This lurid yet sentimental illustration by the renowned Boston lithographic firm of J. H. Bufford is the cover of the sheet music for “Homeless To Night or Boston in Ashes,” a song by Charles Albert White inspired by the events of 9 November 1872 when the Great Boston Fire destroyed a large part of Boston’s downtown.
Just after 7 on the evening of 9 November 1872, Charlestown police offers on duty spotted the glow of a fire, the first indication that something might be amiss in the streets of Boston. About twenty minutes later, the first alarm was pulled at Box 52, located at Summer and Lincoln streets in downtown Boston. Firefighters arriving at the scene discovered the six-story commercial building at the corner of Summer and Kingston Streets fully engulfed with flames rapidly spreading to other buildings. The building, which had been constructed in 1866, housed Baldwin & Davis, a dry goods merchant; A. K. Young, a hoop-skirt manufacturer; and Damon, Temple & Co., a manufacturer of neckties and hosiery—six stories of flammable wood and textiles, and an elevator shaft that allowed the flames to quickly spread throughout the building to the roof and beyond.
Upon reaching the scene, Fire Chief John S. Damrell found that “6 separate buildings were on fire and one was a literal blast furnace.” Just an hour later, the situation had rapidly deteriorated, “granite fronts were exploding, and walls, falling, broke not only the water mains and branches … the gas-mains had also succumbed to the shock, and the gas was flowing into cellars and sewers and through drains into the buildings.”
Charles Carleton Coffin, the indefatigable Civil War correspondent and journalist, described the fire as a “red-handed giant, our servant and master,” and that evening the fire would challenge firefighters from Boston and beyond, hampered by insufficient water supply, a lack of horses to pull the fire wagons, and explosions caused by ruptured gas lines and the gunpowder used to try and create fire breaks by blowing up buildings in the fire’s path. Years later, Damrell recalled the horror of that night
… currents and counter-currents were driving the flames in every direction … swept through our streets with the power of a tornado … The roar of this Niagara of destruction was appalling … Gas and air explosions in quick succession, falling walls, and intense heat, made it a terrible experience to that faithful organization which it was my privilege to command.
The fire raged through the night, eventually being brought under control by noon the next day, although the ruins continued to smolder long afterward. Sixty acres of Boston’s mercantile center had been consumed by the conflagration. More than 700 buildings were destroyed, affecting almost 1000 businesses, which were enumerated by Russell Conwell in an alphabetized list that ranged from “ale and beer, two; auctioneers, five; bagging, two; billards, one … [to] yeast and essences, one.” Thousands were unemployed and financial losses climbed to the millions, but Boston proved resilient, immediately mobilizing to provide relief. Five days after the disaster, at a meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society (whose Tremont Street headquarters, then under construction, sat mere blocks away from the fire), President Robert C. Winthrop predicted—in very short order—"the complete restoration of Boston to its long-accustomed prosperity,” reminding his audience of the other great fires that had tried the enterprising, brave, and (above all) pious citizens of Boston.
Indeed, by the first anniversary of the fire, Boston was rising again--365 buildings were under construction and 115 nearly completed. These buildings, unlike those that fueled the Great Fire, featured thicker exterior walls and non-combustible roofs. The tangle of narrow streets that distinguished downtown Boston in 1872, however, remained largely unchanged.
Charles Albert White, the composer of “Homeless To Night” was born in Dighton, Mass., in 1832. Over the course of his career, he published over 1500 songs, co-founded the music publishing firm White, Smith & Perry, and published a very successful musical periodical entitled The Folio. White was known for popular tunes to be sung around the household piano, and “Homeless To Night” does not disappoint. Its opening line and mournful chorus “Lone and weary thro’ the streets we wander, For we have no place to lay our heads; Not a friend is left to shelter us; For both our parents now are dead” typifies the sort of sentimental song favored by musical consumers of the time. In September 1873, The Folio crowed, “’Homeless To-night’ is selling by tens of thousands. Since the days of ‘Put me in my Little Bed’ no song has been in such demand.” Despite (or perhaps because of) White’s popular success, the obituary writer for the Musical News of 19 February 1892 could not resist a bit of snark, writing that the “story of the composer’s life illustrates the too prevailing desire to win success by writing down to the standard of the lowest comprehension; a state of things not satisfactory from the art point of sight.”
As far as can be determined, the song “Homeless tonight” has no basis in fact, but was probably written in an effort to capitalize on the public’s morbid fascination with the fire. In the days after the fire, thousands arrived to view the charred ruins as photographers surveyed the scene to produce inexpensive and popular stereoview photographs, some featuring before and after photographs of the same location. Stephanie Schorow also notes the “enterprising boys” who searched the fire scene for souvenirs which they sold to the curious and the Boston publishers Chandler & Co. who produced a 61-page, illustrated Full Account of the Great Fire in Boston! And the Ruins within two weeks of the fire.
On Thursday evening, 10 November 2022, author Stephanie Schorow will discuss her book The Great Boston Fire: The Inferno that Nearly Incinerated the City. The event will be held in person and online, see our website for further details and to register.
On Saturday afternoon, 12 November 2022, author Anthony Sammarco will discuss his book Inferno: The Great Boston Fire of 1872. The event will be held in person and online, see our website for further details and to register.
The Boston Fire Historical Society has an excellent account of the fire along with a list of source material.
The Boston Fire Museum’s website has information about the history of fires and firefighting in Boston.
Coffin, Charles Carleton. The Story of the Great Fire, Boston, November 9-10, 1872. Boston: Shepard & Gill, 1872.
Conwell, Russell H. History of the great fire in Boston, November 9 and 10, 1872. Boston: B.B. Russell, 1873.
Damrell, John S. Address delivered by Capt. John S. Damrell before the Boston Veteran Firemen, February 2, 1886. Boston: Published by vote of the Association, 1886.
Johnson, H. Earle. “The Folio of White, Smith and Company,” American Music, vol. 2, no. 1 (Spring 1984), p. 88-104.
Martin, Susan. “A fearful time for old Boston”: The Great Fire of 1872. MHS Beehive blog, 2016.
Schorow, Stephanie. The Great Boston Fire: The Inferno that Nearly Incinerated the City. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2022.
Winthrop, Robert C. “The Great Boston Fire: Remarks at a Meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, November 14, 1872,” in Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions from 1869 to 1879. Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1879.