Manhattan Lives: Lower Class Women and Indentured Servants

Horsmanden wrote “a check has been put to the execrable malice, and bloody purposes of our foreign and domestic enemies” to conclude his controversial Journal. This statement, rather represented the structure of societal hierarchy that needed to be guarded from “domestic enemies”, more specifically, ‘class’ enemies. This is the quintessential factor that makes up Horsamnden’s descriptions of the main participants of the 1741 New York Trials. Moreover, these descriptions provide insight to the lives of indentured servants and lower class women. Particularly, Horsmanden unwillingly describes the lives of Mary Burton, an indentured servant, and Peggy Kerry, an Irish prostitute, while he records the proceedings of the trials. The Journal provides excerpts that pertain to their lives which can be pieced together to show their subordination, not only based on their class origins but also on their sex, to the elite classes and their own kind. Moreover, the prejudicial manner in which the court viewed these women had considerable effects on the outcomes of the trials. Both Mary Burton and Peggy Kerry had particularly difficult lives as subordinates to the elite classes because of the hierarchical and patriarchal system that dominated the colony.

Mary Burton’s life as an indentured servant was entirely facilitated by the hierarchical organization both at home and in society. In other words, Mary Burton was under the control of her master, Mr. Hughson, as well as the colonial elites. Horsmanden records that Mary was roughly 16 years old and was considered a “spinster of New York” by the royal court. It is odd that the court used the term ‘spinster’ to describe her, as it is usually associated with old single women, but it was done so to rather describe her as unmarried. Her contract was purchased by John Hughson when she was very young, as she was most likely orphaned as there is no account of her family or any relatives. In the Hughson house her duties revolved around housework and other menial outdoor labors. Essentially her main role was to serve the Hughsons until she could purchase her freedom. Zabin herself mentioned in her brief analysis of Mary that she was completely “dependent on her masters for food and shelter”, as all servants in her situation were. The Hughson’s did not treat Mary particularly well, as evidenced by their attempt to “darken her character” when she was given testimony against them. They presented her in absolutely negative light in order to gain favor with the court. For example, she was called a “vile” and “good for nothing girl” in order to make her testimonies seem less convincing. Moreover, when Mary was asked to give testimony she inferred countless times that she was afraid of the “Hughsons and Negroes poisoning her”. Mary’s life inside the Hughson household was characterized by “terrible apprehensions” as evidence by the fear she presented to the court countless times. Outside the home she was under the same control. Horsmanden’s account of Tuesday March the 3d when Mary visited the Kannaday house , infers that she was influenced to testify for her own benefit. The same instance occurred in court before her first deposition, where the judges appealed her to reconsider and to present her testimony. It was evident that Mary was entirely stuck between the power struggle of her masters and that of the court, where both were centered around hierarchal principles of organization.

Mary’s relationship with the judges and those of her class was indicative of the fact that she held a subordinate role. The court persuaded Mary to give her testimony, assuring her that no harm would come to her, as she finally testified to the crimes the Hughsons and their ‘conspirators’ had committed, in her first desposition. It was partially for her malleable character that the court held such control over her, and was able to use her to their own ends. For instance, she was “exhorted to speak the truth” by the local town clerk knowing the dangers she faced. Moreover, she was promised freedom from her indenture if she confessed by the court. It was this offer which persuaded her to continue with her unveiling of all of those guilty that subordinated her not only to the court but to the system under which it functioned. Her relationship with the community became strained as people despised her because her testimonies caused countless slaves to be jailed, which were a valuable labor commodity in 1741. Moreover, the public spectacle that arose out of the trials, put Mary at odds with all the other participants at the trials. For instance, when she gave her testimony the Hughsons wept, and caressed their children in hopes of forming a positive image in order to invoke mercy in the judges’ conclusions. This undoubtedly caused Mary’s image to be further deplored by her ‘own kind’. Once the proceedings were finished Mary was granted 100 pounds where she used 19 to buy her freedom. Therefore, Mary was not only scared of what the Hughson’s and conspirators would do to her, but also of the court itself. The fact that she was an indentured servant played a significant role in the way the community and courts interacted with her, as she was at the lower end of the social hierarchy.

Peggy, a defendant in the trial, might have been guilty of partaking in the conspiracy, but was most definitely a victim of her class and sex as she, like Mary, held a subordinate role in the patriarchy. Margaret Sorubiero, known as Peggy, was an Irish prostitute that lived with the Hughsons and most likely worked on the side in their tavern. She was looked down upon by the elite because she was involved with black slaves and freemen. Horsmanden, refers to Peggy as the “Newfoundland Irish beauty” and continues to describe her as the worst kind of prostitute, “a prostitute to Negroes”. Moreover, Peggy had a child with Caesar, one of the black defendants, which had a serious strain on the manner in which she was considered at the court. It is apparent that Peggy did have a sexual relationship which Caesar, due to the child they had together. Horsmanden makes it clear numerous times that Mary Burton testified about Peggy and Caesar’s relationship. Peggy’s “notorious reputation” was not only due to the fact that she was a prostitute, and was of Irish descent, but also due to the fact that she had a child with a black man. It is evident that Peggy’s situation was a testament to the lives of many poor Irish women who had no choice to turn to prostitution to support themselves. In Peggy’s case, the fact that she worked for black men, made her situation far worse in the eyes of the colonial elite, and all of society as a whole. Essentially, it is important to consider that it is more probable that Peggy did not have much control over her life, as was used as a pawn both by the Hughsons and Caesar. For instance, she spoke of the Hughsons in a positive light at all instances, until she was convicted. Although she received some of the stolen goods from the Hoggs, it is more likely that her involvement was perpetrated by Caesar and her master’s wishes, as seen by her lack of self-determination during the trials.

Peggy’s relationship with the court was essentially destitute because of her line of work. The judges “exhorted” Peggy to give a confession with the promise of the governor’s pardon, which of course never occurred. This gives evidence to the fact that the court did not place any real value on Peggy, not only because she later confessed to her crimes, but because she worked as prostitute. This becomes evident when Horsmanden refers to Peggy as a “vile wretch” when discussing that her religious affiliations were irrelevant because of her trade. Also, as mentioned earlier, Peggy did not have a good standing with the court because of her relationships with black men. The importance of this factor can be seen in the court’s insistent attempts to call upon Mary Burton to testify against Peggy and Caesar. Horsmanden records this occurrence several times in his journal and stresses the fact that Caesar confessed that his relationship with Peggy was true. Therefore, Peggy’s lifestyle became heavily influential on the manner in which the court and Horsmanden viewed her. However, it is important to note, that her ethnicity only became an issue during the John Ury Trial were her papist believes essentially were used against her and her confessions. On the other hand, Peggy’s relationship with the other conspirators remained intact. Not only did she present the Hughson family and the black freed-men in a positive light, but mentioned that she occasionally confessed all of her sins and all “the wickedness she had done in the world” to John Ury. She remained part of the lower class community until her conviction, unlike Mary Burton whose testimonies led her to be entirely isolated under the protective ‘wing’ of the elite class.

Both women’s backgrounds and lifestyles had a considerable effect on the way the courts decided the fate of the defendants, which was inherently due to the hierarchical position of the judges. Mary Burton’s stature as a servant gave the court the ability to wield their complete control over her. What is meant by this is that her class did not give her any freedom of individuality between her original masters the Hughsons, and the court. Thus, all of Mary’s depositions held in themselves significant influence from the courts, who promised her freedom from her indentured contract. Essentially, she was easily influenced by the patriarchal control of the courts, which decided the death of numerous individuals. Peggy Kerry’s lifestyle posed a threat to the very balance of the institutions upheld by the courts. It is for this reason why she was tragically judged on the manner in which she lived, rather than the crimes she had committed. Horsmanden, makes multiple efforts to portray Peggy in the worst of lights, among which he mentions her child with the black man, Caesar, which Horsmanden refers to as the baby with a “dark complexion”. It is obvious that the court held a significant amount of prejudice in their decisions regarding Peggy, simply based on her lifestyle. All in all, it is important to note that the ‘fairness’ of the justice found within these trials was located within the biased assumptions of the judges. Although Mary was simply a witness, she was judged with the same precepts of the elite that dominated the court, and upheld the pillars of patriarchy and hierarchy.

Horsmanden’s Journal remains an important example of how lower class women were subordinates to the patriarchal elites in 1741 New York. Specifically, Mary Bourton, who was entirely under the control of the Hughsons and later under the court. Her life was characterized by the dominance of white male elites, who in the end, influenced her with the promise of freedom from her contract. Peggy’s socio-economic class, and the fact that she was a prostitute, yielded even more problems for her, because of the prejudice practiced during the trials. Overall, Horsmanden’s comment on “domestic enemies” was undoubtedly directed at the ‘conspirators’ such as Peggy, but also held in itself the idea of safe-keeping the structure of class hierarchy and patriarchal organization within society. In other words, both Mary and Peggy were controlled in order to maintain this traditional structure.

Works Cited:

Justice Daniel Horsmanden. A Journal of the Proceedings in the Detection of the Conspiracy. 1741. accessed at:

Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.


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