Extracting the Fact from the Fiction: A Love by Any Measure and the Great Boston Fire of 1872
Today is the anniversary of a tragic event in American history, and most people have never heard of it.
One of the perks of writing historical fiction be it literary or romance, is the ability to inform as well as entertain. By taking our stories in to the past, we as writers are able to open a dialog of historical exploration and bring a wider audience in to these environments that we find fascinating. In doing so, we are also able to sometimes renew awareness of events that, in the records of time, have largely gone missing, by incorporating them into our story lines.
A Love by Any Measure is a historical romance set in the 1860’s and 1870’s in Killarney, Ireland, Norwich, England, and Boston, USA. This wide sweep of time and changes of venue gave me the opportunity to integrate several historical features, included the Fenian Uprising of 1867 and to a lesser extent, the Anti-Irish movement in the United States during the later nineteenth century. One of the key events that plays an intimate roll in the story of ‘ALBAM,’ however, has been largely forgotten by American history: the Great Boston Fire of 1872.
Many know of the famous Chicago fire started by a cow tipping over a lantern, but few know of Boston’s infernos. Yes, plural. Prior to 1872, there had been at least eight monumental, wide-spread fires in the city. The Fire of 1760, prior to the revolution, destroyed 350 buildings, and is believed by some to have been fodder for colonists’ ire against British rule, as King George treated the incident with indifference.
The Great Boston Fire of 1872, however, remains one of the most costly urban fires in American history (nearly one billion dollars, adjusted for inflation), and the largest in terms of square acreage effected. Starting on the evening of 9 November, flames roared for nearly 19 hours, and spread from residential districts near the Boston Commons, through the business district and all the way to the wharfs at the harbor, where several ships burned to ash. A thousand square acres were consumed in the blaze, and nearly a thousand businesses burned to the ground. So desperate were firemen and citizens alike to contain the blaze that residences were exploded as a means of control, to keep the fire from spreading. Assistance was called in from twenty-seven municipalities, from as far away as New Haven, CT.
The exact cause of the fire was never determined, though its location of origin was pinpointed to one of the old warehouses built with lax care for safety. (In A Love by Any Measure, I did take a small bit of license with this fact.) The death toll from the fire was estimated between twenty and thirty. As a result of the Great Fire of 1872, there was a radical swell of support for the implementation and enforcement of standard building codes throughout urban centers of the whole country. From the ashes, however, the modern skyline of Boston began to take root.