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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Sunday, February 10, 2019

“Now they all in Heaps of Ashes lay”

The woodcut image above appeared on another religious response to the fire that started at the Brazen Head: a broadside ballad titled A Poem on the Rebuke of GOD’s Hand In the Awful Desolation Made by Fire in the Town of Boston, on the 20th Day of March, 1760.

Like the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew’s sermon, quoted yesterday, the ballad started with the Biblical verse of Amos 3:6: “Shall there be Evil in a City, and the LORD hath not done it?”

Then came 87 lines of verse. Here’s a sample:
Then can we clear ourselves, a’n’t we to blame
Who sin without Remorse, and cast of Shame
And pay no Rev’rence to his holy Name?—
This is the Cause He sent this Judgment down,
This awful Desolation! on the Town.
The North-west-wind, and Flame he did employ,
Our stately Habitations to destroy.
What spacious Structures stood but th’ other Day,
And now they all in Heaps of Ashes lay,
I know not how to write, or to express
The awful Time, or paint the sad Distress
Of those our Friends who did to Bed retire
And wak’d surrounded by a Flame of Fire!--
This broadside moved on to a long and equally fiery description of the Day of Judgement. Mayhew, who wasn’t an entirely enthusiastic Calvinist, didn’t get to that topic until nearly the end of his sermon.

The broadside was issued by the print shop of Zechariah Fowle and Samuel Draper on Marlborough Street. Two years later Fowle and Draper used the same woodcut to illustrated another broadside about fire: The Dying Confession and Declaration of Fortune, a Negro Man, Who was Executed in Newport, (Rhode-Island) on Friday the 14th of May, 1762, for Setting Fire to the Stores on the Long Wharf.
The block of wood carved to print this image actually survives, and in 2005 Early American History Auctions put it on the market—and on the internet. The firm titled it “The Angel of Death and the Great Boston Fire.” Since no one actually died in the 1760 fire, I think the figure in the sky is more likely one of the “Obsequious Angels” that the poem describes accompanying the Almighty on the Day of Judgment.

There are several mysteries associated with the Rebuke of GOD’s Hand broadside. First, the poem is signed with initials that have been read as “A.F.” and “A.J.”—more likely the latter. Mid-twentieth-century bibliographers guessed that was Andrew Johonnot. There were two genteel men of that name in Boston at the time, father (1705-1760) and son (1735-1804). However, I see no indication that either was in the habit of writing poetry.

Another question is who created the woodcut. Young Isaiah Thomas was apprenticed to Fowle at the time, and he later described learning how to cut such blocks—not well, but as well as anyone else in town. However, it’s always possible that this cut wasn’t made just after the 1760 fire but had been part of the printers’ armament for years.

Finally, in 1900 the city of Boston reproduced a somewhat ragged copy of this broadside in a printed collection of town papers about the fire. William S. Appleton displayed that sheet at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society. But that was apparently the only surviving copy, and nobody knows where it is now.

COMING UP: Relief efforts.


Charles Bahne said...

The signature is clearly "A.J." and not "A.F." The second letter matches the italic capital J of "Justice" (8th line of first column) and doesn't at all resemble the F of "Foundation" (3rd from last line of second column).

J. L. Bell said...

I agree, but the compilers of a volume in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections series read the letter as F, so I acknowledged that. Not that it helps with the identification.