Friday, January 13, 2017

Buckets, Bags and Engines at the Boston Massacre

I'll be portraying a citizen of Boston at this year's commemoration of the Boston Massacre who, responding to the ringing of church bells at an unaccustomed hour, turned out thinking there was a fire.  There are numerous contemporary accounts in eyewitness testimony that describe people in the crowd carrying fire buckets and other equipment, at least two fire engines hauled to the vicinity of the confrontation at the Customs House, and people asking directions to a fire.  I've decided to adopt the persona of one of these eyewitnesses, Thomas Wilkinson, who reported:

"The Old South bell rung for nine as usual; about a quarter after I heard Mr. Cooper's bell ring, I went out and saw the Old South engine hauled out.  I ran down as far as the town pump.  There seemed to be a considerable body of people, and some with buckets...The Old Brick bell began to ring, and the people seemed to come along fast, with buckets and bags."

Wilkinson describes a full array of fire-fighting responses from the citizens of Boston, although there was, in fact, no fire.  Fellow Bostonian John Colburn recounted;

"being alarmed by the cry of fire and ringing of bells, ran out of my house with my bags and buckets; upon going to Mr. Payne's door, he told me it was not fire, it was a riot. I sent my buckets home again..."

Newtown Prince, another witness to the events that night, recalled "When the bells rung I was at my own house.  I run to the door and heard the cry of fire.  I went out and asked where the fire was; somebody said it was something better than fire.  I met some with clubs, some with buckets and bags, and some running before me with sticks in their hands."

Dr. John Jeffries and William Whittington gave similar testimony:

Dr. John Jeffries - "I then passed up the alley myself into Cornhill; as soon as I got out of the alley I heard the Old Brick bell ring.  There were many in the street running, some with buckets, inquiring where the fire was..."

William Whittington - "In a little time I heard the bells ring, and made a stop and asked what was the matter?  They said fire.  I saw several people with buckets, &c., and I asked them where they were going?  They said there is fire somewhere."

Just what were these buckets, bags and engines described by these and other witnesses to the Boston Massacre? 

Boston had a long history of fire-fighting, developing an elaborate system of public and private resources to respond to blazes and protect life and property.  The first fire engine, a wheeled wooden reservoir equipped with hand pumps and a nozzle, was imported for use in the Town in 1678, a year which also saw the establishment of the first paid fire department.  By 1770 there were ten fire engines in Boston, including two that were the very first built in America, constructed by local blacksmith and engine captain David Wheeler. The Selectmen's Minutes from March 10th, 1766 record:

" Messrs. John Green and David Wheeler having at their own cost and charge, built and Compleated a Fire Engine, which upon tryal does honor to the Country as well as to the Constructers; the use thereof on all Ocassions by means of Fire that may happen they may offer the Town, provided they will keep the same in good repair, and allow the Men belonging thereto, the Exceptions and Priviledges indulged the other Engine-Men - it is therefore Voted that the Town do accept the said generous proposal."

The following week David Wheeler was appointed Captain of the new engine, designated No. 10 and called the Green Engine. Later that year in November, Wheeler proposed building an Engine House at Pond Lane near the intersection with Newbury Street. Although David Wheeler was later replaced as Engine Captain, other Wheelers maintained control of the Engine. On the night of the Massacre, one participant testified that Wheeler's engine responded to the bells.

Thomas Greenwood - "...spending the evening at Mrs. Wheeler's, I was alarmed by the bells ringing and the people's crying fire, upon which I turned out with Mrs. Wheeler's three sons and helped Mr. Wheeler's engine as far as the Old South meeting house."

It should be noted that his contemporaries considered Greenwood an unreliable witness - he was a servant to the Customs collectors and gave wildly conflicting testimony about his involvement in the "Massacre"- but this detail may, in itself, be more credible. From No.10's Engine House to the South Meeting House was about three long blocks, a bit more than half the distance to the head of King Street at the Town House.

We already know from Thomas Wilkinson's report that the Old South Engine (No. 7) was out at this time, and probably was one of the two later reported together at King Street by eyewitness Benjamin Frizwell:

"The deponent proceeded about his business, as far as Wheeler's Point, and while there, the bell rang as usual for fire, and he with others ran to the Town-house; two engines being there drawn, the men attending, left them on the west end of the Town-house." 

According to another participant, Benjamin Davis; "I...went into King street, and saw some with buckets; the engine was in King street, but nobody with it."  He may be referring either to the South Engine or to the one kept at the Town House - No. 5, called The Marlborough Engine - that would have been closest to the commotion. Shubael Hewes, who was south of the Custom Hosue when the bells began ringing, reported;  

"I spent the evening with an acquaintance near the Town dock; sitting in the room, the Master of the house came into the room, and said fire was cried, and the bells a ringing; as I belonged to the engine, I was first out of the door, with my surtout and stick...I thought I should meet our engine coming down the lane or Cornhill..."  

Mr. Hewes belonged to Engine No. 5, and would succeed its long-serving Engine Captain Thomas Read in 1772.

From this we can conclude that at least two fire engines reached the head of King Street by the North end of the Town House (No. 5 and No. 7.) when the bells rang, and perhaps one more responded at least part way (Engine No. 10).

The paid fire companies were not the only ones who turned out that night, however. There were also
volunteer Fire Societies, associations of 25 to 30 neighbors and merchants who pledged to come to each others' assistance in case of fire. Some of the regulations and orders of these ancient associations have been preserved. One of the more colorfully named was the Anti-Stamp Fire Company, established in 1763 but evidently renamed when it published its bylaws in 1765 (republished in 1776). In addition to specifying fines for member non-attendance or non-compliance, the rules of the Society made specific mention of fire equipment that each member was to maintain and bring with him in case of fire:

Jonathon Rowe's Fire Bucket

Fire buckets were made of leather and waterproofed with pitch.   They sometime bore elaborate "folk art" designs in addition to the identifying names and numbers associated with their owners.  Fire Societies sometimes painted their motto on their buckets, though I have been unable find documentation for any that may have been associated with the Anti-Stamp F.S.   It is tempting to imagine the thundering words of James Otis rendered as a Latin motto, and I could not resist doing so, but it is purely conjectural:

                Tributum Çine RepræÇentatione Tryannus eÇt.

The other fire-fighting equipment referenced in the rules of the society was standard salvage gear.  Once a blaze took hold, the threat to personal household property was of more immediate urgency than saving the structure, which in turn was a threat to the Town.  While some members formed bucket brigades, others used their fire bags to rescue items from the burning buildings.  These bags were made of linen duck or other strong canvas, and often had a draw string to secure their contents.  A surviving Portsmouth, New Hampshire fire bag used during this period by a member of a local Fire Society appears at right.

The reference to a "Bed-Winch" actually indicates a bed-wrench, a specialized forged iron tool used to disassemble the heavy wooden beds that  were often the most valuable possession in the household. These wrenches included ends that could draw recessed bolts that joined the posts and the frames of the bedstead.  Though their form and complexity evolved over time, bed-wrenches or bed keys remained an essential part of the fire-fighter's tool kit well into the 19th century.

The fact that many people turned out for a fire when the alarm bells rang was an important point of testimony during the aftermath of the Boston Massacre.  It was necessary to establish what people held in their hands, whether buckets and bags or more dangerous items such as clubs, because it could very well affect the verdict if the soldiers acted in self defense.  Thomas Wilkinson thought there was a fire, and he described buckets, bags and engines in his account.  Although one cannot be certain that he brought any fire-fighting supplies to the scene himself, I am prepared to play him that way, with bucket in hand, when the showdown at the Customs House plays out once again this year for the Boston Massacre commemoration.  It remains to be seen whether I shall take liberties with the motto or stick to the plain requirements of name and number.


Arthur W. Brayley; A Complete History of the Boston Fire Department: Including the Fire-Alarm Service and the Protective Department; from 1630 to 1888; Boston, Massachusetts: John P. Dale & Co., 1889

Frederick Kidder, History of the Boston Massacre,, March 5, 1770, Consisting of the Narrative of the Town, the Trial of the Soldiers, and a Historical Introduction; Albany, New York: Joel Munsell, 1870

"Rules and Orders to be Observed by the Anti-Stamp Fire Society", 1763

"Rules and Orders to be Observed by the Anti-Stamp Fire Society, Instituted at Boston, October 1763, Revised and Corrected November 1776"

Selectmen's Minutes (vol 7) 1769-1775; Boston, Massachusetts; Rockwell & Churchill, 1893

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