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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Monday, June 08, 2020

“The publick Damage sustain’d by this sad Disaster”

The 10 Dec 1747 Boston News-Letter reported:
Yesterday Morning between 6 & 7 o’ Clock were were exceedingly surprized by a most terrible Fire which broke out at the Court-House in this Town, whereby that spacious and beautiful Building, except the bare outward Walls, was entirely destroyed:
This was the building now known as the Old State House. It went up in 1713 to house the Boston town government, the Massachusetts General Court, and regular court sessions.

With the building of Faneuil Hall in 1742, the town meetings and Boston selectmen had moved out. Hence people were calling the older building the “Court-House,” though many people went back to calling it the “Town House” until the Revolution.

In the 1723 view of Boston shown above and available through Digital Commonwealth, the Town House is the turret marked “6.” But now that cupola was gone.

John Draper’s newspaper continued:
As the Fire began in the middle or second Story, the Records, Books, Papers, Furniture, Pictures of the Kings and Queens, &c. which where in the Council Chamber, the Chamber of the House of Representatives, and the Apartments thereof in that Story, were consumed; as were also the Books and Papers in the Offices of the upper Story: Those in the Offices below were mostly saved.

In the Cellars, which were hired by several Persons, a great Quantity of Wines & other Liquors were lost.

The publick Damage sustain’d by this sad Disaster is inexpressibly great; and the Loss to some particular Persons, ’tis said will amount to several Thousand Pounds——

The Vehemence of the Flames occasion’s such a great Heat as to set the Roofs of some of the opposite Houses on Fire, notwithstanding they had been covered with Snow, and it was extinguished with much Difficulty.——

How the Fire was occasion’d, whether by Defect in the Chimney or Hearth as some think, is uncertain.
Then came an official announcement in larger italicized type:
THESE are to desire and direct all Persons whatsoever that may have in their Hands any Books, Papers or Parchments that relate to the Transactions of the General Assembly of this Province, or the Governour and Council, or that belong to the Secretary’s Office, that may have been saved out of the Court-House in Boston, in the Fire that consumed the said House this Morning, that they forthwith send the same to my House, or give me an Account thereof.

Boston, December 9. 1747.
J[osiah]. Willard, Secy.
Another item in that issue said:
Drop’d Yesterday Morning, at the Time of the Fire, in King Street, a Pair of Gold Sleeve Buttons: Any Person that has taken them up and will bring them to the Printer hereof shall be well satisfyed for their Trouble.
The Massachusetts General Court was in session that day, with representatives from all over the province, including Maine. Britain was then at war with France, Spain, and a bunch of smaller countries. The town had been roiled by three days of anti-impressment riots just the month before, as I happened to discuss recently. So this was not a good time for the legislative seat to burn down.

TOMORROW: The General Court responds.

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