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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Thursday, February 07, 2019

“The fire was fast approaching the building”

Returning to The Saga of the Brazen Head, I’ll share some Bostonians’ experiences of the Great Fire of 20 Mar 1760, which began after dark in that brazier’s shop.

At that time David Mason was a decorative painter four days short of his thirty-fourth birthday. He had fought in the Crown forces in the French and Indian War, gaining experience in artillery at Fort William Henry before the enemy captured the site on 8 Aug 1757.

According to the stories that Mason told his daughter Susan, a group of Native Americans held him for days before he escaped to Albany. Eventually he made it back to Boston, where his wife Hannah insisted he not enlist again, even with the promise of a promotion. Instead, Mason became active in the local militia defense system.

Specifically, Mason was in charge of the gunpowder supply for the South Battery, near Fort Hill (shown above). And on the night of the 1760 fire, his daughter wrote:
The fire was fast approaching the building and there was a considerable quantity of powder in the house [at the battery] that was thought might be removed before the fire could reach it. He accordingly went to his house for the key, which was some distance from the fire.

When my mother learnt his intention it threw her into great distress in apprehension of the danger he was going to expose himself, and after he had used many arguments to quiet her mind and had made his way out of the house, she followed him to the door entreating him not to venture upon so dangerous a step, and in the midst of her pleadings the [powder] house blew up, but without injuring as many people as might have been expected.

From a calculation that was made of the time it would have taken him to have gone to his house and returned, had he persued his intention without hinderance, it was supposed he must have been in the house at the time of its blowing up. But his time was not yet come…
If Mason had been killed in that explosion, he could not have founded Boston’s militia artillery company or “train” with Adino Paddock a couple of years later.

The guns of the Boston train, Paddock, and Mason are at the heart of the story I tell in The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the Revolutionary War. So we can imagine an alternative universe in which Mason died in 1760 and I had nothing to write about.

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