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Illuminating history through ‘The Great Boston Fire’

David Wilson for the Boston Glo

“I found myself falling into the rabbit hole of amazing stories of the various fires of Boston,” said Stephanie Schorow of the research for her 2003 book, “Boston on Fire,” which covers everything from early colonial conflagrations to famous tragedies like the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942 to arson rings operating in the 1970s and ‘80s.

A massive blaze in 1872 that ravaged much of downtown Boston became the subject of her new book, “The Great Boston Fire” (Globe Pequot). “I was kind of mesmerized by it,” said Schorow, a former Boston Herald reporter and the author of numerous books of Boston history. “As a writer, you want to tell great stories. The Great Boston Fire is an amazing story because of the many threads and the many implications that it has.”


One implication has current significance. “When I was finishing the first draft of this book, the pandemic began,” Schorow said, adding that some believed the disease wouldn’t come to the US, even as experts cautioned that it would. “The lesson for today is to heed the warnings of professionals. I found this a motif that echoed through history.”

After the Chicago fire of 1871, the Boston Fire Department’s chief, John S. Damrell, began to warn that there was the potential for a similar event here, but his pleas were rejected. “Within a year, it happened in Boston,” she said. “We have to pay attention to those who warn us.”

Victorian Bostonians from William Lloyd Garrison to Louisa May Alcott were gripped by the fire. A young Alexander Graham Bell tried to sell the Globe a story about his experience battling the blaze (“as far as I know,” said Schorow, “it was never published!”).

Coming in a boom time for journalism and photography, the 1872 fire was well documented. “You can look at the photos of the fire and its devastation and wonder, ‘How the heck did the city ever recover?’” she said. “But we did, very quickly as a matter of fact.”


Schorow will read at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 31, in a virtual event hosted by the Tewksbury Public Library.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.