Web Text-ures Logo

Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
1999-2006

(Return to Web Text-ures)

Click Here to return to
History of the Great Fire of Boston
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter

Kellscraft Studio Logo
 (HOME)   


 
CHAPTER XV.

THE POLICE.

THE entire police-force of the city numbered only five hundred and twenty-four men: which was a force sufficient for the ordinary duties, and large enough to protect the law-abiding people, and arrest all the criminals to be found in the days of peace and quiet; but it was not adequate for such an occasion as that about which we write. They were nearly all on duty at the same time, and were kept so for many hours by the unusual calls upon them to make arrests.

When the fire had become widespread, and owners of goods invited all who could help themselves to any thing valuable to do so, and carry it home, there were naturally many, who, at the risk of injury, would rush into the burning stores, and bear off some trophy. It was a considerate act in the owners, as they had saved all they could; and strangers had much better have the goods than that they should fall into the maw of the fire. It was no dishonest act, either, for men to snatch from the flames a valuable article after it had been abandoned and given to them, and to carry such trophies home; although many would not do the latter. The number of such as did improve the opportunity to obtain a piece of cloth, a pair of boots, a shawl, a hat, or other article, was very large. These the police were obliged to treat as thieves; and at first the force attempted to arrest them all. Soon the lock-ups and jails were full to overflowing, and the corridors filled with “contraband goods.”

Of corse not one in a hundred was an actual thief; while there were aldermen and councilmen of adjoining cities, captains in the regular army, one minister of the gospel, and hundreds of wealthy men holding high social and official positions, who were thrust into the common prison with thieves, boot-blacks, vagabonds, and criminals. We have heard some of them laugh heartily over their incarceration, but have heard none cast the blame on the police.

It would be difficult to see how an officer who did his duty under the law could do otherwise than arrest the takers of such property. It had, nevertheless, a tinge of the ludicrous, and provoked much laughter.

A boot-black came to a hotel-keeper, and asked to sleep in Mr. B—’s room, and gave as an excuse that Mr. B  was sleeping in his bunk down at the watch‑hose; and there were so “many big folks down there, the fashionable hotels must all be vacant.” At last, it was found to be impossible to lock up all the receivers of such property; and it also became so evident that very few of them were thieves, that the police contented themselves with keeping the goods, and letting the bearers go.

Saturday night, when Pearl Street was destroyed, many a poor gamin secured a new pair of boots who had never known such a luxury before. It was a touching sight to see the little fellows, after being given a dozen pairs of shoes, trying them on, and at the same time calculating aloud what were the sizes of their sisters’ and brothers’ feet. Hundreds of poor people clothed their feet with leather that would have been destroyed if it had not been given away; and feet are warm to-day which would have been pallid with cold but for that disaster.

Yet many lost their shoes and their liberty for hours, having marched boldly in the way of the police while loaded with presents.

Few were the numbers of those who deliberately engaged in thieving; yet the police must guard the city with the same care and diligence as though every street were full of them. Only about fifty persons were found (luring the fire by the regular police, who, after examination, were thought to be dishonest men. Four hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property was saved in this way by the police; but who the owners were it was very difficult to tell.

The State Police Commissioners called in their force from different parts of the State, numbering about a hundred men; and they were detailed to act in conjunction with the city police in the protection and restoration of property. Capt. Charles B. Hammond was temporarily placed in the position of chief pending the election of Capt. George W. Boynton to that position. The officers were very efficient in the work of arresting drunken persons and preventing crime; while about fifty thousand dollars’ worth of property was saved from loss by them.

In the dark night succeeding the gas explosion,1 and when the gas was turned off, it was no small task, and required more than ordinary courage, for officers to search for criminals, or even to walk about the haunts of villains in the pitchy darkness.

There was so much drunkenness on Sunday, when the exhausted men foolishly tried to sustain themselves by drinking whiskey, and there were so many people in the city who on such occasions drink to excess, that it was deemed advisable by Chiefs Savage and Hammond to close the drinking-saloons, and forbid the sale of intoxicating liquors.

The following are the orders issued in regard to the same:

 “Officers, while on patrol or general duty, will notify all liquor-saloons to close their bars; and, if sales of liquor are subsequently detected, the person so selling will be arrested at once, and brought to these headquarters.

By order of the Police Commissioners.

“CHAS. F. HAMMOND, in charge.

HEADQUARTERS POLICE DEPARTMENT,
BOSTON, Nov. 11, 1872. 

CAPT. — :  

Stop the retail liquor-trade, including beer, during this crisis.      

E. H. SAVAGE, Chief of Police.

These orders had a very marked effect upon the multitudes; and the disappearance of drunkenness from our crowded streets was a most gratifying feature, and demonstrated what a strictly temperance city might be.

There would have been a much larger number of thieves in the city had it not been for the almost perfect system of watching bad characters, and the good understanding which exists between cities upon such matters; as a large crowd of “roughs” started from New York for Boston at once, after the receipt of the news of the calamity, with the intention of taking advantage of the confusion, and appropriating whatever of value they could find unprotected. They were a most beastly set of scoundrels; and, once in the city, their lawlessness would have made the City very unsafe.

But the news of their departure from New York was telegraphed to Boston, and a detachment of officers was sent to Springfield to intercept them. Just what arguments were used, or what threats made, we have been unable to ascertain; but it is known that pearly all went back to New York from Springfield, or left the train before its arrival at Boston.

By such wisdom and caution, exhibited in a thousand ways, did the police avert disaster, protect person and property, and show themselves true conservators of the public peace.

A “relief fund” for the police was started by a unique letter from Chicago, enclosing five hundred dollars, with the words, “For the Boys, B. P.” It was sent by Elmer Washburne, chief of police in Chicago, to Col. Savage, chief of the Boston police-force.2 Many acts of daring and consideration were rewarded as they should be; and many more would receive the testimonials due such deeds if the actors were known.



1 Corner of Washington Street and Summer Street, Sunday night.

2 Sent back afterwards with thanks. 



Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.