire, which in my version of the events, is part of a planned slave uprising instigated by two men, Sanders and Bessbrown, who played a mysterious in the actual 1793 fire but were never charged:
“Lemme ask you both somethin,” Pompey looked from the one man to the other. “Why you come to Albany to start this here uprisin? Ain’t there a lot mo slaves down South?”
“We’ve done our research, Pomp, and the Hudson Valley has more slaves than any place north of Virginia. These old patroons have very large plantations over in Kinderhook and Claverack. Hundreds of slaves, all chained up. But here in Albany, you people have a lot of freedom to traipse about on your own. If we can get fifty men to rise here, set fire to the town and march to the plantations, those slaves will soon join us and we’ll seize the city of New York. From there, we’ll gather thousands to advance into the deep bastions of slavocracy in Maryland and Virginia and the Carolinas.”
“But what do ye think all the other whi’ men be doin whilst you lead the black folks off to war?” Pompey asked them. “They gonna jus sit by and watch?”
“But don’t you understand, Pomp. I told you all about France, didn’t I? How the poor whites rose up and tore down the king and all the rich people?”
“Aye, ye tole me all that,” the boy muttered sullenly. “Back when I was yo family’s slave. Before I got sold to Vischer.”
“You know that I did not want my family to sell you, Pompey. I would have surely freed you as soon as I came into my inheritance.”
“So you say, but you went to France and yo mother sold me lickety-split. When I tole her you promised me my freedom, she had me whipped. That ain’t right.”
“I apologize, Pompey, for my mother’s actions.”
Bethany nudged her friend. “Now I seen everythin! A whi’ man apologizing to a nigger.” Dinah shook her head, still unable to believe the incredible racism even Black people took for granted here.
“Why’nt you buy me my freedom now?” Pompey complained.
“I would if only I could come into my inheritance,” Sanders tried to excuse himself. “But Judge Ten Eyck won’t budge. It’s all in the way my father’s will was written.”
Bessbrown was clearly growing impatient. “Listen, sanders, enough with all this palaver. If your boy can’t raise the men he promised, we need to change our plan to another town. Kingston perhaps.”
“No, no, Pomp can do it. And these brave girls will perform their part.” For the first time Sanders looked at Bethany and Dinah. “Are you primed to strike for your freedom, lasses? You should have seen the maidens of Paris when they rose up, kitchen knives in hand. I swear, Marat and Danton would have had no revolution at all without les femmes de Paris behind them!”
He reached out and took both their hands in his own. “And comely wenches such as you are surely capable of inveigling stout men to join the cause, are you not?”
They each nodded uncertainly. “Is we to be paid?” Bethany dared to ask. “Paid?” laughed Sanders.
“You’ll be paid with the finest coin of the realm, liberty itself!”
As they descended the hill back toward the sleeping town, Bethany asked Pompey if those white men were crazy. “It sound like they want us to burn up Albany town and kill all the other whi’ people. That don’t make no sense.”
“First of all, Mr Bessbrown, he a nigger too but he gotta act like he Mr. Sander’s slave. So they’s only one whi’ man, Mr Sanders. He kinda stupid but he truly want all niggers to be free.”
“All I know is they both stupid if they think us niggers gonna get free by doin what? Burning down all the whi’ people’s houses? What that gonna do ‘cept get us hanged?”
“Yeah,” added Dinah. All this time she had been watching Pompey and saw no signs that he had any memory of the other world. She laughed out loud at the strangeness of it all and her friend smiled at her.
Simeon DeWitt's 1793 map of Albany, from the NYS Archives
Much like the contemporary inclination to immediately suspect Islamic terrorism for any act of mass violence, the white people of Albany assumed that their slaves were responsible for the fire. The immediate reaction can be found in an 1830 newspaper account quoted by Joel Munsell’s in his 1854 Annals of Albany:
The fire was so plainly the work of an incendiary, that not only were several slaves arrested upon suspicion, but subsequently a meeting of the common council was held and an ordinance passed forbidding any Negro or mulatto, of any sex, age or description whatever, from walking in the streets or lanes after 9 o'clock in the evening, or from being in any tavern or tippling house after that hour, under penalty of twenty-four hours confinement in the jail. At the expiration of such confinement they were to be brought before the mayor, recorder or an alderman, when they were at liberty to show, by their master or mistress, that they were out upon lawful and necessary business. If they established this fact, they were discharged upon paying the jail expenses; but if they failed, they were further punished by fine and imprisonment. The municipal authorities were active in ferreting out the perpetrators of this high crime, which, according to the English law, was punishable with death. It was then the law of this land, and as punishment was more summary than it is now, the guilty parties knew that hanging would follow conviction, proceedings in court which followed this fire attracted much attention, particularly among the colored population, in consequence of several of their number having been arrested upon suspicion of being implicated in the arson. [The above taken from the Albany Evening Journal which began publication in 1830]
Predictably, three slaves were quickly arrested. In the state archives in Albany is a very old legal document, the confession of one of the three, a slave girl known as Bet. The ancient paper bearing her mark, the signatures of three aldermen, Abraham Ten Eyck, Joseph Lansing and Durch Ten Broeck is the primary source for my fiction.
The final page of "Bet's confession"from the NYS Archives
Her confession, written in the third person by her interrogator, outlines the role of two other slaves, Pompey and my main character, Dinah. The document also indicates a key role of two white men in instigating the fire, a man named Sanders from Schenectady and a mysterious figure named Bessbrown. According to Bet, Sanders had offered a gold watch to Pompey if he would set fire to the property of Peter Gansevoort, and Pompey inveigled the girls to join the plot.. According to her account, Sanders was angry because Gansevoort had blocked his courtship of his daughter. Bessbrown’s role is less clear, as is the role of a third white man, a jeweler named Murray.
Since 1788 slaves were entitled to a jury trial but I could find no record for the trial of Bet, Dinah and Pompey. What is known is that none of the whites were charged but after some delays, all three of the young slaves were hung at Pinkster Hill, now the site of the State Capitol building.
from NY History Blog
The history of slavery in Albany, and the fate of these three young people, has not been completely ignored in recent years. In 2015 Schuyler Friends, an education project sponsored by historic Schuyler Mansion produced a dramatic recreation of the events which can be found on You Tube as The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793. The Friends of Schuyler Mansion also developed a set of lesson plans on slavery and the 1793 fire for elementary, middle school and high school levels.
There have been significant efforts to make sure that new generations do not forget the tradition of the Pinksterfest, Albany’s Dutch-African Spring Festival which was once held on the same hill where the three slave children were executed and where the State Capitol now stands. (See reference in this article to “the merchant prince” Volkert Douw, who features in my story as the owner of the slave girl Dinah.)