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The execution of Rose Butler in Washington Square Park

BY PAUL DeRIENZO | Next month marks 202 years since the last execution in Washington Square Park. A 19-year-old Black woman, still enslaved, named Rose Butler, was hanged in the square. Her crime was arson, setting a small fire that damaged some wooden steps in her owner’s house. She confessed to setting the fire and tying a string to a door to impede the family’s escape.

First some background.

Slavery was ubiquitous in New York when it was called New Amsterdam and ruled by the Dutch West Indies Company, a private entity heavily involved in the Atlantic slave trade.

The English who renamed the colony New York were also heavily involved in slaving and a thriving slave market was constructed at the foot of Wall St.

There were two major slave rebellions in the 18th century when about 6,000 or 7,000 New Yorkers owned about 1,000 Africans as slaves. After a 1712 rebellion led by African-born slaves, dozens of Black people were subject to draconian executions by burning and crushing. The rebellion also led slave owners to fear the possibility of insurrection.

Rumors of a slave conspiracy in 1741 that also included poor whites led to a murderous hysteria. Some historians are convinced there was no conspiracy, just the fevered imagination of fearful slave owners. A few mysterious fires were all that was needed for the execution of 13 Black people burned at the stake.

The executions occurred near today’s City Hall at the old Poor House, with the victims probably buried in the African Burial Ground just north of Chambers St.

In 1796, New York abolished the death penalty for crimes other than murder and treason. Arson was added as a capital crime in 1808.

New York ended slavery in fits and starts that makes it hard to pinpoint an exact date of freedom, such as the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, or Juneteenth, June 19, 1865, in Texas, the latter which was recently made a national holiday.

In 1799, New York freed future generations of slaves, but left then-current slaves in bondage. On March 31, 1817, slavery was officially abolished, but the last last slave was not actually freed until July 4, 1827. On that day, there were about 4,600 slaves in New York, and as Juneteenth was and is marked by celebrations, similarly, on Independence Day in 1827, Black people partied in the streets of New York and throughout the state.

Despite freedom, the voting rights of freed Black people in New York were severely limited until the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed in 1870.

Rose Butler was born a slave in Mount Pleasant, New York, in November 1799. She was sold to several owners, eventually in 1817 to William L. Morris, residing in Manhattan. In 1819 Butler was arrested for attempting to set fire to her owner’s house.

Although the damage was minor and no one was injured, Butler was sentenced to death and hanged in Washington Square Park.

During the trial Rose “confessed “ to the alleged arson. But, according to reports from the time, Rose also said she was coerced by two “white” men who “advised me to burn the house,” to which she refused. Rose testified one of the men claimed that “he would burn her out,” referring to the mistress of the house, threatening “to take away my life,” if she talked.

During the trial, she identified  four men whose names were not included in the trial record.

In a confession, Rose initially took blame for the act of arson claiming, “My mistress was always finding fault with my work, and scolding me. I never did like her.”

Rose Butler was hanged on July 9, 1819. The gallows stood at roughly the location of the arch in Washington Square Park. 10,000 people came to see the execution. Graffiti covered the area, according to an account written years later by a witness, newspaper editor and politician Thurlow Weed. He said the graffiti read:

Rose Butler sat upon a bench —

Down drop’t the trap and hanged a negro wench

Today graffiti in the park is more apt to read “ACAB,” shorthand for “All Cops Are Bastards.”

Rose Butler was apparently buried with about 20,000 other people beneath the park.

The potter’s field was separated by Minetta Creek — now long-since-buried underground and called Minetta Lane — from a Black-owned farm, part of land owned by Blacks called “Little Africa” until about 1910.

By the 1820s the potter’s field was closed and a parade ground built on the site as newly arrived rich people apparently didn’t want to live near a known burial site for paupers.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from these events, it’s that Black people, the poor and young people are among those who have shed their blood for this ground and have every right to be there.

DeRienzo is news director at WBAI radio 99.5 FM and WBAI.org.

8 Comments

  1. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus June 19, 2021

    So there was Weed in the park even then!

    Aside from the lynchings, and potter’s field, Washington Square Park has long been the center of art and revolution. Back in 1917, artists Marcel Duchamp, John Sloan and Gertrude Dick climbed to the top of the arch, set off firecrackers and declared Greenwich Village to be a Free Republic. Ms. Dick called herself “Woe,” and gave out business cards that read “Woe is me.”

    Later on, in 1960, the late Izzy Young of the Folklore Center led a protest when “the authorities” tried to end folk singing in the park. Shouldn’t there now be statues of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Buddy Holly, who used to stroll over to the fountain in his pajamas and strum his guitar at dawn?

    These days, the park has been taken over by a new crowd, and so I arrived the other evening with my 24-year-old son, who served as my tour guide. I saw fire-throwers, and a guy lying on a bench while vomiting on the pavement. Someone with a powerful motorcycle rammed his way through the crowd, and one of the lovely replica lampposts was scrawled with the message that it had now been taken over by “Satan 666.” It was a Tuesday night, and my son assured me that this was a relatively quiet evening.

    The park today is nothing more than a reflection of who we are as a people, and who are children are. Their joy at partying is contagious, though I think it ought to be transferred to the new empty pier, Pier 76, in the Hudson River, where it wouldn’t interrupt anyone’s sleep.

    But their darkness is our darkness. Their anger and need to find oblivion are the fruit of the society we have handed them. We can Police them, and indeed we need to, before someone is seriously hurt, but we need to listen to them as well.

    We cannot just react to their noise. We also have to listen to their pain.

  2. Paul Paul June 19, 2021

    Hi Harry, It wasn’t a “lynching,” but a perfectly legal execution by hanging under color of laws under the state and city of New York in 1819. It probably was an all-white, male jury of her “peers.” I could also imagine the circumstances that led the authorities to get a confession from a 19-year-old slave that she later recanted at trial. Yes, there was a trial, that was widely covered in the newspapers of the time. Searchable online. Rose Butler also had a top civil-rights attorney of the era to defend her and this was perceived as a major case at a time when the state’s legal approach to freed Black people was being formulated.

    • Harry Pincus Harry Pincus June 19, 2021

      Good piece, Paul.

      You and I are thinking of the park as it pertains to the past, but what we are seeing now is the future.

      The park belongs to everyone, and everyone should feel safe and free there. The Great University doesn’t own it, the wealthy neighbors don’t own it, and anger doesn’t own it either, no matter how righteous or justified it may be.

      • Paul Paul June 19, 2021

        The cops don’t own it either but try telling them that

  3. Harry Pincus Harry Pincus June 20, 2021

    I don’t think the cops want to “own” the park, Paul, and from what I’ve heard of the big meeting the other night, they are reticent to even guard the park, because they are afraid of getting hurt.

    The defund the police movement is particularly unrealistic when there is so much violence and chaos. It’s absurd and unfair to hear this coming from academic elite mayoral candidates who hire private guards, or ride around in limousines paid for by the taxpayers. We used to call these folks “limousine liberals,” remember? Cop haters don’t help anyone who is facing the real problems that exist in NYCHA houses and most neighborhoods of the city. They only want to sound “progressive” in order to feather their own nests.

    I favor more funding for educating and enlightening the police. I wouldn’t cut the class of trainees, but I would require them to read Malcolm X and Richard Wright; see an August Wilson play and actually listen to the stories of our inmates. There should be more cops who grew up in the same neighborhoods they are paid to protect.

    In the big picture, we need to look for the things we all have in common, and not exploit our differences to further our own agendas.

  4. Carol Lipton Carol Lipton June 20, 2021

    I live a block away from Prospect Park. There used to be an 8-hour electrified backyard concert during a block party every year, where a band played the worst of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It used to drive me crazy. Thankfully, the homeowners stopped it around 5 years ago. People are entitled to sleep and rest. You can’t function or do your work if your sleep is interrupted or disturbed by noise. The park was not built with the intention of it serving as a rave zone. There’s a huge difference between folk singing and boombox or amplified music. Now that Little Island is free and open until 1 am every night, wouldn’t that or Union Square be a better location for hanging out and playing music?

  5. Kevin Harris Kevin Harris June 21, 2021

    Blessings and Thanks!

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