Monday, August 13, 2012

Fire in the Acre - 1841

Headline for Lowell Courier, 1841
Sometimes when you search for a story, it just falls in your lap.  Other times you have to spend hours looking for a lead.  And then there are times you find that tip, and you follow it, and you develop it, and when you’re just about to go to post it you find there’s more to the story.   That’s what happened to this week’s entry. 
I keep a little list of items I’d like to blog about, suggestions folks have made, and sundry key words to remind me of things to write.  I even have a couple of spare articles just in case of writer’s block.  So I began a search for this week’s topic.  My eyes were just about to give out searching for an entry.  Then it appeared; the story I was looking for.  It had drama; it had pathos. 
The Boston Courier of 1841 reported that before midnight on Thursday of August 26th a great fire took place in the Acre section of the city.  “Five entire blocks of wooden buildings and parts of others were consumed.”  Workshops, furnishings, and tools were also destroyed.  “About 50 poor families were burnt out, losing the greater portion of their furniture and effects.”  The most tragic detail of the story was the loss of life of a Mrs. McLaughlin and her infant child who were buried under the ashes.  The conflagration took place near the Catholic Church on Suffolk and Fenwick Streets.  Beyond the loss of human lives another entry details the loss of several animals.
The story could have ended here, but of course I asked Walter to check some facts.  He used his paranormal powers to find the following.  There was a fire as reported by the Boston papers a few days after it happened, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?  A closer investigation (and this is the precise reason I do not call myself a historian) reveals the true facts.  The Lowell papers corrected the errors made by the Boston Courier report.  No human lives were lost.  The dog that died actually ran back into the house after being rescued.  The paper states, “We have not learned his name, but believe it was Bose.  His master says he was a good dog.”  The other animals were pigs that “had been converted into roast pork.”  Actually one pig leaped out of the attic window of one of the houses.
Google Image
Five blocks were not burned, but 2 houses and 4 “ten-footers” were destroyed.  Much of the furniture was saved, but it was also noted the families that were affected were those “of little property.”  Interestingly, the Courier lists the names of those who suffered loss.  They list them by American families, and then by Irish families.  The following days also state that the fire department had a difficult time fighting the fire since the canal had been drawn down and it was very difficult to get water to the flames.  Large stones lined the canal and an engine had to be lifted over the rocks to the canal’s edge to get the needed water.  A committee was formed by some concerned citizens, among who were Reverend James McDermott and Hugh Cummiskey to help the unfortunate victims. It was hoped that the sum of $800 could be raised in the churches that Sunday.
So a good story became an even better one, with Walt’s help.  This account helps us understand the bigger picture.  It’s important to remember that the Acre was home to many Yankee poor as well as Irish.  Pigs were still running around the neighborhood in the 1840s, telling us their necessary use as a food supply.  Housing was so much in need that multiple families were living in substandard dwellings.  The line between American and Irish was still something to make a note of.  The year was 1841.  What would happen when the Famine Irish arrive?

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