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The New York Conspiracy Trials Research Paper

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Updated: Jun 19th, 2021

Introduction

While cases of judicial misconduct proceed to be reported nowadays, the study of historical trials can provide accounts that illustrate the topic particularly well. In the 18th century, judges could, for example, participate in the investigation, torture was an acceptable method, and defendants could be provided with no defense (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 9, 12-13). Thus, the verdicts of such trials cannot be viewed as well-founded, even if they managed to identify the culprit. In the present paper, the New York Conspiracy Trials will be considered, and it will be demonstrated that because of the imperfections of the procedures, it is difficult to agree with the death sentences that resulted from many of them. The paper will show that supporting the defense appears more reasonable than supporting the prosecution, even though some additional trials might be required to discover the truth.

Summary of the Cases

The New York Conspiracy included multiple trials, which resulted in death sentences. Several consecutive fires happened in New York in 1741, which led the community to assume that they must have been caused by people (Harpham 265). At the time, white citizens were worried about possible slave uprisings, as well as the Spanish and French intentions to conquer America (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 1). As a result, they assumed that black slaves, especially Spanish ones, were likely to have devised a plot to murder their masters and mistresses. The situation was aggravated when a black slave was seen at the site of one of the fires. After that, the authorities started detaining and interrogating slaves.

The process involved torture; the soon-following trials often required for the accused to defend themselves, used low-quality evidence, and the sentence was death (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 12-13). The slaves started to name other slaves in the hopes of being spared. A few confessions were made, but it is unclear if they were truthful; they contradicted each other. In the end, 150 slaves were detained, 34 of them were executed, and 71 were deported (Reitano 18). A smaller number of whites, who were believed to be the masterminds behind the plot, were detained and executed as well (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 20). The case is an example of particularly massive judicial misconduct.

Analysis

The truth behind the fires of 1741 is uncertain; it is not clear what actually happened. Some suggestions have been made, but even the people who witnessed the events had mixed feelings about it (“Letter” par. 1-2). It can be suggested that the patterns of the fires are suspicious, which is why it may be assumed that some of them could be the result of arsons. Alternatively, it can be proposed that no plots were in place; in that case, the “conspiracy was a creation of the white imagination” (Horsmanden 265). Given the direct evidence of the racism of the time, this idea also seems to have some ground. Therefore, it makes little sense to try to determine the guilt or innocence of particular defendants. Still, it can be stated that the methods employed by the prosecution guaranteed a high chance of false accusations.

Indeed, there were many problems with the approaches of the prosecution. The most important of them was the low quality of the evidence used. Some of the issues include the fact that most of the defendants were tortured and offered pardons for naming other conspirators. Also, the punishment for the alleged arson was death, which was typically painful (for instance, burning to death) (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 12-13). People could choose to avoid torture or death sentence by naming other people regardless of their affiliation with arsonists. As a result, testimonies were contradictory (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 26). Given the fact that the punishment for the “plot” was the death sentence, it appears that the methods should have been more advanced.

The quality of the evidence was further deteriorated because of the institutionalized racism of the epoch. For example, black people could only provide testimonies against other black people (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 13). In general, given the level of prejudice towards “Negros” at the time, it appears feasible that judges, prosecutors, and other people involved in the process were biased as well. Since racism was a socially approved norm, they would not be expected to reflect on their personal perspectives.

Finally, there were other individual flaws in the prosecution methods. For instance, judges could participate in investigations while the defendants were deprived of any defense (Linder, “The New York Conspiracy” par. 9). In general, the rights of the defendants were repeatedly violated during the trials, and racism only aggravated the situation. As a result, the conduct of the people who were involved in the process was not only ineffective; it was completely inappropriate for a court. Given the fact that the defense was often conducted by the trialed themselves, it appears logical to agree with the defense.

One of the other trials that the Conspiracy tends to be compared to is Salem’s Witch Trials. The similarities were discovered even by the witnesses of the conspiracy (“Letter” par. 1-2). During the witch hunt, nineteen people were executed, and about two hundred of them were imprisoned for witchcraft after young girls started to exhibit strange disease symptoms (Linder, “The Witchcraft” par. 8, 23; Reed 76). The disease remains unknown, although some suggestions can be made, and it may not have affected all the “victims” since two of the girls had very similar testimonies (Linder, “The Witchcraft” par. 10). Still, the religious community assumed that witches were to blame. The afflicted girls named a number of people, and when one of the accused confessed, the trials started. They were based on low-quality evidence (for instance, gossip) and presupposed no means of protecting the rights of the defendants (Linder, “The Witchcraft” par. 15). Additionally, it should be noted that the accusers could pursue financial and political gain; also, “women out of place” were targeted (Reed 75). Thus, sexism and different forms of inequality were involved.

The information about the trial was used as inspiration for The Crucible, which is a play by Arthur Miller (Reed 74). The primary difference between the conspiracy and the witch hunt was the fact that the accusations of witchcraft were bound to be completely unfounded while the arson could have indeed taken place (Horsmanden 265; Reed 74). However, given the methods of the prosecution in the conspiracy plots, it was unlikely to find the arsonist while it was very capable of harming innocents. As a result, there are more similarities between the two events: both were cruel, disproportionate responses to alleged events that resulted in executions. Also, both targeted disadvantaged people: the poor, women, and slaves. Despite that, no protection was offered to those people. Thus, the issues of the conspiracy might not have been unique to it and could have been caused by the specifics of the judicial system at the time.

Counterpoint

Since the truth is impossible to determine now, it appears reasonable to consider a counterpoint with respect to the mechanics of the trials. One might note that when reviewing a historical event, it may be appropriate to discuss it from the perspective of its time period. For instance, one could suggest that death sentences at the time were considered appropriate punishment. Therefore, it should not be argued that the gravity of the sentence can be viewed as an argument against the prosecution. However, it can still be suggested that given the specifics of the punishment, it would be reasonable to conduct a more rigorous investigation.

On the other hand, it is possible to suggest that the ineffective methods were used because no effective alternatives had been devised by then. However, such an argument could also be used, for example, to absolve the institutionalized racism that was illustrated by the case, which is not appropriate. Additionally, it should be noted that the lack of alternatives does not change the fact that the methods could not protect innocent people. Therefore, they were ineffective and resulted in false accusations, which is why the trials cannot be viewed as humane or appropriate even from the perspective of the historical events.

Conclusion

The New York Conspiracy was a set of trials that illustrated the judicial misconduct that may have been common at the time. This idea can be proven through the comparative analysis of this event and the Salem witch hunt. Both of them were characterized by discrimination, the lack of mechanisms for protecting human rights, and the use of low-quality investigation and prosecution methods that could guarantee false accusations. In the conspiracy trials, defendants were typically forced to defend themselves, but they mostly failed and were executed. Given the imperfections of the trials, it is impossible to agree with the prosecution; therefore, it is more reasonable to support the defense.

Works Cited

Famous Trials, Web.

Horsmanden, Daniel. Famous Trials, Web.

Linder, Douglas. Famous Trials, Web.

Famous Trials, Web.

Reed, Isaac Ariail. “Deep Culture in Action: Resignification, Synecdoche, and Metanarrative in the Moral Panic of the Salem Witch Trials.” Theory and Society, vol. 44, no. 1, 2015, pp. 65-94.

Reitano, Joanne R. The Restless City. 3rd ed., Routledge, 2018.

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