A Shift in the Village

March 3 2017

On March 5th, 1818, a 19-year-old black woman named Rose Butler was arrested for arson in NYC. Butler was working as a domestic slave for the Morris family, who lived on Washington Square, when she attempted to burn the Morris house down with the family inside. No one was harmed, except for three stair steps in the house, but Butler was still sentenced to hang for her crime. Butler is the only person known to be hanged in or near the potters field that is now Washington Square Park. The incident reflects the tensions emerging in Manhattan, and greater New York, in a time of social change.

The park as a parade ground after the potters field was filled, 1851. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
The park as a parade ground after the potters field was filled, 1851. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Because of the questioning of laws on slavery in the city, many former slaves were able to buy their families freedom, while others, like Butler, were still forced to serve as domestic slaves. It was a time of change for race and class relationships, ultimately leading to the full emancipation of slaves in New York in 1827. Although she died less than ten years before emancipation, Butler’s story teaches us about anxieties and frustrations at a time of shifting racial ideologies, adding to the dynamic and complicated history of Greenwich Village.