Rose Butler and Social Upheaval in early 19th century Greenwich Village

From 1750-1850, the institution of slavery slowly declined in New York State in general and New York City in particular. Simultaneously, urban development pushed the city northward into once-rural areas. At the intersection of these shifting geographical and social boundaries, local Greenwich Village history evolved within the greater story of New York City. To illustrate, I’d like to take the case of one particular slave and contextualize an event that is often only briefly described in histories of Greenwich Village: the hanging of Rose Butler, a 19-year-old black female,1 for arson.

Arson was not the first criminal offense for Butler, who was born in November of 1799.2 Working from the age of sixteen as a domestic slave, she was accused of stealing from two of her owners including the Morris family.3 Butler had frequent disputes with Mrs. Morris, and Butler may have wanted to exact revenge.4

However, more than resentment against her owners may have been brewing at the time of her alleged crime. In Greenwich Village, Butler was surrounded by black people of many different walks of life. Her status as a slave was not unusual, but her experience must have rubbed up against the experiences of other black residents in her neighborhood. Emancipation was not an even progression, or even really an event, in New York City. For roughly 50 years before Rose Butler’s death, black people had been buying their own freedom from abolition-minded owners, buying their families’ freedoms, ushering people along the Underground Railroad, and migrating from other societies in the western hemisphere, such as the Dominican Republic.5 Black people had their own churches, civic organizations, newspapers, and trade groups by the time of Rose Butler’s execution. In fact, a free black neighborhood was burgeoning on the edges of Washington Square itself. “Little Africa” as it was called, held a variety of walks of black life, from slums to stable families.67 Could Butler's desire to commit arson have been exacerbated by these tense circumstances?

During the 1800s arson was seen as a serious crime because there was no way to defend against it,8 and in 1813 a new law was passed which imposed even harsher sanctions for arson committed when people were inside a house.9. After her arrest on March 5th, 1818 Butler blamed the crime on accomplices in order to escape these sanctions.10 In her version of the events, she had met some men at the Hook, an area known for dance halls.11 Three weeks before the fire, the two men followed her to a pump and asked her questions about Mrs. Morris, but she refused to answer them. A week later, they tried to convince her to run away with them and go to the Hook, but she would not leave. The week before the fire, they came to the house, asked if they could light cigars in the kitchen, and she allowed them.12

On the night of the fire, a string had been tied to the kitchen door so that the Morris family would be unable to escape.13 No one was injured however, and only two or three of the kitchen stairs were destroyed in the fire.14 At first Butler claimed that her accomplices had set the fire having gained entry with a false key, and that she had been with a friend at the time.15 Later however, she confessed that she had set fire to the house16. Her accomplices were never apprehended.17

Though unusual for women to receive the death penalty at the time, Butler was sentenced to hang.18 The governor granted her a five-week reprieve but she was eventually executed on July 9th.19


It was a hot day but this did not deter the crowds.20 Minister John Stanford spoke and declared that citizens of color had rights but also the obligation to live within the law.21 People huddled in doorways and in windows near the site in order to watch.22 Some people climbed trees and onto rooftops to obtain a better view23 of what turned out to be the last hanging in the potter's field now known as Washington Square Park.

In the early 19th Century, Greenwich Village was in flux. The neighborhood was shifting from a largely pastoral area to an urban area, and certainly by the time NYU began construction on its first building on Washington Square in 183224, the area had become quite urban.


Genteel residences bordered Washington Square Park, while a few blocks to the south lived a variety of immigrants, free blacks, and other low-income residents. A major population shift occurred in 1822, when a yellow fever scare (following three decades of epidemics) caused residents of lower Manhattan to flee their homes. Newspaper accounts describe a steady stream of settlers moving northward to Greenwich Village in 1822, and the rise in population cemented the area's newfound urbanity.25 As wealthy residents moved northward to live at the newly fashionable Washington Square address, of course their slaves and domestic servants moved with them.26 Rose Butler was one of these slaves. She lived very close to freedom, geographically and temporally.

Rose Butler was the last person known to be executed at the potter's field because of these rapid changes in the neighborhood. The location of the gallows and potter's field in Washington Square Park was falling out of favor as the populations shifted. Wealthy residents were not so keen on having a potter’s field and gallows right outside their door, and besides, the potters’ field was quickly filling up. In 1825, public health officials determined that the mass grave was a health risk and the ground was covered over. Its main use shifted from a cemetary to a military parade ground, where volunteer regiments of aristocratic young men ran drills.27

Another interesting aspect of Butler's case is that it went all the way to the state supreme court. There was a question of whether arson was a capital offense, deserving the death penalty, or a common law offense, in which case the punishment would be a prison sentence.28 The legal wrangling attracted great public attention.29

It is unfortunate that Rose Butler died less than a decade before she would have been freed. New York's slow and graduate path toward emancipation ended in 1827, when slaves were finally freed.30 Largely credited with pushing through these slavery reforms, the New York Manumission Society was made up of wealthy white residents of Manhattan who saw a conflict between the ideology of the revolutionary war and the institution of slavery. The Manumission Society was instrumental in legislative and educational help for freed blacks. For instance, they started the African Free Schools in 1787.31 They formed these schools to educate newly freed blacks in order for them to be equipped to deal with the responsibilities of freedom. The schools were integrated into the New York City Public School system in 1834. The third school of seven was in Greenwich Village, and was located right in Rose Butler’s neighborhood at the time of her crime and hanging.32 Legislatively, New York passed two laws towards emancipation in Rose Butler’s lifetime. In 1799, the gradual emancipation act stipulated that any slave born after that year would not be granted their freedom after 25 or 28 years of servitude. In 1817, another emancipation law passed that granted all slaves their freedom by 1827 in New York State.33

Could white anxieties about new black cultural and political freedoms right in their neighborhood have contributed to such a harsh, unusual sentence for this young female slave? Perhaps in some sense Rose was the victim of these tensions.34

In a neighborhood in flux, in a time fraught with shifting status and relationships between whites and blacks in New York City, a young slave living in a world of free blacks attempts to set her master’s house on fire. Although the punishment was unusually harsh, especially for a woman, and although there is some evidence that disrupts her sole responsibility in the crime, she is executed anyway, the last hanging at a gallows viewed as unsightly for new wealthy residents of the area. Viewed in context, the story of Rose Butler is a product of upheaval in Greenwich Village in the early 19th century.

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