In 1819, authorities executed Rose Butler, a 19-year-old enslaved Black woman, by hanging for arson. Rose holds the distinction of being the last person documented to have been executed in Washington Square Park.
Rose was born in November 1799 into slavery in Mount Pleasant, New York. Records of her early life are sparse, but we know she was in New York City in 1817, at which time William L. Morris of Manhattan purchased her.
Rose worked in the Morris household as a domestic servant for two years. In 1819, a fire broke out in the Morris home. A few kitchen stairs sustained minimal damage from the fire, and it didn't harm anyone. But Rose faced accusations of setting the blaze and tying a string around the kitchen door to prevent the Morris family from escaping.
Rose’s account of the fire was contradictory. At one point, Rose mentioned that two white men approached her while she was pumping water and "advised me to burn the house." She said she refused, but that the men likely set the fire.
Rose, in other testimony, however, said she had set the fire herself, because “My mistress was always finding fault with my work, and scolding me. I never did like her.”
Rose’s case went to the New York Supreme Court, where the justices deliberated whether arson could be a capital crime. In their decision, the justices determined that arson could be a capital crime, and they sentenced Rose to be hanged in present-day Washington Square Park. Ten thousand people came to see her execution.
We don’t know whether Rose set the fire. We know that by New York law, she shouldn’t have been enslaved in Morris’ house in 1819. New York abolished slavery in 1817, in theory. In practice, white people dragged emancipation out for a decade. It took until 1827 for them to free the last enslaved person in New York. That was far too late for Rose.