When Boston burned

Published: March 2008

Earlier this year the Burns Library placed on exhibit materials from an extensive Bostoniana collection donated by Ellerton J. Brehaut (1897-1985). Publicly displayed for the first time were rare manuscripts, including notes on Boston life and politics by Edward H. Savage, the city’s police chief from 1870-78. The exhibit also included letters signed by John Phillips, Josiah Quincy, and Harrison Gray Otis, the first three mayors of Boston. Older selections included a 1790 Massachusetts lottery ticket—most states used lotteries to finance public works at that time.

Brehaut (pronounced Bree-oh) worked 40 years for the Boston Chamber of Commerce, and was an indefatigable collector of newspapers, magazine articles, books, pamphlets, city documents, maps, guidebooks, and manuscripts. He donated parts of his collection to the public library in his hometown of Danvers, including “the most complete collection of printed materials relating to the 1692 witchcraft hysteria in Salem,” according to the University of Virginia’s Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project. “Some of his collection ended up at Boston College,” according to the Burns exhibit announcement, “because he had taken note of a request for donations of material on Boston put in a Boston newspaper by Boston college librarian Father Brendan Connolly, SJ.”

@BC presents a slideshow of images from the Brehaut collection: photographs and illustrations of the Great Boston Fire, which broke out on November 9, 1872, at the corner of Summer and Kingston Streets and in the course of 15 hours gutted 65 acres of the city’s central and commercial district, destroying property valued at $75 million. The University’s Thomas H. O’Connor wrote in Boston A-Z (Harvard University Press, 2000), “Some 776 buildings had to be demolished, and insurance companies went bankrupt paying claims. Most of the downtown area had to be completely rebuilt and modernized.”

This feature was posted on Thursday, March 27, 2008 and is filed under Slideshows.
Writer: Dan Soyer, Producer: Miles Benson, Archival Research: Shelley Barber