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, January 18, 2019

“Then was beheld a perfect torrent of fire”

The 24 Mar 1760 Boston Evening-Post, the first issue after the great fire that started in the Brazen Head, reprinted the Boston News-Letter’s account of how the flames spread. The Fleet brothers then tried to communicate the emotional experience of the blaze:
We have thus mark’d the course of those flames which in their progress consumed near 400 dwelling houses, stores, shops, shipping, &c. together with goods and merchandize of almost every kind, to an incredible value;—but it is not easy to describe the terrors of that fatal morning, in which the imaginations of the most calm and steady, received impressions that will not easily be effaced:

At the first appearance of the fire, there was little wind, but this calm was soon followed with a smart gale from the N.W. then was beheld a perfect torrent of fire, bearing down all before it—in a seeming instant all was flame; and in that part of the town were was a magazine of powder—the alarm was great, and an explosion soon followed, which was heard and felt to a very great distance; the effects might have been terrible, had not the chief part been removed by some hardy adventurers, just before the explosion; at the same time cinders and flakes of fire were seen flying over that quarter where was reposited the remainder of the artillery stores and combustibles, which were happily preserved from taking fire:

The people of this and the neighbouring towns exerted themselves to an uncommon degree, and were encouraged by the preference and example of the greatest personages among us, but the haughty flames triumphed over our engines, our art, and our numbers.—

The distressed inhabitants of those buildings, wrapp’d in fire, scarce knew where to take refuge from the rapid flames; numbers who were confined to beds of sickness and pain, as well as the aged and the infant, demanded a compassionate attention,—they were removed from house to house, and even the dying were obliged to take one more remove before their final one.

The loss of interest cannot as yet be ascertained or who have sustained the greatest; it is said that the damage which only one gentleman has received, cannot be made good with £5,000 sterling. It is in general too great to be made up by the other inhabitants, exhausted as we have been by the great proportion this town has born of the extraordinary expences of the war, and by the demand upon our charity to retrieve a number of sufferers by a fire not many months past; a partial relief can now only be afforded to the miserable sufferers, and without the compassionate assistance of our christian friends abroad, distress and ruin may quite overwhelm the greatest part of them, and this once flourishing metropolis must long remain under its present desolation.—

In the midst of our present distress we have great cause of thankfulness, that notwithstanding the falling of the walls and chimnies, divine providence has so mercifully ordered it, that not one life has been lost, and only a few wounded.
Edes and Gill’s 24 March Boston Gazette added:
The Light of the Fire was plainly seen at Portsmouth [New Hampshire], which is the farthest Place we have as yet heard from; and the Explosion occasion’d by the South Battery’s blowing up, was heard at Hampton-Falls, and other Places, and was tho’t to be an Earthquake.
TOMORROW: The list of sufferers.

[The picture above, courtesy of Colonial Williamsburg, shows the New York fire of 1776, not a Boston fire.]

1 comment:

Katie Turner Getty said...

Amazing to think of a darkness so complete that the glow of flames could be seen as far away as Portsmouth. Looking forward to learning about the connection to The Road to Concord. Really wonderful work on this Saga!