November 9, 2010

From the ashes

Filed under: Uncategorized — jchatoff @ 12:09 am
Tags: , , ,

Pearl Street looking east. Photo by J.W. Black

This was a very bad day 148 years ago in Boston.  At about 7:30 in the evening, a fire began in the basement of a warehouse at 83-87 Summer Street.  It burned out of control for almost twelve hours, destroying 65 acres of downtown Boston, resulting in the loss of 20 lives and 776 buildings.

Boston was used to fires, but nothing quite like this one.  As always, it was a peculiar conjunction of events that resulted in the scale of the destruction.

For one thing, horses in North America had suffered an epidemic of equine influenza that year – since fire wagons were pulled by horses, the department was was way below its normal horse population.  It was so bad that in the end, most wagons were pulled by groups of volunteers who leapt to the aid of the department.

Fire boxes were unavailable.  There had been numerous incidents of vandalism, so someone decided the boxes should be locked.  The inability to turn in an alarm delayed help.

87 Summer after the fire

The gas lines that linked street lights and building lighting could not be turned off promptly, resulting in numerous explosions that fed the fire.

Water pressure was too low to reach the many tall buildings and in any event, fire hydrant couplings were not standardized and could not always be used.

And so on and so forth.  Many changes were made after the fire, not the least of which was the attitude towards the enforcement of building codes.

87 Summer today

Since it was confined to the commercial district, most merchants were quick to rebuild and two years later. downtown Boston was essentially back to normal.

* * *

Emile Gaboriau was born on this date in 1822. If you except some ancient Chinese tales and the Oresteia, you could make a good argument for Gaboriau as the creator of the modern detective story.

Edgar Allen Poe

For one thing, his stories of M. LeCoq actually involve a professional detective.  And his detectives are the first to examine a crime scene for clues.  Edgar Allen Poe is admittedly earlier and his plots are more mysterious, but Gaboriau is really the father of the procedural.  Here’s a sample:

After midnight, these gloomy, narrow streets became the haunt of numerous homeless vagabonds, and escaped criminals and malefactors,moreover, made the quarter their rendezvous. If the day had been a lucky one, they made merry over their spoils, and when sleep overtook them,hid in doorways or among the rubbish in deserted houses.

You can read the full text at  Project Gutenberg.



  1. Sad stuff fires good story telling, Gaboriau interesting. go Jean go.


    Comment by avery — November 9, 2010 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  2. wow i didnt realize beantown had been so leveled by that…rowdy!


    Comment by Nina — November 9, 2010 @ 2:06 pm | Reply

  3. What can I say!!?? Avery and Nina said it all before me!


    Comment by GALYA TARMU — November 9, 2010 @ 5:43 pm | Reply

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