At the turn of the 19th century, the Rev. William Bentley was constantly on the alert for Salem fires. But unlike many townspeople he didn’t rush to condemn the victims.
New Englanders who lived in densely populated towns like Boston and Salem always had anxiety about the threat of fire, especially on very cold days.
Local officials passed all sorts of laws to prevent fires. They put arsonists to death. When Joshua Lamb’s home in Roxbury, Mass., burned down in 1681, his black servant Maria took the blame. She was found guilty and burned to ashes on Boston Common.
William Bentley took a kindlier view. He was the beloved Unitarian minister of the East Church in Salem, Mass., from 1783 to his death in 1819. Bentley gave half his salary to the poor, lived modestly and emphasized good works over harsh doctrine. He was interested in everything. Little escaped his attention, and he wrote it all down in his diary. He chose Salem fires as a frequent topic.
On Jan. 18, 1806, William Bentley noted in his diary that two fires were wrongly blamed on arson:
We have news of a House burnt in Bradford & a Barn in Haverhill. As is usual, blame is not fixed upon neglect but incendiary purposes. These fires are kindled by great carelessness.
The open hearth was the center of New England domestic life and the center of New England’s homes. Nathaniel Hawthorne made the central hearth a major feature in The House of the Seven Gables.
But as New Englanders used to say, “Fire is a good servant, but a bad master.”
After Boston’s first 70 years, Cotton Mather complained “ten times has the fire made notable ruins among us.”
Congregationalist ministers like Mather viewed fires as evidence of God’s displeasure with mankind.
But William Bentley, a product of the Enlightenment, tried to avert calamitous fires through prevention and prompt intervention. He also belonged to one of Salem’s fire clubs.
Fire clubs existed in Salem since 1744, according to Cyrus Mason Tracy in his 1878 book, Standard History of Essex County, Massachusetts, Embracing a History of the County from Its First Settlement to the Present Time: With a History and Description of Its Towns and Cities. The Most Historic County of America.
Each member was required to have two substantial leather buckets, and they were usually painted with the name and device of the club. Many of these buckets may still be found hanging in the front or rear hall-ways of the old houses of Salem, usually under the stairs or on some projections or cornice.
The owner kept the buckets handy, and when a fire alarm went off, he took his buckets and repaired to the scene of the fire. Or at least he was supposed to.
He then helped passing water from the cisterns to the tubs of the engines, or threw it onto the fire directly. Tracy also wrote each fire club member had a bag to take property from buildings, and a bed-key to take down the old-fashioned bedsteads. Most of the clubs had ladders at convenient places about the town, he wrote.
In 1805, Bentley’s club tried to prevent fires by discouraging the “smoaking” of “segars” (cigars).
On December 12, 1805, he wrote:
Our Fire Club dinner. Great consent of parties. The measure most urged was to unite our efforts with other clubs to prevent the smoaking segars along the streets & in shops & outhouses. Many distressing fires are imputed to this careless practice.
Bentley was constantly on the alert for fire, not just in Salem. On Jan. 29, 1806, he wrote, “We had some apprehensions, from the ringing of the bell this evening, of a fire at Marblehead, but we found it was the First Night Lecture…
January was an especially bad month for fires.
On Jan. 5, 1804, he wrote,
The uncommon severity of the season has called for great caution in our wooden towns. Several fires have been arrested at their first appearance as at Col. Lee’s & Dr. Oliver’s, the one from firing a chimney & the other from a beam under a hearth as in the old construction.
On the morning of Jan. 18, 1804 another day of sudden cold, there was a slight earthquake. Wrote Bentley, “The people in general ran to their windows to see what heavy carriage was passing, & thence to their chimneys to see whether they were on fire.”
Horse Out of the Barn
The day after a Salem fire, people inevitably drew up proposals to prevent another one. On the cold night of Jan. 16, 1806, a fire burned down three new houses in Carpenter Street. It started among shavings by children feeding the fire while their parents attended a lecture. Most of the men in the neighborhood were at the same lecture, and the fire spread to two other wooden houses. The next day, Bentley wrote,
it was proposed to make it an obligation to rebuild in brick. We see the great danger to which we are exposed from the very great number of Wooden buildings.
Twelve days later, the cry of “fire” awakened the town. The Cushing & Co. printing company burned down.
The next day, Bentley wrote:
…the town officers gathered this day to take some precautions respecting stoves used in Shops & Offices, & prevention the spread of fires.
With thanks to The Encyclopedia of New England.
This story last updated in 2023.