“A fearful time for old Boston”: The Great Fire of 1872
By Susan Martin, Collections Services
It was with extreme surprise and pain that I learned on going out onto the street yesterday morn of the extensive conflagration sweeping th[r]o the business part of Boston. It seemed impossible that fire could get such headway among those solid granite buildings which one would think were almost fire proof.
This passage comes from a letter in the new MHS collection of Hatch family papers. It was written by Charles H. Hatch in St. Paul, Minn. to his brother Edward on 12 November 1872, two days after the Great Boston Fire devastated much of the city’s financial district. Edward worked for Allen, Lane & Co., dry goods commission merchants on Devonshire Street. He wasn’t hurt in the fire, which broke out shortly after 7:00 p.m. on a Saturday night, but Allen, Lane & Co. lost $250,000.
Here’s a map of the affected area from The Story of the Great Fire, published by Shepard & Gill in 1872, and an artist’s rendering from Russell H. Conwell’s History of the Great Fire in Boston (1873).
Charles Hatch was suffering from an unspecified illness, possibly consumption, and had only recently left Boston for the Midwest. He regretted being so far away from his older brother Edward, affectionately nicknamed “Boz.”
The fire & its results form the chief topic of conversation here and all manifest the deepest sympathy for suffering Boston and take the greatest interest in the reports as they come. […] I wish I had been there during the fire Boz and wish I was even now. It must have been a grand and terrible sight.
Eager for news and frustrated by “somewhat conflicting and very vague” accounts, Charles wrote again at 8:00 a.m. the following day.
Dear Boz I can hardly realize that the best part of the business centre of Boston is a pile of smouldering ruins. The news comes so contradictory and uncertain that I scarce know what to believe. It is a terrible blow to Boston and it must take a long time for her to recover from it. […] I am waiting most anxiously a letter from you to know how and to what extent you will be affected by it.”
Other MHS material related to the Great Fire includes letters in the Higginson family papers II. On 10 November, James J. Higginson in New York wrote to his father George, “I scarcely know what to say to you in face of the horrible tidings that the news-boys are shouting in one’s ears.” The next day, he complained, “The most alarming rumors were spread around here yesterday, and even late in the evening very little seemed known accurately.”
Some of the most detailed descriptions of the fire and its aftermath come from the journals of merchant William Gray Brooks. Unlike Charles Hatch and James Higginson, he wrote as a first-hand witness to what he called “a fearful time for old Boston.” His entry for 16 November 1872 reads: “One week this evening since the great fire. What a week! The ‘burnt district’ is still smouldering and smoking and the walls are being taking [sic] down.”
(These three photographs are taken from the Wigglesworth family photographs II. The third depicts Devonshire Street, the street on which Edward Hatch worked. See also our before-and-after stereoviews of Pearl and Washington Streets.)
While laborers worked to clear the rubble and relief efforts got underway, residents feared the fire’s return. In fact, two additional fires did break out, one on 19 November near the Custom House and another the next day in Cornhill, very close to Brooks. He wondered in his journal if Boston was a “doomed city.” However, the streets thronged with visitors, and the financial district was soon rebuilt.
On 26 November 1872, Mayor William Gaston appointed a commission to investigate the cause and management of the fire, as well as factors contributing to its spread. The commission’s report begins:
The fact is painfully familiar, that on the 9th of November last, on a calm and mild evening, a fire broke out in the building numbered 83 and 85 Summer Street, and raged without control till the afternoon of the following day, spreading through the best business portions of Boston, covering sixty-five acres with ruins, destroying 776 buildings, assessed at the value of $13,500,000, and consuming merchandise and other personal property estimated at more than sixty millions of dollars. (p. iii)
To the more important question how the fire began, no answer can be given. There is no evidence whatever criminating any of the occupants of the building, nor is there anything to show that it caught from the furnace or the boiler, except the fact that it began in that portion of the building. (p. iv)
Brooks probably spoke for many Bostonians when he wrote in his journal on 30 November 1872, “The last day of November, a month that will mark an era in the history of Boston. What a different city it is since the beginning of the month.”
| Published: Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
This Week @ MHS
This week is your final chance to take part in some public programs here at the MHS for the year 2016. Please note that the library closes at 3:30PM on Monday, 12 December. Here are the progams ahead:
- Monday, 12 December, 6:00PM : Building Old Cambridge: Architecture and Development, is an author talk with Susan Maycock and Charles Sullivan, centered on their book Building Old Cambridge. In this talk the authors explore Old Cambridge’s architecture and development in the context of its social and economic history; the development of Harvard Square as a commercial center and regional mass transit hub; the creation of parks and open spaces; and the formation of a thriving nineteenth-century community of booksellers, authors, printers, and publishers that made Cambridge a national center of the book industry. This program is open to the public, registration required with a fee of $10 (no charge for MHS Members or Fellows). A pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the talk begins at 6:00PM.
- Tuesday, 13 December, 5:15PM : The final seminar of 2016 is a panel discussion from the Environmental History series. "Recreation and Regional Planning" features Elsa Devienne of the Universite Paris Ouest Nanterre La Defense and Princeton University, and Garret Nelson of Dartmouth College. Brian Donahue of Brandeis University provides comment. Seminars are free and open to the public; RSVP required. Subscribe to receive advance copies of the seminar papers.
- Wednesday, 14 December, 6:00PM : Join Tamara Thornton of SUNY Buffalo as she discusses her new book, Nathaniel Bowditch and the Power of Numbers. Fleshing out the multiple careers of Nathaniel Bowditch, this book is at once a lively biography, a window into the birth of bureaucracy, and a portrait of patrician life, giving us a broader, more-nuanced understanding of how powerful capitalists operated during this era and how the emerging quantitative sciences shaped the modern experience. Pre-talk reception begins at 5:30PM and the program starts at 6:00PM. This talk is open to the public free of charge, registration required.
- Saturday, 17 December, 10:00AM : The History and Collections of the MHS is a 90-minute docent-led walk through our public rooms. The tour is free, open to the public, with no need for reservations. If you would like to bring a larger party (8 or more), please contact Curator of Art Anne Bentley at 617-646-0508 or email@example.com.
While you're here you will also have the opportunity to view our current exhibition: Turning Points in American History.
| Published: Sunday, 11 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
Christmas with the Poets: Traditions and Superstitions
By Shelby Wolfe, Reader Services
Now that it's December and Thanksgiving is long behind us, we're hopefully in the clear to indulge in Christmas songs. To get in the holiday spirit, I pulled out our copy of Christmas with the Poets, a selection of “songs, carols, and descriptive verses relating to the festival of Christmas, from the Anglo-Norman period to the present time,” edited by Henry Vizetelly and published in 1851.
Along with the traditional carols celebrating the birth of Jesus and festivities of the season, the collection includes lesser-known songs and poems with their own weight of tradition. One section I found particularly interesting is aptly titled “Boar’s Head Carols.” The editor notes, “There is no more interesting, and, by the way, no more hacknied, feature connected with the celebration of Christmas in the olden time, than the custom of bringing in the Boar’s Head with minstrelsy.” Regal banquets served the boar’s head ceremoniously as the first course, a tradition which is said to have originated at Queen’s College, Oxford.
Another unusual selection of poems falls under “Superstitions regarding Christmas Day.” Vizetelly introduces two poems from the same Harley manuscript at the British Library with the note, “The following poems are, perhaps, more curious than interesting.” As Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, here is a superstitious warning for us:
If Christmas day on the Sunday be,
A troublous winter ye shall see,
Mingled with waters strong ;
Good there shall be without fable,
For the summer shall be reasonable,
With storms at times among.
Though this may sound somewhat ominous—and bringing up the notion of a “troublous” winter in New England is probably a dangerous thing to do—these are mild predictions compared to the superstitions that follow. I won’t get into the details, but the succeeding verses throughout the week involve increasingly harsh weather, shipwrecks, pestilence, sickness, and death.
Vizetelly’s collection of poems ends with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Death of the Old Year.” Throughout the poem, a personified “Old year” lies dying as the poem’s speaker reminisces on his fading friend. The final stanza reads:
His face is growing sharp and thin.
Alack! Our friend is gone.
Close up his eyes : tie up his chin :
Step from the corpse, and let him in
That standeth there alone,
And waiteth at the door.
There’s a new foot on the floor, my friend,
And a new face at the door, my friend,
A new face at the door.
Visit the library to read carols, poems, and songs from Christmas with the Poets and similar books in full, and best wishes for a festive final month of 2016 before the year comes to a close!
| Published: Friday, 9 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
Margaret Russell’s Diary, December 1916
By Anna J. Clutterbuck Cook, Reader Services
Messianic Era (1919) by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925). Boston Public Library.
Today, we return to final month of 1916 in the line-a-day diary of Margaret Pelham Russell (1858-1924). You can read previous installments here:
January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November
The final month of 1916 ends on a quiet and rather somber note for Margaret Russell. She remains close to home and although she enjoys a regular schedule of social calls and cultural events she also struggles with a “bad throat” and worries about the health of an ailing friend Mrs. Hodder. Interspersed with notes about botany lessons and concerts and club activities is the terse notation, “Paper says Germany suggests peace.” The newspaper was reporting on a public offer to negotiate made by Germany and her allies in early December. The war would continue for almost two more years until the armistice of 11 November 1918 finally brought an end to the fighting.
Margaret spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at charity events -- a tree at the House of the Good Samaritan on the 24th and another at Massachusetts Eye & Ear infirmary on the 25th. She attended church services both days and dined with family and friends.
The day before New Year’s Eve, Margaret Russell goes down to the Boston Public Library at Copley Square to view the latest murals painted by John Singer Sargent, works that would eventually become part of his piece Triumph of Religion (1890-1919). “Messianic Era,” depicted above, is one of the ten sections installed in 1916.
* * *
1 Dec. Friday - Church. Errands. Took a drive & paid some calls.
2 Dec. Saturday. The H.G.C’s went with me to Worcester to see Art Museum & lunch at the Bancroft. Nice day.
3 Dec. Sunday. Church - took walk with Georgie. Lunched H.G.C’s. Mr. Woods came to see me. Family to dine, all but Nellie who is ill.
4 Dec. Monday - Hosp. Meeting, Mary, lunch with Marian. First botany lesson then walk with Miss A--.
5 Dec. Tuesday - First Friday Club Meeting. Left early & went to hear Morton P. lecture. Walked home with F. P.
6 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to see Steve[illegible] & then a few other calls. Throat suddenly hurt me.
7 Dec. Thursday - First meeting of lunch club here. Felt poorly & stayed at home.
8 Dec. Friday - Had Dr. Smith who says I have a bad throat & took culture. Feverish & uncomfortable.
9 Dec. Saturday - Better but ready to stay on couch. Throat clearing.
10 Dec. Sunday - Better but not feeling like myself. Family to dine.
11 Dec. Monday - Still in the house but improving. Raining hard. Botany lesson. Fine day.
12 Dec. Tuesday - Raining hard. Dr. came for last time. Paper says Germany suggests peace.
13 Dec. Wednesday - Went out to dine & glad to be out.
14 Dec. Thursday - Chilton Meeting, walked home. Lunched early & went to Swampscott. Old stump has fallen.
15 Dec. Friday - [illegible], errands in the morning & to see Aunt Emma. Fine concert. Edith lunched & went with me.
16 Dec. Saturday - Errands, quite deep snow. Broke mud guard. To see the The Great Lover with Annie & Horatio.
17 Dec. Sunday - Church - lunched at Mr. Chapin’s with the H.G.C’s & Dr. Bigelow & Mrs. Sears. Family to dine.
18 Dec. Monday - C.D. Meeting where Nellie P. was elected. Lunched at Mariners. Botany lesson & did not go out again.
19 Dec. Tuesday - Went to the Bazaar for the first time. Tuesday Club met here.
20 Dec. Wednesday - Errands - Mrs. W’s lecture. Went to Swampscott & Nahant with bundles.
21 Dec. Thursday - Meeting at South End - lunch club at Jennie’s.
22 Dec. Friday - Wonderful concert! Light symphony with chorus & Paderewski (Schumann Con.) Frances P. went with me.
23 Dec. Saturday - Lunched at Edith Wendell’s. Delivering presents.Cold & windy. Wonderful concert with Paderewski. Mrs. Sears went.
24 Dec.Sunday - Church. Lunched at H.G.C’s. Tree at Good Samaritan at 4.30 & service. Miss Ahler went. Family to dine.
25 Dec. Christmas. Tree at E. & E. Infirmary at 10. Beautiful service at the Cathedral afterwards. Lunched with Marian, dined at C’s.
26 Dec. Tuesday - Mary - Miss Harmen came to play. Out to see Aunt Emma & to Mabel Walker’s tea - to see Lyman children.
27 Dec. Wednesday - Raining & freezing. Walked downtown for errands. Mrs. Ward’s lecture. Lunched at club. So slippery I stayed P.M. at home.
28 Dec. Thursday - Went to Sampscott. Easy going & not cold.
29 Dec. Wednesday - Snowing & high wind - errands for a little while & then home for the rest of the day - dined with Mrs. Sears & went to the theatre.
30 Dec. Saturday - To see new Sargent pictures at the Library - out to S. Framingham to see Mrs. Hodder who is quite ill & I am worried about her. Cold.
31 Dec. Sunday - Miss A-- went to the Cathedral with me. Lunched at H.G.C’s. To call on Perrys. Family to dine but only three.
* * *
I hope you have enjoyed this year in the life of Margaret Pelham Russell. If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.
*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original.
| Published: Wednesday, 7 December, 2016, 12:00 AM
From the Case Notes of Robert Treat Paine: The Prison Ship Riot
By Christina Carrick, Publications
Serving in his official role before the Superior Judicial Court for Suffolk County in August 1780, Atty. Gen. Robert Treat Paine prosecuted a complicated wartime case. On the docket was murder; at stake was legal precedent in a new nation. In the midst of the Revolutionary War, Paine had to confront a challenging question: should enemy combatants—or prisoners of war, in this case—be treated and tried as citizens of the country? Or should they be removed into the jurisdiction of independent military courts, subject to separate laws and rights?
In this particular situation, the homicide charge arose from a conflict between British prisoners incarcerated on a ship in Boston Harbor and the American servicemen guarding them; the conflict expanded when more Americans approached the ship to discover what was wrong. That night, August 10, Maj. John Rice took a small boat from Boston to investigate a reported riot on the prison ship. A British prisoner with a gun and bayonet leaned over the rail as Rice’s boat pulled alongside. The armed man “dam’d” Rice and “swore he wd. blow [his] brains out.” Rice quickly saw that he should take the bayonet-wielding prisoner at his word. The ship's guards had been disarmed, and one, Sgt. Thomas Beckford, lay dead from a gunshot to the neck.
Lt. Isaac Morton later gave a detailed account of the incident:
I was Lieut. & officer of the day. I heard a gun fired on board the Prison ship just before sun down I went along side heard a disturbance on board. Serjt. said the centry was disarmed; I askd the Pris: how they fared, they sd. the Guard had not abused them Thos. Lynch damd me for a Rebel & if I came to the assistance of the Guard I was no better than they & he would throw me over board: McGregor sd. you are not better than the guard you Yankey Rogue, & struck me on the head with his fists. Michael Hay said you shall not abuse him McGregor came with Gun & Bayonet & threatned to run me through, & threatned me to throw me over board & all of us; McGregor said he brought his Gun from Ireland, he said he disarm’d the Guards to make an Escape: Major Rice came along side, & bid me step into the boat. McGregor having a Gun in his hand sd. if you offer to go into the boat Ill blow your brains out, there was a cry of fire fire blow their brains of the damd Rebell out Major Rice bid us shove off, they cryed on board the ship fire blow their Damd brains out & immediately they fired & a man dropt, a billet of wood then from the ships knock'd me over board
Paine’s notes on Lt. Isaac Morton’s testimony before the Superior Judicial Court
The ship ran aground near shore and multiple boats from Boston quickly suppressed the uprising. The rioting prisoners were moved from the prison ship into the city jail, where they awaited trial.
In terms of evidence, the case was straightforward: Major Rice and several guards from the ship had witnessed the riot. It was not completely clear who had fired the shot that killed Beckford, but the rioters were consistently named from testimony to testimony. The fundamental legal question was not who had fired the killing shot but whether prisoners of war should be tried in civilian court at all.
The nine defendants sent a petition to the court, claiming that they did not lie within its jurisdiction. They argued that they “ought not to be compelled to answer to sd. Indictment” because
Homicides & other offences committed by the Subjects of one State against the Government & People of another State while an open War is subsisting between them, ever have & of right ever ought to be enquired of heard & determined by the Courts Martial in the Country or place where such Homicide or Offences may be committed, agreeable to the laws of Nations & the laws of War *
In this, they insisted they should be tried in a court martial and not by “municipal laws, Customs & statutes” as American residents.
Despite their petition, the case went to trial. Paine, as attorney general, made the commonwealth’s case for prosecution. Increase Sumner, a Boston lawyer and future Massachusetts governor, argued for the defense. Sumner tried to convince the jury that since the defendants “were Prisoners by force they had right to regain their liberty by force.” This addressed another central question that hung over the proceedings: when did enemy combatants lose the rules-of-war right to act combatively? Did they have a legal or natural right to revolt against their imprisonment? These questions would not be clearly answered during the trial, but Paine scoured his legal texts to find precedent.
Paine’s notes from the case included references to many of the major legal texts of his time: Vattel’s The Law of Nations, Coke’s Reports, Hale’s Historia placitorum coronae (History of the Pleas of the Crown), and Blackstone’s Commentaries, among others. He noted from Vattel that “the right of war gives right to kill whenever they can” and from Blackstone that “an Alien Enemy is intitaled to no protection.” Nonetheless, he asked himself if it would “be murder if Congress should order all the Prisoners to be hung up at the Yard arm.”
Ultimately, the jury declared the defendants not guilty. The prisoners fade into the historical record, and it is not clear how they fared for the remainder of their captivity. The case, however, would later be cited as a supplement in the state’s Supreme Judicial Court reports, and the questions raised about the legal status of enemy combatants continued to plague the nation throughout its growing pains.
For the full trial story and Paine’s other legal endeavors, check out the Robert Treat Paine Papers collection at MHS and the published Papers of Robert Treat Paine. The Massachusetts State Judicial Archives also holds records on this case, including the above petition. Paine’s notes for this case will be printed in full in volume 4 of the Papers, forthcoming from the MHS Publications Department in 2017 thanks to a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
*Massachusetts Judicial Archives Suffolk Files 102707, quoted with permission from the Massachusetts State Archives.
| Published: Monday, 5 December, 2016, 12:00 AM