Tuesday, July 27, 2010
The Fire at the Masonic Hall, 1819
John Lewis Krimmel, a Philadelphia artist whose work has been previously reproduced on this blog (Sleigh Bells Ring), recorded a spectacular city disaster of 1819, the destruction by fire of the Masonic Hall.
Rebecca Gratz, whose house was on the same block of Chestnut Street (between 8th and 9th Sts.) as the Hall gives her own account of the blaze:
"The weather was so fine during the months of January and February that walking was more agreeable than dancing -- and the evening appointed for the last Cotillion party -- the Masonic Hall took fire and was entirely destroyed. We were in some peril but thank God were preserved and no other building was injured. The Girls [her nieces] were already dressed for the Ball -- indeed some ladies had already arrived in the room when the fire was discovered -- you may imagine what a night of consternation it was here. Those who watched the progress of the destroying element say it exhibited a most beautiful spectacle -- the most splendid part of it involved too much anxiety to be enjoyed by us, the falling of the cupola on which the safety of our house depended and we were told it would most probably crush our back buildings, but it happened otherwise (do not think I attribute it to chance) it fell in on its own roof and the lodge alone was consumed....Seeing pretty soon that we should escape, we set about making those comfortable to whose exertion we were indebted and had the house open all night to give refreshments to the firemen. Many a merry fellow whose loquacity was assisted by a dram made enquiries for you -- some of the Niagaras [a volunteer fire company] I suppose, or your old soldiers who thought to fare better by naming you as their acquaintance."
Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell if the Gratz house is one of those pictured in Krimmel's painting, but it must have been very close to have been threatened by the collapse of the cupola. It must also have had enough grounds around it so that the fire could threaten its outbuildings, without necessarily threatening the house itself.
Rebecca's account gives us a clear idea of the way in which she saw God at work in the world. Her remark that it was not by chance that their house survived indicates that she, like most other Americans of the time, thought that His providence was responsible for such fortunate outcomes. She also felt an immediate duty to those human agents of this providence, demonstrating her gratitude through hospitality to the firemen.
However, she is rather curt about the firefighters who have asked about Ben. Despite her description of "merry" fellows, she makes it clear that the men were drunk. They probably had become so due (at least in part) to the Gratz's hospitality, but the volunteer fire companies were already acquiring a reputation as social (drinking) clubs for post-adolescent men. Over the next three decades as the nation divided (nativists vs. immigrants, Protestants vs. Catholics, whites vs. blacks) fire companies became identified with different ethnicities, political parties and religions. Fueled by alcohol and idle talk the various companies were more like rival gangs than public servants and were often involved in the riots and other disorders which plagued cities during this period. By midcentury, the city fathers must have been breathing a sigh of relief as more complex and efficient firefighting equipment was invented. The new technology required the recruitment and training of professional firefighters and led to the eventual disbandment of the volunteer companies in the 1870's.
(Rebecca's letter is in Letters of Rebecca Gratz, accessible through Google Books. For more about volunteer fire companies, see Philadelphia: A 300-Year History, edited by Russell F. Weigley, also accessible through Google Books. You can see Krimmel's painting, Conflagration of the Masonic Hall, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1819, at the Art Institute of Chicago.)