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, March 22, 2019

Samuel Phillips Savage: “ye fire fell all around us”

When the Great Fire of Boston broke out in March 1760, merchant Samuel Phillips Savage was one of the town’s selectmen, thus bearing extra civic responsibilities.

Two weeks later, Savage wrote an account of the fire. He heavily revised his draft, crossing out and inserting many phrases and even scribbling a whole new paragraph in between the lines of another.

Savage evidently kept that draft for his records, and it’s now held at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The document doesn’t state the letter’s recipient, but it must be someone who lived nearby because he or she had already heard about the fire.

Savage wrote back:
I am obligd for your Sympathy with the Afflictd Town of Boston on Acct of the late awfull Fire,

I was wak’d with the Cry just after two and when I left the house which was not till I had fully dresd me, I could scarce see any Effects of the Flames but before I got way there the whole house were it began was on fire and by a little after day it had distroyd 345 houses, Warehouses & Shops, never did my Eyes behold so amazing a Scene—

in the hight I happened to be on the top of Fort hill, leading a poor old Woman of 80 just escaped with her life to a Brothers house who had escaped, then I beheld a torrent of Fire, impitously carrying all before it, & would I believe how watered [?], had the town reached 20 Miles farther in yt direction for not one house is left in the exant to leeward of ye Wind.

Once in ye hight of the fire, trembling for fear of the Magazine I went to speak at a fireward who stood in the Midst of fire, then I can say without Exageration that I never in my life was in a greater Storm of Snow or knew it snow faster than ye fire fell all around us.

the Engines then provd useless—their Every attempt provd in vain, the flames had their Commiss’. and tryumphed over, the
And there that page ends.

Here’s the paragraph interlined after “Town of Boston”:
We are really worthy yr pity, you canot have any just Idea of the Calamity, and yet I have not heard One murmering Word. I was out the whole Night and happend abt the hight to be on top of the adjoined hill assisting a aged Woman who had escaped the Flame of her own house and wanted my help to lead her to a friends—the Sight was awfull, I confess at the time the thought of its being a Stroke of heaven absorbd all other Considerations. The loss [?] seemd nothing—but although so many have sufferd and come so greatly yet our Xtian benevolent Neighbors help us.
When transcribing this letter, I struggled with several words, particularly “impitously.” Then I went home and discovered that Savage must have written a variation of “impiteously,” meaning “pitilessly.”

“Watered,” which appears in an inserted phrase written hastily and in small letters, is still a guess. The sentiment is clear—Savage didn’t see any way to stop the fire from going where the wind took it, which fortunately was to the harbor.

(In quoting the letter above, I omitted crossed-out words, didn’t note inserts, and broke the text into shorter paragraphs for easier reading.)

1 comment:

Katie Turner Getty said...

That he says he'd never been in a greater snowstorm or knew it to snow faster than the fire fell is really quite striking. Nice detective work in locating this! :)