Nearly two hundred years ago today, on July 9th, 1819, Rose Butler was executed in the Potter’s Field located in what is now Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. Rose, a nineteen year old black female slave, was convicted of arson. She had set fire to the residence of her owners, though there were no reported injuries or casualties other than two or three of the kitchen stairs were reported destroyed. During the trial Rose admitted to intentionally causing the fire, and had tied a string to the kitchen door to prevent the family from escaping. She said she was aided by some accomplices, but they were never caught. Rose was executed by hanging and became the last known hanging in Potter’s Field, as demographic changes in the area caused the field and gallows to fall out of favor as a public execution ground.
Rose’s trial reflects a transitional period in the history of New York City and Greenwich Village. New York was starting to shift away from the institution of slavery and would officially become a free state with slaves experiencing full emancipation in 1827. Greenwich Village was starting to change around this time; a steadier influx of people moving north from lower Manhattan was helping to transform the social fabric of the Village. A large spike in population wouldn’t occur until 1822, when a yellow fever scare forced many to flee up north and start the Village’s shift towards urbanity. At that time, many families who moved up also brought their slaves and domestic workers with them; the Morris family, the family Rose worked for, was no exception.
During Rose’s lifetime, there was also a thriving free-black community known as “Little Africa” located near the Minetta Stream (now Minetta Lane), which is on the edge of Washington Square. Though impoverished, and with poor sanitary conditions, Little Africa was an area where a free black New Yorker could find a place to rent, as well as economic opportunities as a domestic worker for one of the wealthier white families that had been moving into the area. Temporally and geographically, in 1819 Rose was living on the edge of freedom.
Though Rose was eventually executed, her case did make it all the way to the Supreme Court, as it raised questions as to whether arson was a capital offense or a common law offense. With all the changes in the laws and views on slavery, and the shifting status and relationships between white and black people during that time, it is possible those factors could have contributed to her sentencing.
Rose’s status as the last known person to be executed and buried at Potter’s Field reflected, among other things, that the new, wealthier population moving into the area was not keen on having close proximity to execution grounds. The gallows were eventually torn down in 1825 and the space covered up and no longer used as a mass grave, partly from these pressures and partly from public health concern, as the gravesite was quickly filling up. The space eventually became used as a military parade ground, where volunteer regiments of aristocratic young men ran drills. Rose’s story is a great look at the ever changing landscape and character of Greenwich Village.
Rose Butler’s execution was a watershed in many respects. The context surrounding her crime and sentencing, highlights community anxieties, shifting ideologies on race and status, and gives a glimpse of what the institution of slavery was like in New York City, a subject that is seldom discussed.