The mystery of Dr. James Murphy: Born a black slave, lived as a free white man

Posted by Lynn Woods on May 5, 2013
As the minister of Ulster County’s Rochester, Wawarsing and Clove classis of the Dutch Reformed Church from 1814 to 1826, Dr. James Murphy was a popular, influential religious leader. Successful in attracting large, devoted congregations, he was respected for his scholarship and later published a book titled The Bible and Geology. After he died at age 69 in 1857, Murphy was listed and eulogized in the commemorative volumes profiling eminent men published by the Dutch Reformed Church.
But Murphy had a painful secret. According to an extraordinary document discovered in the Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) archives by researcher and educator Susan Stessin-Cohn, he was actually born a slave on a large estate in Dutchess County. His father, David Johnston, was one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in New York, and his mother was Johnston’s black slave Jane. Murphy and his mother were the sole slaves, out of 15 on the estate, to be freed in Johnston’s will. (Jane’s manumission was conditional on the death of Johnston’s wife, who predeceased him.)
After Johnston died in 1809, the light-skinned boy, who had been trained as a saddler, reinvented himself as white, somehow learning to read and write, taking on the surname Murphy and attending the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The ruse worked for a while, but in 1824, when he was a married father of four and well-established in his career, two prominent members of his congregation wrote a letter to the Albany synod of the Dutch Reformed Church presenting evidence confirming Murphy’s true identity, in a vicious attempt to oust him.
Stessin-Cohn, HHS’s director of education, told Murphy’s story at a recent lecture in New Paltz. She is a walking encyclopedia of local history. Her forays into historic archives and wide-ranging research on specific topics and personages, funded by numerous grants, have lent her distinction, including an award for her work on the Ulster County Poorhouse. Diaries, gravestones, letters, wills and are the tools of her trade. She seeks to decipher the lives of ordinary people, that great mass of anonymity who’ve been left out of the history books, with a special focus on local slaves.
Steeped as she is in marvelous facts and anecdotes unearthed in her researches, nothing prepared her for the sensational revelations for the narrative that unfolded in a 20-page manuscript that she discovered in a box in the HHS archives some five years ago. It was titled The Memorial of Ann Bevier and Rachel Westbrook, members of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Rochester and written in a melodramatic, convoluted but highly literate style. Stessin-Cohn copied the document and read it with a SUNY-New Paltz colleague over the next month.
“There were words I’d never heard used before. We were reading the vocabulary of two women back in the 1820s,” she said.
Intrigued, Stessin-Cohn put her crack research skills to work and began connecting the dots. She combed through the archives of Dutch Reformed churches, searched for censuses and wills in municipal record offices and contacted local historians in order to learn more about the story of the black man who masqueraded as a white minister.
She was already familiar with Ann DeWitt Bevier, the wife of a retired Revolutionary War captain who was one of the wealthiest women in Ulster County. After her husband’s death in 1802, Bevier raised eight children herself and managed a large estate in Accord, including the buying and selling of a dozen or so slaves. Ironically, it seems, given her slaveholder status, her seven daughters attended Litchfield Academy, the alma mater of Harriot Beecher Stowe. Bevier’s big stone house is now a bed-and-breakfast.
Bevier “was a tough cookie,” according to Stessin-Cohn, and in the months before composing and sending their missive to the Albany classis, she and Westbrook collected two affidavits. One consisted of a copy of a letter that James Murphy had written to a friend describing his mother’s death and burial during a visit he made to Dutchess County back in 1814, a couple of months after he had become minister of the Rochester church. The second affidavit showed the problem with that: Signed by David Johnston’s legitimate son, John Johnston, in 1824, it confirmed not only that Murphy was the son of Jane, but also that the “mulatto” woman, as he referred to her, was alive and well. To prove it, Jane, who was now living under the surname Cox, had affixed an X to the document.
According to Bevier and Westbrook’s letter, Murphy had promoted false rumors about his relation to Cox. “Again and again has it been asserted, and the rumor has been widely circulated that Mr. Murphy is not the son of Jane Cox,” they wrote. “It appears to have been his own anxiety and that of his friends mainly to do away the imputation of African mixture in his pedigree.”
The Reverend James Murphy
The Reverend James Murphy
The letter noted that it was rumored that Murphy was actually the illegitimate son of David Johnston and “a woman highly connected in life – no less than the daughter and the sister of his greatest earthly benefactors – one of the most respectable families in the state,” who after giving birth foisted the child on Jane. Bevier and Westbrook rejected the rumor as absurd. “Can a mother forget her son – and have no compassion upon her own flesh? Yet this mother forgets, can see her own son press the breasts of an African foster-mother and assimilate himself to the sable inmates of a kitchen,” they wrote.
Furthermore, they accused Murphy of a cover-up. He had bribed one of his “discoverers” with a half-dollar to send a letter on his behalf to his mother in exchange for his vote in the next election, they claimed. What particularly outraged them was Murphy’s alleged deceit and chutzpah in defending himself. “The discovery of his own awful dilemma should have covered him with shame, and have imposed on him the most subdued silence,” they fumed. Instead, he responded by presenting “the bold front of the impudent Bravado.”
Stessin-Cohn dug up David Johnston’s will at the Dutchess County archives, which alludes to “my negro man James, the son of my negro wench, Jane,” and singles him out for manumission, as noted. She also discovered that Johnston’s lineage was particularly distinguished: His grandfather had been mayor of New York City, and before the Revolution, David had belonged to the “Committee of 15 Gentlemen,” in the company of John Jay and Philip Livingston, whose purpose was to communicate with New York’s sister colonies. Johnston, who was based in New York, established his country seat, located in the town of Washington, near present-day Millbrook, in 1760. Originally consisting of 5,000 acres and noted for its fine fruit trees, it was one of the largest estates in the Hudson Valley.
The house and estate, still encompassing hundreds of acres, according to Stessin-Cohn, is today occupied by Eliot Clarke, a former financial services executive. During a visit to the mansion, Stessin-Cohn observed slave chains hanging over an archway. She visited the former slave quarters, consisting of a row of stalls in the basement, their barred wooden doors still intact.
Johnston’s son John, who by the 1820s had sold his father’s estate and was living in Hyde Park, was one of Dutchess County’s first judges. He was married to Susanna Bard, whose father, Samuel Bard, was a noted doctor and philanthropist: He was George Washington’s personal physician and started Columbia Medical School. In contrast to the sordid conditions below ground, “The people upstairs were rich and famous,” Stessin-Cohn noted.
A search of the 1820 local census revealed another surprise: Murphy himself had four slaves, three of whom were female, and all under age 26. “Could they have been his relatives, or was he hiding his origins by being a slaveowner himself?” wondered Stessin-Cohn. In addition, he shared his household with his wife Catharine, a native of Albany, and four children, born between 1815 and 1823. The census also revealed that Ann DeWitt Bevier was his next-door neighbor.
According to the Memorial letter and Stessin-Cohn’s research, Murphy responded to Bevier and Westbrook’s accusations by delivering a sermon asking for sympathy and collecting 1,700 to 2,000 signatures in his support. The record indicates that the church was on his side: The classis initially refused to hear the complaints, and a committee to which the synod in Albany referred the case wrote that the attacks were of a “malicious character.”
But Bevier and Westbrook kept up the pressure. Sometime in the winter of 1824, Murphy confessed to his consistory and was forgiven. Later that year, he agreed to surrender his license as minister if Bevier and Westbrook would agree not to publish proceedings of the case. Stessin-Cohn said that she could find no records of the case in the church archives, seeming to confirm the women’s agreement to this. In June 1824, Murphy’s ministerial license was restored.
But in 1826 he left the Rochester classis – an event that a letter to the Synod in Albany written by an Honorable Roweyn of Kingston that December regards with dismay. “It is much to be regretted that there should be among you ‘busy bodies in other men’s matters’ attempting not only to ‘subvert governments’ but promising those ‘divisions and dissatisfactions’ which have so long existed, instead of preaching peace and reconciliation to you in sincerity and truth,” he writes. The abandoned congregation is like sheep without a shepherd and in danger of losing its way, he notes.
Another source discovered by Stessin-Cohn, an 1858 book by Nathan Crosby titled Eminent Persons Who Have Died in the US in 1857, includes a listing for Murphy that traces his career from Rochester to the Reformed Dutch church of Scotia for seven years, followed by stints in St. Johnsville, Herkimer and Coeymans. The account notes that Murphy returned to Herkimer, but then, for mysterious reasons, in 1849 his relations with the Herkimer church were dissolved.
The break was traumatic, marking the beginning of Murphy’s downfall, according to another extraordinary account that Stessin-Cohn found in a book about the history of the Herkimer Reformed Church. Though he subsequently became pastor of churches in two nearby small towns, Murphy had fallen into poverty, according to this account. His family apparently had abandoned him: Murphy was buried in an unmarked grave.
“He had been a man of influence and power, but toward the last, for reasons which I am unable to apprehend, he seems to have lost his hold upon the church. I do not know…to what extent the sins of his children were visited upon him,” the author writes enigmatically. “The indifference and neglect of the people whom he had served so well, together with the domestic trials that he was compelled to endure, had brought his gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.” Noting that “no hand living has reared the meanest slab” over his grave, the writer also protests “the sin of such neglect. But are there none among the many that remain of Dr. Murphey’s [sic] spiritual children who will undertake to remove that stigma from the church?”
Stessin-Cohn speculated that Murphy’s black slave origins in the end had caught up with him, leading to his disgrace. Plus, she believed that Murphy likely cracked under the strain of living a lie. At a time when Union College, to cite one example, required applicants to sign an affidavit they had no black blood, the pressure on this African-American man of pretending to be white must have been intense. “He must have been torn constantly,” she said.
Local attitudes toward African-Americans at the time were generally hostile, she noted. With the exception of its Quaker communities, New York was by no means an abolitionist state, and the remnants of slavery persisted into the 1840s. The state passed its first manumission law in 1799, but it hardly represented a clean break with the evil institution: It stipulated that female babies born to slave women would be freed at age 28 and male babies at age 25. In 1817, the age was lowered for all slave babies to age 21. After the emancipation of 1827, which automatically freed any slave except people under age 21, such children became known as “indentureds.” Stessin-Cohen noted that Ulster County, with the exception of its Quaker communities, was a conservative outpost, lacking the Underground Railroad that helped ferry slaves to freedom across the river in Dutchess.
A lurking question during Stessin-Cohn’s research was Murphy’s appearance. She discovered that portraits of both him and his wife hang on the wall of the Herkimer Dutch Reformed Church. (In a quirk of fate, someone had bought them up at an estate sale of a Murphy descendant and donated them to the church.) The primitive-style portrait depicts Murphy as a genial, large-faced white man. She also located a photo of the reverend, printed in one of the commemorative books, which shows a serious, distinguished gentleman with thick, slightly receding hair, scowling over his high white collar.
Stessin-Cohn’s in-depth research was made possible by a grant from the Southeastern New York Library Resource Council, which also paid for the postings of several documents, including the Memorial letter, on the Hudson River Valley Heritage website, where it is packaged in a program for high school and college students (though anyone can access the online sources, which are further made accessible by accompanying text translations). To review the material and draw your own conclusions about this fascinating case, go to, select Historic Huguenot Street under “Collections,” and click on “Educational Resources”; the Murphy material is included under “The Missing Chapter: Untold Stories of the African-American Presence in the Mid-Hudson Valley” section.
Stessin-Cohn, who chairs the Hudson River Valley Heritage Digital Advisory Committee, said that the support of this organization is key to making historic data freely available to the public. Meanwhile, she continues to dig into the story of Reverend Murphy. The next step is a visit to Herkimer, where she hopes to connect with his descendants and find out more about what happened in 1849.
“Murphy must have been an extremely brilliant and extraordinary man,” she said. “It makes you think about all the people who never had that opportunity. At least he got it, but nonetheless his life ended in pain and sorrow. It’s heartbreaking that this man, who felt called to be a minister, had to wake up terrified every day of being found out that he was black.”

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