How New York Marshals were made

 In Articles, books, Case Study, history, non fiction, Non-fiction, Notes, research, writing, Writing

At a quarter to ten on the morning of May 19, 1811, bells began to sound throughout the neighbourhood of New York around Chatham Street and the City Hall. It being a Sunday, not many people paid that much attention. As one man put it later, “…many supposing the alarm to arise from this, were tardy getting to the scene.” 

The scene was a coach maker’s shop at the corner of Chatham and Duane Streets. And the delay was critical. It allowed the fire to catch, and burn the entire building. A stiff wind began fanning the flames and carrying embers north and west as the wind gusted. When the fire truck finally arrived, the volunteers manning it encountered another hitch: the closest water pump didn’t produce any water. Eventually a working pump was secured, and water began to flow, but the fire had already begun to eat its way through the neighbourhood, down to William Street on one side, and up to Augustus Street on the other.

The firefighters were stunned by the force of the blaze, which seemed to shrug off the water poured on it by the engine company’s hoses. New Yorkers ran into the streets and began forming lines and passing buckets, soaking neighbouring buildings in the hope of slowing the fire. Their greatest fear was that the wind might shift direction: south of the burning coach makers, just down the hill, was the city Armoury.    

I came across this story when I was researching the history of arson in New York. New York state dropped arson from its list of capital crimes in 1797, but reinstated residential arson in 1808. The reason? Because New York city wanted it that way. By 1808 New York was by the far the densest urban area in the nation, and it was made almost entirely out of wood. Throw in the fact that it was also a commercial and industrial hub, which meant there were fires blazing in almost every building in the city, night and day, and the fact that candles were the only source of artificial light, and it’s easy to see what New York experienced a major fire almost every year, and sometimes multiple times in a year. New Yorkers might have been fascinated by murder, but they were far more frightened of fire. Which meant that the arsonist was the most terrifying criminal of all, the equivalent of the terrorist bomber today.

The fire of 1811 was blamed on arsonists initially (how else would a coachmakers shop catch fire on Sunday, the day of rest?), but it turned out to be an accident. Someone was indeed working that day, and had left a pot of varnish unattended on a furnace. The pot had overturned, and the varnish caught fire. It was what happened subsequently that caught my eye. The protagonist of my Lawless New York stories, Just Flanagan, is made a Mayor’s Marshal at the behest of the High Constable, Jacob Hays. Hays is something of a talent spotter, but I did wonder what it really might have taken to be made a Marshal of New York. The fire of 1811 provides a clue.

Anyone who has ever watched a forest fire has seen the effect that a strong wind can have, fanning the flames and sending cascades of sparks and embers into the air, like golden spume off the back of a wave. That Sunday in 1811, the wind blew embers hundreds of yards, and in all direction. While most of the sparks died out, some landed on catch of draw or dried wood and caught fire. Forty-three houses caught fire in various parts of the city, some distance from the initial burn. The most serious was fire caused by embers carried to the south, over the top of the Armory to the corner of Beekman Street and Park Row and the Brick Presbyterian Church, the steeple of which immediately caught fire.

Now, with the wind gusting southerly, it wasn’t just the district around City Hall that was threatened, but the entire of Lower Manhattan. Lines of people formed with buckets, but the Brick Church steeple was too high to reach. The houses on either side were drenched, and people braced themselves for the worst. The church may but have been made of wood, but brick was still vulnerable to a hot burn, and the steeple had gone up like a Roman candle.

At this point a brave man named McCormick climbed up onto the roof of the church and began laying about with an ax. At considerable risk to his own life, he succeeded in cutting away the burning parts of the steeple and sending them to the street, where they were extinguished. In this way he single-handedly prevented the Brick Church from burning down, and likely saved much of Lower Manhattan from the same fate. Meanwhile the firemen a block north had begun to get a grip of the Chatham Street blaze. They began pulling down houses, to create a firebreak, and would have pulled down the whole of a street named Tryon Row had a city alderman not stopped them.

They had done enough. The wind changed and died, and the delay spray of embers ceased. An hour later, the fire was out. Fifty-two houses had burned to the ground. One man, a firefighter named William Peterson of Engine Company Number 15, was dead.

And what of Mr McCormick, the man who saved The Brick Church and possibly the whole of New York City? In The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York, George William Sheldon says McCormick was appointed a Mayor’s Marshal by the City Council, and held the title for several years. SO far that’s the only reference to a Marshal McCormick that I’ve found. But I am still digging, and when I’ve got what I need, I can pretty much guarantee he and Justy will cross paths one day.

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