At first glance, the story of the Albany Fire of 1793 looks as if it might have had a happy ending.
When three black slaves, a man and two women, were tried for arson, convicted and sentenced to hang, the citizens of Albany rose up and stopped the execution. Unfortunately, the reprieve lasted only a few weeks and the hangings — arson was a capital offense in those days — were carried out.
“The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793,” is a theatrical look at the events following the day of the trial. It is broken into four vignettes, all to be performed on Saturday at the Schuyler Mansion in Albany. Schuyler Mansion educator Michelle Mavigliano wrote the script for the short plays, which will be performed by 11 actors.
“We feel like this is a more entertaining way to tell the story,” said Mavigliano. “We’ve done this type of thing before and it’s very enjoyable. It’s a different way to bring the house alive for our audiences, rather than a dry lecture. It’s a great way of interpreting our history.”
‘The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793’
WHERE: Schuyler Mansion Historic Site 33 Catherine St., Albany
WHEN: 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Saturday
HOW MUCH: $7 for adults, $6 seniors and students, $5 members of the Schuyler Mansion Friends group, and $3, children 12 and under
MORE INFO: 434-0834
There will be three sets of performances on Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m. and again at 1 and 3 p.m. Reservations are required.
“We’re going to be using three rooms in the house and each one of the vignettes is about 20 minutes,” said Mavigliano.
“We’re calling them dramatic focus tours, and what we’re attempting to do is show some of the conversations that might have taken place the day after the hanging, focusing on the guilt or innocence of the three people accused. We’re going to show conversations between wealthy landowners, like Philip Schuyler, and conversations between Katherine Schuyler and other prominent women of the area. Then, we’ll also focus on the Schuyler slaves and the free blacks that were living in Albany.”
Jim Keil, a well-known actor in community theater circles in the Capital Region, will play Philip Schuyler, while also in the cast are Donald Hyman, Clifford Oliver Mealy, Sheilah London Miller, Umber Gold and Frederick Jones.
“We do have documentation for some of the characters,” said Mavigliano. “Donald Hyman will be playing a free black person named William Pepper, who lived in Albany at the time, and Cliff Mealy will play Prince, a slave at the Schuyler Mansion who he has played several times before. The second and third vignettes will be about black people interacting with each other, and the other two are made up of the wealthy whites.”
Mavigliano had to make up much of the dialogue, but she got a good indication of what people said and the general reaction from reading Albany newspapers of the day.
“In the Schuyler papers there’s a letter where he mentions, ‘I sent you a detailed letter about the conflagration last month,’ but unfortunately that letter has not been found,” said Mavigliano.
“So what I did primarily was to use the newspapers, particularly the Albany Register because there’s a very good write-up on what happened the day of the hanging.”
A black slave named Pompey and two teenage girls named Bett and Dinah, also slaves, were arrested for setting the fire in November of 1793, and were eventually hanged, the two girls on March 14 of 1794 and Pompey on April 11. Some of Albany’s most prominent citizens asked New York Governor James Clinton to intercede and he did, but the stay didn’t hold off the execution for long.
“The girl, Bett, did confess to throwing coal on the hay, but under what conditions did she confess, and then, why did they do this”? said Mavigliano. “Pompey seems to have instigated the entire matter, but what were his motivations? They may have all been bribed into doing this, and in those days black slaves could not testify against white people in court.”
As for Schuyler, a former general during the American Revolution and one of New York’s leading figures of the Colonial era, Mavigliano said he was the type of individual who respected the law of the land and the justice it meted out.
“From what we know of Philip Schuyler and his tone, he was the kind of guy who was a law-abiding citizen and very correct about what he did,” she said. “He may have had suspicions about other things involved in the case, but the girl did confess.”
The Schuyler Mansion will conduct a special panel discussion about the 1793 Fire and its aftermath at 6:30 tonight at the Howe Branch of the Albany Public Library at 105 Catherine St.
Siena history professor Jennifer Dorsey, University at Albany criminal justice professor Frankie Bailey, UAlbany Africana Studies professor Oscar Williams and former attorney Richard Bader will make up the panel. The discussion is free to the public.