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Did an arsonist set the fire that
leveled downtown Portsmouth?

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.
JDR

RAMBLE CXX

Incendiary Sketches -- Pilgrim Day -- The Great Fire of 1813 -- The Incendiary.

AMONG the most fearful pests of society, the most reckless of desperadoes -- the most fiendish in human form -- may be classed the incendiary. While there is a certainty of his presence shining out from conflagrations here and there, the whole community are in disquietude, each fearing that his own neighborhood will be the next visited.

There is a monomania pervading the incendiary, which shuts out all ideas of the rights and safety of others. The burning building and the excitements of a fire seem the subject of the highest gratification. There are others who are guilty of incendiarism from motives of malice.

In December, 1804, the incendiary torch was applied to several buildings in Portsmouth. On the 8th, to a large barn belonging to Moses Brewster, at the Plains, consuming fifteen head of cattle and seventeen tons of hay. On the 10th, a barn of Samuel Sherburne at the Plains with valuable contents was consumed. Eight days after, another of Mr. Sherburne's barns, with fifteen head of cattle, thirty tons of hay, etc., were burned. Efforts also were made to set fire to a building near Joseph Chase's, between Pitt and Buck streets.

Large rewards were offered, but no disclosure was made. Sometime after, an attempt was made to fire the barn of Mr. Perkins Ayers, who occupied the house now of A. D. Gerrish in School street, opposite the School House. The incendiary left a tin pot in the barn, which was exhibited to the public to find an owner. It was recognized by Mr. Oliver Briard, who occupied the house No. 26 Hanover street, near the barn. Suspicion rested upon the girl living there, named Sukey Nutter. She had lived with Capt. Joseph Chase, on Pitt street; and while attending Elder Elias Smith's meetings, in which she exhibited a wonderful gift in prayer and exhortation, was guilty of bad conduct out of meeting, which Capt. Chase told her he would expose to the brethren. "If you do, I'll burn you up," served to keep the Captain quiet, but did not keep her long on his premises. It was also found that she lived at Mr. Sherburne's, at the Plains, when the barns were burnt.

Such strong circumstances led to her arrest; but Sukey being a girl of great beauty, her fascinating appearance saved her from the stern clutches of the law. Although one of the investigating committee declared that he would never agree to a verdict of acquittal, he gave way on condition that she should leave Portsmouth never to return. Sukey went at once to a town in the upper part of Strafford County, found a husband in one Charles Stewart, (by some called Ham,) who had been arrested for firing a barn of Nathaniel Adams in 1805. Of their after life we know nothing, but probably they became better persons than hanging would have made them. Whether the political party bearing the name of "Barnburners," descended from them, history does not say.

The 22d of December is the anniversary of an event of much national
importance, and is also the anniversary of a local calamity of a deeply
appalling character.

This day, in 1620, our Pilgrim fathers landed at Plymouth, and laid the basis of those institutions which have made New England what she now is -- the abode of freedom, -- freedom of conscience, -- freedom from political tyranny, --and freedom from hereditary titles and power. On the rich blessings we enjoy from the stern devotion of our honored ancestors, we will leave the reader to meditate, for this is not our present purpose.

On the 22d December, 1813, Portsmouth suffered a calamity the effects of which it took many years to hide from sight. With the "panoramic view of the burning of Moscow," most of our readers are familiar. The commencement of the fire in that panorama, and its gradual extension until one half the horizon presented one continuous flame, gives an idea of a Portsmouth night scene in 1813.

About half past seven, on that evening, flames were seen bursting forth from the barn of Mrs. Woodward, on the corner of Church and Court streets, where the Stone Church now stands. By the brightness of the light the citizens were soon collected, but all their exertions were ineffectual to subdue the fire, which before eight o'clock, had so spread over every part of the house of Hon. Daniel Webster and Thomas Haven in Pleasant street, between Court street and State street, and to the house of Mrs. Woodward, at the corner of State street and Church street, that it was with difficulty any part of the property was preserved.

From the violence of the wind and flames, immense flakes were driven through the air to a great distance, and fell in showers upon the roofs in the direction of the wind. The next building that took fire was Mr. Yeaton's barn at the corner of Chapel street and State street, which was distant from Mrs. Woodward's barn fifty-six rods, about one-sixth of a mile. The fire soon spread from Yeaton's barn, passing over thirteen rods and caught the house occupied by D. Humphreys, at the corner of Mulberry and Daniel streets. This happened about half past eight. The flames then took the shop of Miss Wentworth, the Union Bank and the store at the corner of State and Pleasant streets. These were scarcely on fire at half past nine o'clock, when the shop of Mr. Moses the tailor, at the corner of Penhallow and State streets, the house occupied by Mr. Wyatt in State street opposite Mr. Moses the tailor, the house of the widow Edwards in State street near the corner of Chapel street, and several houses on the opposite side of it, and the house at the corner of Daniel and Chapel streets, were all blazing upon the roofs.

By eleven o'clock almost every house in State street and on the south side of Daniel street was in flames. The house of Jacob Sheafe, Esq., in State near Penhallow street, was now the only building in State street, east of where the fire commenced, for the whole extent of a quarter of a mile, that was not burning. This however was wrapped by a tempest of fire from the surrounding houses, but was defended to the last extremity by the persevering energy of some generous souls -- among them Commodore Hull and Captain Smith of the Frigate Congress, and other officers from the Navy Yard, who were enjoying that evening the hospitality of the Navy Agent and on the top of the house they fought the fire as though it were the declared enemy of their country. But the fire insidiously entered some inner apartment and this building shared in the fate of its neighbors. The destruction of the whole town now seemed inevitable. Despair was upon every face, and each individual seemed to feel grateful for his personal safety. A few persons entertained some faint hopes that the fire-proof stores in Water street, between State and Court streets would have been safe themselves, and would have served as a barrier against the fire. But the heat was so intense that it burnt through the walls, and the composition roofs of tar and gravel melted like ice before the fury of the burning flakes.

The fire acknowledged no other barrier than the shores of the Piscataqua. It was not until five o'clock of the morning of the 23d that it ceased its ravages. That morning presented in the midst of our city fifteen acres of ruins, studded over by hundreds of chimneys, tottering walls and charred stumps of fruit and ornamental trees. There had disappeared in one short night 108 dwelling houses (occupied by 130 farnilies,) 64 stores and shops, and 100 barns, &c., making in the whole 272 buildings. From west to east the fire extended one third of a mile, and from north to south, the width of the ruins in the widest part was an eighth of a mile.

So rapid was the progress of the fire, that nothing was saved from cellars. Few people had time to go into their upper chambers, and a vast amount of property which had been removed from houses to what were regarded places of safety, was overtaken by the flame and consumed.

On the dreadful night of the fire numerous and painful were the sensations experienced. Many were apprehending the entire loss of their property, impoverishment of their friends, the blasting of their fairest hopes, the destruction of some valuable acquaintance and the ruin of the town. They saw the widow, deprived of her house and everything it contained, wringing her hands in agony, -- they saw the "aged man and bowed down" supporting himself on his staff and crawling to some place of safety, -- they saw the aged and diseased mother borne in a chair by the arms of an affectionate son, -- they saw the child emaciated by a lingering disorder, snatched from the couch of maternal tenderness to encounter the piercing wind of night; and the victim of distraction borne from confinement to find a refuge from death. The mighty roaring of the wind and flames, the awful crash of the buildings, and the shrieks of distress, almost drove some to distraction.

None however could fail to be struck with the sublimity of the prospect as viewed from the tops of the buildings. The fire seemed a torrent of desolation rushing through the midst of the town, and with humility they saw its destructive energies mocking the impotence of man. Not only this place, but the whole adjacent country was illuminated with a crimson splendor. The deep and majestic river, awfully reflected the blazing deluge of ruin, and contributed greatly to heighten the grandeur of the scene.

The atmosphere was remarkably clear on the night of the fire, which could consequently be seen at an immense distance. It was seen at Boston and was supposed to be in Charlestown. In Ipswich and Gloucester thirty-five miles distant, books could be read in the streets. It was seen at Providence, about one hundred miles from us in a southwesterly direction. It was seen in a town ten miles beyond Windsor in Vermont, about one hundred miles from us in a northwesterly direction, and was supposed to be in Windsor. The persons who saw it mounted their horses and went to Windsor expecting to be of use to people suffering there from fire. It was so light in Berwick, fifteen miles from us, they could discern a pin in the streets; and in Dover, ten miles from us, it was so light they could read.

A large number of persons arrived from Newburyport in season to be useful at the fire, and at three o'clock in the morning forty men arrived from Salem, having come forty-three miles in six hours, and were in season to afford efficient aid. Eighty men from Newburyport remained over the second night, to complete their work of philanthrophy in watching the ruins.

In those days but few persons had insurance upon property, so that the loss of nearly $300,000 was severely felt by our citizens. To a call by the Selectmen for donations, there was a noble response, not only from neighboring towns, but also from some as distant as the city of brotherlylove. Philadelphia sent a donation of $13,291, New York $4,055, Boston over $20,000, Portland $1,421, Providence $2,750, Newburyport $1,858, and from a hundred other towns, in the aggregate making up $77,273, or about 25 per cent. of the whole loss. This sum was as equally divided as the circumstances would permit.

For more than forty years the public were left without a knowledge of the cause of that desolating fire. It now appears that a girl who bore the name of Colbath had been a domestic at the house of Mrs. Woodward, and had taken offence because Mrs. W. had taken from her some bottles of wine which a gentleman boarder at the house had given her. She left the house and procured a place in the kitchen of Mr. John Gains, then occupying the house where Mayor Simes now resides. She there told her story, and made an avowal of revenge-"I'll burn her out." She was remonstrated with in vain. With a threat of vengeance upon her lips she left Mr. G.'s house early in the evening of the 22d of December, and in the course of an hour there was an alarm--"Woodward's barn is on fire!" She never again returned to Mr. G.'s but sent a messenger for her clothes the next day. The fear of experiencing a like revengeful, fiendish act, led the family to keep the matter to themselves, -- and it was not until her death, many years after, that the facts were made known. This Colbath led a dissolute life, and became an inmate of our almshouse.

It is our intent in a number of Rambles, to reconstruct, as well as the materials will permit, that portion of Portsmouth as it was before that fire, and introduce to the stage of life some of the men who might have been seen in that part of our city half a century ago.


Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by SeacoastNH.com
Design 2003 SeacoastNH.com

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