By Daniel T. Weaver
The sentence of the five man court was that the prisoner “be carried to the place from whence she came + to be brot from there to the Place of Execution and there be burnt till she is dead.” The five Tryon (later Montgomery) County, New York justices were Jelles Fonda, (ancestor of Jane, Henry, Peter and Bridget), Adam Loucks (later a Stone Arabia tavern keeper), John Butler (notorious Tory raider during the Revolution), Joseph Chew (his son was Sir William Johnson’s god-child) and Peter Masten,
Witches were not usually burned at the stake in America as is commonly believed, but slaves were. During the first two years the new courthouse existed in Johnstown, two slaves were executed by burning. All we know about the first execution comes from Jeptha Simms who copied some old county records in his book, Frontiersmen of New York. He notes that on July 16, 1773, the county paid Colonel Daniel Claus three pounds four shillings “for burning a negro.”
The court record for the second execution doesn’t exist, but summaries of the preliminary examinations and trial do. The prisoner had only one name—Gitty or Litty, but that is even uncertain as the first letter of her name is hard to decipher and does not match other capital Gs or Ls in the document.
At her first examination before Justice Adam Loucks on March 7, 1774, Gitty confessed to burning the barn of her owner, Johannes Nellis, of the Palatine District. She stated, “That she went to bed on the night of the said fifth of March that after she had been in bed sometime A Man but whether Black or White she could not tell as it was dark, called to her to get up and set the said Barn on fire upon which she got up took a cole of fire out of the House with her and carried it to the Barn there put it on the Barn floor. After which return’d and went to her bed again.”
On March 11, Gitty was brought before Loucks, Butler and Chew. She pleaded not guilty before a five man jury consisting of John Thomson, Harmanus Smith, John Fonda, Peter Hansen and James Bennet. The court called five witnesses including Gitty’s owner, Jacob Klock, Adam Loucks, Prince (another Nellis slave) and James Chow, a free black.
Gitty’s trial was held on March 28. Seven additional jurors were impaneled, including Gilbert Tice (a well known Johnstown tavern keeper), Nathaniel Hilliard, Andrew Wemple, Wm. B. Bowen,
Peter Bowen, John Visher and Christian Sheck (possibly Sheehan). Further evidence was given on behalf of the King by Samuel Gray, Hendrick Waldrat and James Watkins, along with written evidence.
Justice was swift. The verdict death. We do not have a description of the burning. However, a description of the burning of a slave in Poughkeepsie about the same time reveals the barbarity of the punishment.
“A young slave, about twenty years of age, was…condemned to be burned to death. He was fastened to a stake, and when the pile was fired, the dense crowd excluded the air, so that the flames kindled but slowly, and the dreadful screams of the victim were heard at a distance of three miles. His master, who had been fond of him, wept aloud, and called to the Sheriff to put him out of his misery. This officer then drew his sword; but the master, still crying like a child, exclaimed, “Oh, don’t run him through!” The Sheriff then caused the crowd to separate, so as to cause a current of air; and when the flame burst out fiercely he called to the sufferer to “swallow the blaze;” which he did, and immediately he sunk dead.”
According to a record Simms copied out, Tryon County, on June 15, 1774 “Paid expenses attending the execution of a Negro wench as per vouchers.” The cost of Gitty’s execution was four pounds two shillings, slightly more than the bounty the county paid Jelles Fonda the same day for three wolf heads.
A year later, the principals in the trial had chosen sides in the Revolution and spent the next eight years confiscating or burning each others’ barns and houses and trying to kill one another. Tryon County became Montgomery County. Johnstown was the county seat until 1838. A kinder, gentler generation executed criminals by hanging. While the Fondas and other revolutionaries would declare their independence from Great Britain in 1775, slaves in New York state would wait another half century to get their freedom.
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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Recorder when owned by Mcleary Media LLC.