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In 1793, a fire erupted in downtown Albany that destroyed of many offices and shops, as well as twenty-six homes. Arson was suspected almost immediately, and many of the city’s wealthiest residents—most of whom were slaveowners—concluded that the fire must have been the work of slaves. In the tense days and weeks that followed the fire, numerous slaves were held by authorities and interrogated, and three slaves between the ages of twelve and sixteen confessed and were later hanged on Pinkster Hill, where the New York State Capitol is now located. The slaves implicated two white men who were apparently not arrested in connection with the fire. It is impossible to know, at this point, whether the executed slaves were actually guilty of starting of the fire, but there are now questions about the possibility that their confessions were coerced. 

A rendering of what downtown Albany looked like in the 1800s, shortly after the fire

Sky, Cloud, Property, Building

On November 17, 1793, a massive fire erupted in downtown Albany, New York. The fire swept through the city, destroying several blocks of buildings in the heart of Albany, including numerous offices and businesses, as well as twenty-six homes. The cost of the damage was estimated at $250,000, an enormous sum at the time.

Arson was almost immediately suspected, but there were a variety of opinions about who could have started the fire and why. Some Albany residents suspected that the fire was the result of political dispute between Federalists and the anti-Federalist state senator (and wealthy merchant) Leonard Gansevoort, whose mansion was at the heart of the fire. Soon, however, many of the city’s wealthy residents, most of whom were slaveowners, concluded that the fire must have been set by slaves. This belief was likely driven by a near-paranoia regarding slave rebellions that had taken hold among New Yorkers. New York City had been the site of a slave rebellion and arson spree in 1741 and, at the time of the Albany fire, Haiti was gripped by a bloody slave rebellion that began in 1791. Consequently, Albany’s laws dealing with slaves were especially oppressive.

In the aftermath of the fire, a strict curfew was imposed on the city’s slaves, who were rounded up and questioned about the night of the fire. One of them, a twelve-year-old girl named Bett, who confessed to her involvement in the fire. She also implicated two other young slaves, Dinah, was a fourteen-year-old girl, and Pompey, a sixteen-year-old boy. According to the confession, Pompey was approached by two white men who held a grudge against Gansevoort. The men offered Pompey a pocket watch in exchange for his setting fire to Gansevoort’s house and shop. According to the confession, Pompey then enlisted the help of Dinah and Bett, who brought him hot coals.  Bett would also claim that she and Dinah set Gansevoort’s stable on fire rather than his house, knowing a fire in the home might make it impossible for his family to escape. Remarkably, no one died in the fire, at the Gansevoort home or elsewhere. It is impossible to know now whether the confessions were legitimate or coerced, but given the fact that these were young enslaved people faced with judgment by a hostile white population, there is at least the strong possibility that the confessions were coerced.

At the trial’s conclusion, both girls stated that Pompey was not involved in the fire, but Pompey confessed and stated that the two girls were innocent. The two white men who allegedly approached Pompey were not identified and apparently never investigated.

All three were convicted and sentenced to hang. Bett and Dinah were hanged on March 14, 1794, and Pompey was hanged the following month. Bett and Pompey were hanged from the “hanging tree” in downtown Albany, but Dinah, who was considered to be the most intransigent of the three, was executed at a different location. For Dinah, a gallows was built on Pinkster Hill, the site where the New York State Capitol now sits. This site was chosen to strike fear into the hearts of the city’s enslaved people. Unique to New York and New Jersey, Pinkster was a mutli-day celebration of Dutch origin that was one of the only breaks they received from their daily labor. For people of African descent, the festival involved plenty of food and drink, parades, music, and African dance, and it was typically celebrated on Pinkster Hill. By hanging Dinah at the spot where Pinkster celebrations took place, the slave-owning residents of Albany clearly meant to intimidate the city’s enslaved people. Nonetheless, Albany’s African American residents continued observing Pinkster on Pinkster Hill until 1811, when it was banned by the city. The celebration remained forbidden until the 2000s, and in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the tradition. 

Levine, David . An Inside Look at the Most Devastating Fire in Albany's History , Hudson Valley Magazine. December 3rd 2021. Accessed May 9th 2022.

Grondahl, Paul. Re-Examining the Albany Fire of 1793 and Three Slaves Hanged for It, Times Union. February 19th 2014. Accessed May 9th 2022.

The Conflagration of 1793, New York State Museum. Accessed May 9th 2022.