Memoirs of Boston's Great Fire of 1872

Sarah G. Putnam

Diary Entries

Collection resides at the Massachusetts Historical Society


November 1872:  The Great Fire



I am going to x copy from a note I wrote to Hatty dated Tuesday, the 12th of November-

“Your note from Kansas City arrived yesterday and I will send it on to Mother who went on to N. York yesterday morning in the early train.  There is so much to tell you I hardly know how to begin.  Of course you have been hearing accounts of the dreadful fire we have been having in the business part of the city. Saturday evening at about eight o’clock, when John and I were sitting comfortably in the parlor, George Upham came in and spoke of a large fire.  Mother was tired and was going to bed, but John and I thought we would go out to see what could be seen.  We stopped at Gordon’s to see if they would go with us, and Nelly and Dottie hurried out (Jessie was at Newport.) Then as we were passing Mrs. Wiggleworth’s, Anna called to us, and she and Miss Fuller joined the party.  We walked across the Common Grounds to Winter Street.  Ever so many people were already there, looking at the horrid flames which were soaring out of some Summer St. houses.  The glare of the fire lighted up Park Street Church steeple most beautifully.  The trees on the Common were lovely with the branches all illuminated. John, Miss Fuller and I walked a little way down Winter Street through the crowd.  People were transporting goods.  We did not go home until very late, and then we did not feel like going to bed.  Mother had come to the Gordon’s as we all stopped there and watched the fire which had now spread to a great extent.  The flames kept bursting out in awful great masses.  It was half past two o’clock or so when I was in bed.  Mother did not undress and felt too nervous to sleep.  The next morning, instead of going to church, Aunt Mary, Mother, Lottie, John and I went down town to see what was going on.  There was such a crowd then, however, that we did not care to work our way near the fire. As we came up to Pemberton Square, a run-away horse came scurrying down the street.  A man was hanging on, between the horse and the wagon.  He was thrown out without much hurt, john thought.  We went up to John’s office, and he, Lottie and I went up on the roof of the house to see the fire.  It had edged way round and had eaten its path towards the water.  May have used gun powder Saturday night.  Mother said that unless the fires were under control she should go to New York the next day.  From the little smoke we saw in the morning (Monday) we supposed that the fire had been got under control.  So Mother went off in the nine o’clock train.  A little while after she had gone, in came Nelly Gordon, who said that Uncle George said that if Mother had not already gone she better not go – there was such a confusion in town, no one knew what was going to happen, and every one would wish to be on the spot (or words to that effect) that in the night there had been a tremendous gas explosion (down by Shreve, Crump and Low’s) and that the fire had broken out again.  Nellie said that Uncle George had advised her to buy a box of candles, as the gas would be turned off from the city.  So I went out to purchase some myself.  Well now comes another pleasant thing.  Ellen the cook had gone out Sunday evening to see if a family she knew had been burnt out. So she said.  I believe she did not come home that night, but as we thought very likely she had some good excuse for her absence.  Mother went off to New York, next morning, in a nervous, uneasy state of mind.  Late in the morning, Ellen appeared, drunk and dirty, and tearful.  Of course I had to send her away, though I felt quite badly as she had been so neat and pleasant.  Then I went to Mrs. Luks in search of another girl.  (Her office was in Hamilton Place.)  There was a great crowd all along Summer St. and explosions were to be heard every now and then.  They were perhaps blowing up buildings to prevent further spread of the fire. At about three o’clock, a I was coming down Nelly Perkin’s steps, another fire alarm sounded.  The fire, it seems, was caused by a gas explosion in the Union Club.  It did not amount to much, however.  I met Mrs. Edward Codman, who said that a man had been caught in the attempt to set a fire to a house, and that he had been shot.  It seems as if so many horrors had been crowded into these days.  Emily Sears came to dine with John and me at six o’clock, and we had to eat by candle-light.  Carrie and Annie Phillips came and we munched apples and played basigne, and had a good time in spite of the gloomy state of affairs outside.  John had taken a Mrs. George Tilden into his office, No. 4 Pemberton Square, as he (Mr. T) had been burned out.  This day I had been hunting up a cook.  As I came out of the office (intelligence) a gentleman who was coming down stairs asked me if I belonged to the office.  He very likely needed a cook, or bottle-washer of some kin, and thought I might suit!  (In my note to Hattie, John added a line or two, to day that he and Mr. George Tilden had agreed to be partnered for a year.  He thought him a good, practical man who fully understood his profession, having has some 10 years or more experience in it.)


Now I will copy from a note of Mother’s to Hatty, dated Nov. 10th.   “We have all been under the greatest excitement for the last 17 or 18 hours.  Last night a fire broke out at about 6 or 7 o’clock, and as it was well under way before the engine could be dragged to the scene, by men with ropes, it spread rapidly, and in about an hour from the alarm, the whole city was illuminated with the flames which actually seemed to light up, and wipe out buildings, one after another, like many straws.  It began in Summer St.  All Boston was in the streets.  The windows of all the houses on Beacon, Arlington, Marlboro, and adjacent, glowed as though they were themselves on fire.  We Sat (at Aunt Mary Gordon’s on Beacon St.) until 2 o’clock waiting, and hearing reports from different people.  All the business men were up all night nearly.  By 2 o’clock, the fire raged fiercely, every few minutes a greater body of flame announcing the destruction of a new building.  It was simply fearful.  The streets bright as day.  The wind continually brought the progress of the flames.  Uncle George’s stores on Franklin, or some street near, all burnt to the ground. The Chauncy Street building, where Upham and Tucker have their offices, burnt.  Uncle George went down there when he thought the building was in danger and managed to get in and save all his papers, …Scarcely any one we know have come off without loss.  Those splendid buildings, the Beebe clock on Otis Place, and Winthrop Place, are all destroyed.  A great part of Summer St., Franklin St., part of Washington, State, and Milk Sts., and cross streets innumerable.  All night long, and all this morning the fire has raged.  Water seemed to have no effect.  Stone fronts crumbled and fell, one after the other.  At last about 3 o’clock, some buildings were blown up and everybody rejoiced to hear the explosions, for it seemed as if nothing would check the flames.  John went to Pemberton Square, and put his books in his safe and brought away papers of value, for there was every probability that all that part of the city was doomed.  Nobody has been to church this morning. (It would seem from the crowds in the streets.)  At one o’clock we heard that the fire men were getting the advantage of the flames.  The fire is now back of the Hamilton Bank, and the New Post Office, which although built of granite and iron, has crumbled in some places, by the action of the fire.  They hope to keep the fire on that side of State Street, and have laid gun powder on the other side to blow up all the buildings on that side, if necessary to prevent its spreading any further that way.  The Old State House seemed surrounded with the smoke, when we were down in that direction.  The Common and Public Garden have great piles of bales and different goods, and even on Beacon St. are heaps of things.  The new Club House is filled with goods.  Gentlemen were hurrying to and fro all night long with bundles and packages they have saved.  Carriages and carts with trunks and bundles were continually coming down the street,  Every where were groups of people talking and looking and wondering if it ever could be stopped.  You can imagine what an extent of flames there was at 2 o’clock, from Summer and Chauncy Sts, on the right, to the Old South Church, on the left.  Since then it has eaten its way to State St, to Oliver and Kirby Sts.  I was expecting to go to New York tomorrow, but the fire if the fire is not subdued by night, I shall telegraph to Mary that I shall not come until it is over.  Almost all that part of the city owned by rich merchants, is a mass of fire and ruin.  Mr. George Gardner actually saved Hovey’s Store by his energy.  The fire was arrested in that direction at that point, although Trinity Church, Holbrook’s and all that block opposite Hovey’s are burnt.  Clara Gardner actually saw her farther standing on the roof of the store (which he owns.)  He had wet clothes spread over the side next to the fire, and by his efforts had them continually kept wet, and so saved the building.   5 o’clock.  The fire is said to be under the control of the fire-men, and it is to be hoped that there will be peace and rest for the poor fire-men.  Uncle George has just been in to tell John that if he can succeed in raising money to build up his stores, he would like to have him draw his outside plans.”

Now I copy from a letter written to me by Mother, dated Nov 12th.  “You may imagine my consternation upon getting into the carriage yesterday, at hearing Carrie Phillips passed me... Mother was in NY. (Heard) from the coachman that there had been more fire and explosions in the night. (But he thought it was out so she kept on her way.) “We could not drive straight down to the station, as Essex Street was obstructed, and we were obliged to come to a stand-still two or three times in our round about course.  Charley got a paper with the last news for me, so I went to bed easy.  I see by the papers that Mr. Brewer’s store was blown-up.”


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