J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 08, 2019

“The Fury of the flames is beyond Conception”

I’ve been looking for personal accounts of fleeing or fighting the great Boston fire of 1760, which started in the shop at the Sign of the Brazen Head. Anonymous newspaper reports, however vivid, don’t give us the same experience as an individual’s story.

Naturally, diaries from eastern Massachusetts mention the event, but fewer 1760 diaries have been published than those kept a few years later. Edward Holyoke, president of Harvard College, wrote: “This Morn past two began ye great fire at Boston, beginning at ye Brazen head & burnd to Fort St.” Which shows how even people outside of town knew of the Brazen Head as a landmark and where the fire began.

The merchant John Rowe told a relative on 21 Apr 1760:
we have had a Terrible Fire hapen’d at Boston in which I was a Sufferer at Oliver’s Dock, the Newspapers will fully acquaint you the Situation of what was burnt, such a Melancholy & Dismal Burning was never yet seen in any part of this Continent

The wind blew very hard at North West and the Fury of the flames is beyond Conception
That’s as close to a personal statement as I’ve found, and it focuses on property and weather.

Up in the North End, Deacon John Tudor wrote at more length, but still at a distance, in his diary:
This morning a Terable Fire broke oute about 2 O’Clock in the Morning at the Brazen-head E Side of Corn Hill. Soon after the Fire got to a head the Wind Sprung up Fresh aboute N. W. which communicated the sparks to the S. E. part of the Town as far as Hunts Shipyard and about Fort-hill and in 5 or 6 howers Consumed 349 Buildings. It is impossable to express the Distress of the unhappy Sufferers by the grevos Judgment. The loss to the Sufferers in Houses, Stores, Merchandizes, Furneture &c. was £100,000. Sterling.
Tudor was an Overseer of the Poor, and he went on to discuss the disaster relief effort.

COMING UP: The religious side, and collecting aid.

(The picture above is one of Rowe’s firefighting buckets, dated 1760 and therefore most likely acquired after the great fire showed how important they were.)

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