1789 etching of Dutch rowhouses in Albany | Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Struggles for abolition in the North, historic legal proceedings, and tragedy surround this 1793 fire in Albany, New York’s capital.
“Sunday, the 17th of November 1793, was a day long remembered by the inhabitants of this city, and the few who still linger among us retain a vivid recollection of the scenes enacted during that night. The greater portion of the then quiet church-going people of the day had retired to rest, and were slumbering upon their pillows, when they were awakened by the alarming cry of fire.”
So begins the recounting of Albany’s worst fire by historian Joel Munsell in his 1860s Collections on the History of Albany. The cry of fire was perhaps the most frightening sound for any city dweller to hear throughout most of urban history. Cities from San Francisco to Chicago to London burned to the ground, victims of highly flammable building materials and lack of firefighting equipment and know-how. The 1793 conflagration was the first big fire recorded in Albany, which in itself makes it noteworthy. It is, however, even more historic for another reason: It was set by three slaves.
It is an unfortunate truth that slavery was both common and legal in the North until the early 1800s. According to the 1790 census, the city of Albany had a population of about 3,500, of which 572 were slaves and 26 were “free persons of color.” Although slaves in the North tended to have more freedom than in the South, their lives were still harsh. “This wasn’t a plantation economy, but urban slaves couldn’t move around,” says Tony Opalka, the Albany city historian. “Most were house servants.” Slave revolts were much in the news in the 1790s. A large insurrection in 1792 in what is now Haiti had many Americans worried. But the Albany fire seems not to have been an act of insurrection so much as a mercenary act of vengeance. And the facts are in dispute. Nevertheless, when the fire burned out and justice — such as it was — was served, three slaves were hanged.
According to a 1977 article in the Journal of Black Studies, the sparks for the fire were ignited on November 14. On that date, Pompey (also known as Pomp), a slave belonging to the estate of Matthew Visscher, met two teenage slave girls: Bet, owned by Philip S. Van Rensselaer; and Dinah, or Dean, property of Volkert Douw.
Pomp told the girls that two white men had “a grudge” against a prominent Albany merchant named Leonard Gansevoort. Munsell writes, “Tradition asserts that a young man named Sanders, residing in Schenectady, had been paying marked attention to the only daughter of Leonard Gansevoort, and that, from a just, real, or imaginary cause, he had either been jilted by that young lady, or been quietly informed by her father, that his visits to his house were unsolicited and very annoying. This, as it might naturally be supposed, came with crushing weight upon the feelings of a young man, proud in spirit and exalted in his future expectation. His whole mind seemed to have been centered in that direction, and the unexpected bursting of his high hopes and expectations, caused him to become a viper and to return the sting.”
Sanders had a jeweler friend who offered Pomp a watch if he set fire to Gansevoort’s house and store, on Market Street (now Broadway) between State Street and Maiden Lane.
On the night of the 17th, Bet and Dean took live coals from the Douw house, placed them in a lantern, and accompanied Pomp to the Gansevoort stable, where Pomp put the coals in a pile of hay. The fire spread quickly, and by the time it burned out the next morning, most of the block bordered by Broadway, Maiden Lane, and James and State streets was destroyed. In all, 26 homes were lost, and only a heavy rain and sleet storm kept the entire city from burning.
“The fire was so plainly the work of an incendiary,” Munsell writes, “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 nine o’clock in the evening, or from being in any tavern or tippling house after that hour, under penalty of 24 hours confinement in the jail.”
“It’s interesting that slaves were restricted after this, suggesting they weren’t before,” Opalka says.
Several slaves, including Bet and Dean, were rounded up and brought to the jail, and Bet confessed first, implicating Pomp as well. She signed a deposition of confession on November 28. The three were tried on January 6, 1794. The girls pled guilty, but Pomp claimed innocence. He was convicted, and three days later they all were sentenced to death. For reasons that are unclear, Gov. George Clinton ordered stays of execution. Pomp confessed but cleared Bet and Dean, which may have prompted further investigations. But the stay was only temporary. The girls were hanged on March 14, Pomp on April 11, 1794.
Times were changing
“It’s hard to figure out exactly what was going on,” Opalka says. “This fire was not set by slaves against their owners. It was a third party. Another author says the grudge may be more speculative than real. There is mystery about their motivation, and the fact that the governor intervened with a reprieve is unusual.”
But the event does show how attitudes toward slavery were slowly changing. A 1788 law had allowed slaves due process. “The fact they had a jury trial is very interesting,” the historian says. Albany became an active abolitionist city in the first quarter of the 19th century, he says, and “most people in Albany have no idea the city was a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity.” New York State finally abolished slavery in 1827.
Sadly, all this activity came too late for Bet, Dean, Pomp, and the homeowners of a block in downtown Albany.