“HORRID BARBARITY:” A Trial Against Slaveholders in New York City

Originally published by The Gotham Center for New York City History blog, republished here with permission.
—Kelly A. Ryan
In February 1809, three seamstresses made their way to the special justices of New York City to register a complaint against their employers for abusing the slaves living in their household. They charged Amos and Demiss Broad, a married couple who ran an upholstery and millinery business in the second ward of New York City, with a litany of abuses, including throwing a knife at a three-year-old child. An unlikely trial occurred at the Court of General Sessions by the end of the month, in which the Broads stood trial for assaulting Betty and her three-year-old daughter Sarah. Ultimately, nine witnesses came forward against the Broads, and two of the witnesses who originally agreed to provide evidence for the Broads ended up supporting the prosecution. Though the employees and neighbors of the Broads would be critical to pushing this case forward, Betty’s efforts to get help forced New York City to reckon with the cruelty of slaveholding. The case against the Broads would be a stunning victory for African Americans and the New York Society for the Manumission of Slaves (NYMS), as well as an important moment in generating discussions about the rights of slaves to live unmolested.
map of NYC indicating specific street
Amos and Demiss Broad ran their business on Maiden Lane in the Second Ward. Their location was likely situated closer to the East River near the markets. 

The case against the Broads revealed their cruelty intended both to humiliate and torture their slaves. In addition to whippings and forced feedings of salt, Amos and Demiss Broad repeatedly exposed Betty and Sarah to cold temperatures without food or fire in their rooms. They left Betty nearly naked and tied up in the cold outdoors, and Amos would throw water on her while she was thus exposed or force her to eat salt soon thereafter. The couple placed Sarah, a toddler, in the cold storeroom for hours and refused to allow her to sit until her “feet were frosted . . . so that she was hardly able to crawl.” Both kicked Sarah regularly, too. While jurors indicted Amos for beating both Sarah and Betty, Demiss answered only for beating Sarah. Demiss threw the knife at Sarah, which resulted in “so large a gash” that the wound required a doctor. Reports showed that Demiss also whipped Betty with a cow skin in the front yard and threw cold water on her while outside in winter, and that she was complicit in the denial of food and warmth in Betty’s lodgings. However, only Demiss’s extreme violence against Sarah merited an indictment, as the youth of slaves and level of violence affected the judiciary’s and white community’s disposition toward limiting slave masters’ violence.

Nearly 1,500 of New York City’s population was enslaved at the time of the trial, and they represented 16 percent of the total African American population in the city.[1] The case against the Broads shows the extreme conditions that some of the enslaved were forced to undergo and the limited protections in place for them. New York was the second to last state in the north to pass gradual emancipation legislation in 1799, and they did not make new provisions to ensure the safety of slaves, outside of those preventing their sale out of state or southward. African Americans had little recourse if they found themselves in abusive situations – slave codes forbade them from testifying against their masters, and masters who murdered slaves accidentally while punishing them were exculpated from charges of murder even in the rare cases when indictments for manslaughter emerged.

The lack of legal protections meant that enslaved people had to find ways to contest cruelty through white allies, if they used the legal system, or find alternatives to prevent violence, like running away, befriending their masters, or fighting back. Prior to the indictments against the Broads, New York City brought four other indictments against slaveholders for assaults, and only the most torturous cases against children found headway. Slaveholders usually paid small fines and masters did not lose their slaves after being found guilty, thus leaving African Americans endangered and threatened with future violence. The NYMS would prove a useful ally for some African Americans and their white allies, who made reports to the society about the violence they experienced or witnessed. The NYMS provided legal counsel and advocacy on behalf of slaves though even their own membership was not fully committed to pushing to end cruelty against slaves. In 1803, the NYMS rejected a proposal by one of its committees to push for legislative change that would allow slaves to testify against their masters in cases of abuse.[2]

The acceptance of cruelty against slaves was common and the extent of violence it took for whites to take action was galling. It’s clear that Betty and Sarah had suffered far too long without intervention by neighbors or bystanders. The Broad household was situated on Maiden Lane, which meant that many individuals would come by to visit, conduct business, or pass by on their way to the many markets in the area. The employees who first reported the case to the special justices noted they had been in the employ of the Broads for eleven months to two years, but only Sarah’s frostbite and knife wound elicited legal action by them. Witnesses’ reliance on employment from slaveholders likely impeded their desire to testify to the violence in several instances. The seamstresses first offered Betty and Sarah succor by regularly giving them comfort and food rather than finding ways to intervene and prevent the assaults, malnourishment, exposure, and confinement. They also turned to a neighbor, David Fielder, on Maiden Lane for help. David recalled that after being summoned he ran to the cellar to stop the beating of Betty, and that prior to that day, “he very frequently heard her cries.” Yet, Fielder did little until called by others. Upon arriving, he saw Betty “standing bent over naked” but did not see Amos whip her because his presence had inhibited Amos. Indeed, Amos seems to have tried to cover up his beating of Betty, as more recently hired seamstresses only heard rather than witnessed the violence.[3]

Betty and Sarah were pivotal in moving this case forward because they brought attention to their abuse through their cries and their broken and battered bodies. By making others aware of their suffering, the enslaved worked to make their suffering known in a society that undermined their claims to humanity and experiences of pain. Neighbors and the four seamstresses employed by the Broads routinely heard Betty crying and moaning, and they were integral witnesses in the case. By shouting and crying, Betty attracted witnesses even when Broad beat her in his more covert assaults in the cellar or attic. Betty must have shared her trials with the women in the household in their conversations, through her anguished cries, and through her lamentations about her situation. She risked additional torture and abuse by publicizing her distress so loudly that others heard, and her cries of pain and for relief should be read as protests and resistance.

The jurors found Amos and Demiss Broad guilty and they relinquished ownership over Betty and Sarah, as well as another slave named Hannah who they were not prosecuted for beating, in the hope of getting more lenient sentences. The judge issued a four-month sentence in prison and a fine of 1,250 dollars for Amos, a far cry from the six cents paid by previous owners found guilty of cruelty, showing some evolution in the criminal justice system. In addition, Amos was held to a 1,000-dollar bond to keep the peace.

As whites became more attuned to the wrongful nature of violence against enslaved children, especially through the case against the Broads, they began denouncing it publicly, which was an incredible leap in community disposition. In 1809, Henry Southwick published a tract detailing the testimony of witnesses for and against the Broads, as well as speeches made by the judge, the NYMS, and lawyers. In his descriptions of the violence, Southwick used the language of horror and sentimentalism to capture the audience shocked by the Broads’ behavior. He titled one string of advertisements for the tract “HORRID BARBARITY,” while other advertisements promised to give details about the “horrid scenes. . . so shocking to humanity.”[4] Disdain for the Broads spread elsewhere too, as others stepped forward to condemn their brutality. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, one advertisement asked citizens to provide information about a “Sea Monster in human shape. . . who some years since was in the habit of trafficking in human flesh on the coast of Africa.” Hoping the informant would be “the means of bringing to justice another Amos Broad,” the writer connected the brutality of slave traders with masters in the North.[5] Cruelty against slaves was routine in the colonial era, but northern society’s perspective was changing as it acknowledged and condemned the extreme violent acts of slaveholders.

After the Broad cases, more individuals took up the challenge of bringing cases of excessive violence to those who would mediate disputes. African Americans remained the starting point of activism by making their suffering known through verbal cries for help and through seeking out assistance. After Broad, numerous African Americans approached the NYMS in hope of finding some relief from cruel masters, and other community members supported slaves by contacting the NYMS. In the same month as the trial against the Broads, the standing committee heard the details regarding three cases of cruelty; it heard four more cases before year’s end. The rising number of cases was a direct response to discussions about the Broad cases. One such case was “suppos’d to surpass in cruelty that of Broad’s.” Between 1810 and 1812, reports of thirteen more cases of abuse emerged, with at least six reported by the enslaved and the rest by concerned neighbors. One person even turned against his brother in reporting abuse and offered to serve as a witness against him. When reporting abuse, neighbors often noted being “frequently disturbed by the cries,” revealing the ways that slaves made their suffering known.[6]Reporting cruelty to the NYMS was a strategy of African Americans and white community members who wanted to persuade the government to intervene.

The Broad case would be a turning point, but it left unanswered the question of whether a master could engage in such extreme violence in correcting an insolent slave. Repeatedly in the trial, lawyers asked witnesses about Betty’s behavior to determine whether the beatings were warranted. Witnesses claimed Betty never tried to run away, and one person described her as “a very willing servant; and. . . with a good master would have been a very good one; but from the witness’s expressions it appeared that she was rather stupefied by terror than guilty of any willful fault.” Amos treated all his servants and apprentices poorly, and he previously had a white servant taken away because of his merciless and sadistic behavior. The removed servant benefitted from a process and a society willing to negotiate for white children.[7] Although no frank discussion of slave masters’ rights to use violent forms of discipline occurred in this trial, it did give New Yorkers considerable details about the experiences of Betty, Sarah, and others in the household. The questioning during the trial revealed a disposition of the legal community to believe that physical punishment of errant slaves and servants remained lawful but that some limits existed in the extent of this power.

Community disdain for the Broads and the outcome of this trial and others suggest that routinely torturous abuse of slaves, when combined with malnourishment, exposure, or maiming, would not be tolerated in New York City and other sites in New York. Recurring violence weighed on the consciences of white witnesses who saw patterns in masters’ dangerous behavior, with all but one of the affidavits in cases against abusive masters noting repeated instances of abuse by slave masters. Most white witnesses who made official complaints did not see one-time happenstances of brutal violence as meriting their intervention, and even in densely populated New York City, whites’ complaints of violence against slaves were frustratingly belated. Whites sought to prosecute slaveholders for violence only once they had completely lost trust in owners’ ability to serve as “humane” masters and they saw slaves’ lives at risk. Though not a compellingly humane standard, this was considerable improvement from the colonial era, when the murder of slaves by their masters were not often considered significant enough to investigate or bring forth indictments and trials.

Although slaves were not allowed to formally testify in court, after 1810, they established their right to sue for peace against their owners through their more frequent and formal protests against abuse. Rather than taking their cases to the NYMS, slaves began directly reporting their mistreatment to the police in New York City, and in 1817, the state formalized the process, which further chipped away at the slave code.[8] It was not until after the 1800s that evidence shows the courts respected and pursued cases initiated by slaves. The new law pitted the enslaved against more legally and socially powerful masters, and masters would not see punishments like that doled out against Amos. Emancipation was the best way to stop abuse, but it would not be until 1827 that slavery would legally end in New York. The trial against the Broads was one step in the direction of abolition that would reveal that slavery was neither humane or tolerable.


Cover of Kelly Ryan's Everyday CrimesKelly A. Ryan is Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Professor of History at Indiana University Southeast.  She is the author of Regulating Passion: Sexuality and Patriarchal Rule in Massachusetts, 1700–1830 (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Everyday Crimes: Social Violence and Civil Rights in Early America (NYU Press 2019), from which this blog post was inspired and portions were excerpted.

Notes[1] Shane White, Somewhat More Independent:  The End of Slavery in New York City, 1770-1810 (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1991), 26.

[2] Minutes of Meetings, Records and Reports of Committees, vol. 9, January 11, 1803, February 1, 1803, New York Manumission Society, Records of the New York Manumission Society (hereafter NYMS), New-York Historical Society (NYHS).

[3] David Fielder, affidavit, n.d., in People v. Amos Broad, February 25, 1809, District Attorney Indictment Papers, New York Municipal Archives.

[4] Advertisement, Evening Post, March 6, 1809, p. 3; Advertisement, Evening Post, March 9, 1809; “Amos Broad,” American Citizen, March 13, 1809; “Amos Broad,” Republican Watch Tower, March 14, 1809.

[5] “Advertisement,” Portsmouth Oracle, April 1, 1809.

[6] One case was excluded from this time period because it referred to treatment of slaves in Nassau, Jamaica. Minutes of Meetings, Records and Reports of Committees, vol. 10, NYMS, NYHS.

[7] The trial of Amos Broad and his wife, on three several indictments for assaulting and beating Betty, a slave, and her little female child Sarah, aged three years to which is added, the motion of counsel in Mr. Broad’s behalf (New York: Henry C. Southwick, 1809), 7, 15.

[8] Laws of the State of New York (Albany, NY: Webster and Skinner, 1802), 4:143.

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