Here to return to
THE HEROIC DEAD.
HEROS in any place, or under any circumstances, call out our sympathy and admiration; and the accounts of noble deeds by sea and land, in storm, in battle, in venturesome attempts to relieve others, occupy the highest and best places in our libraries and newspapers. For the glory that gleams about the name of them who perform heroic acts, men cheerfully die in each other’s defence. It is godlike to honor such deeds.
But what is exciting battle with its chances that favor of escape, what is self-sacrifice in mutual danger, or the endurance of suffering that comes as it can be borne, compared with the quiet immolation of men in time of peace, with no prospect of glory, or that their efforts will ever be appreciated? of all the forms in which Death visits his victims, what is more terrible than death by fire? To die with resignation in the flames has ever been the test of the truest martyrdom; and the number is not large of those who have met such a death cheerfully.
But to that sacred list of heroes the great fire of 1872 has made some noble additions. We would speak of them tenderly. We would give their names to history for a reminder, and for the encouragement of those who are to come after us in the disasters and ruin which will doubtless return from time to time as long as man is human.
When the stately structures of Federal Street were crumbling before the dread element, and while the firemen, with a bravery that was astonishing, were clambering over the roofs of buildings bursting with fire, a young man of eighteen years perceived the presence of an appalling danger. The wall of a half-consumed warehouse, which reared itself high in the clouds of smoke and flame, began to totter and sway in the whistling whirlwinds. When it fell, it must crush the adjoining building, in which had been Walker’s carriage-dépôt, and in the interior apartments of which were several firemen, and among them members of Engine Company No. 1 of Cambridge. If the daring firemen were not warned at once, they would be mangled and killed in the fearful wreck. Who should risk his life, with the chances against his saving it, to give the needed alarm? Old men stood by, and hesitated; while the crowd of spectators awaited with silent horror the death of those self-sacrificing guardians of human life and property.
It seems almost strange, that, in the dispensations of Divine Providence, only one could be found; and that Frank D. Olmstead, with his education, refinement, nobility, and fair prospects, should be called upon to sacrifice an unlived life so full of probable usefulness. But the very traits of his character which would give him the most influence in society, and make his future a success, were the qualities which impelled him on to martyrdom. He was too generous to witness suffering without taking his full share, too sympathetic not to be moved to action when his friends were in jeopardy; and, notwithstanding the repeated remonstrances of friends and strangers who would have left the firemen to their fate, he rushed through the spray and smoke and heat into the endangered building. The firemen heard his call, and hastily retreated to the street, reaching the sidewalk just as the towering ruin toppled and thundered down upon wall and roof, demolishing with terrific shocks the windows, doorways, and projections where they were stationed a moment before, at the time when young Olmstead called them. They were safe, and the hero’s work was done. The broken and shattered walls were scattered as if thrown outward by an explosion; and heavy pieces of wood, stone, and mortar, fell upon the sidewalk, or hissed into the street. The young man was just emerging from the crumbling structure, and had reached the curbstone, when he was struck by one of the falling bowlders, and fatally injured. The next day (Sunday), at his home in Cambridge, his self-sacrificing spirit went to its long home. We looked upon the coffin, and into the faces of weeping friends, on the day of his funeral, and felt that no greater hero than he whose body lay before us ever drew a sword, or marshalled an army for battle. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
In the afternoon of Sunday, Albert C. Abbott, an exempt fireman of Charlestown, was engaged in the attempt to quench the flames in the rear of the old post-office. It was at this point that the victory over the fire was won. Had the fire been permitted to destroy that building, thus sweeping into State Street, the devastation would have been far more terrible. The firemen had been told, and felt, the full importance of making an effectual stand at that point: hence they worked long and hard. Their clothing was seared, hair singed, faces discolored, hands blistered, lungs cauterized, by the heat; and yet they flinched not.
Here it was that Abbott received the injuries of which he afterwards died in the Massachusetts Hospital. He, too, was just in the dawn of a useful life, when he gave it up for the good of others. The Thanksgiving evening has come and gone, and awakened in the hearts of many the most pleasant associations of life. But there was no marriage-festival at his home in Charlestown; for the bridegroom was not there: instead of music and feasting, there were sadness, sickness, tears.
His brother, Lewis Porter Abbott, had but a short season before been killed by the fall of burning walls about the site of Weeks and Potter’s drug-store, on Washington Street. For him a widowed mother, a wife, and three children, wept together. As life is more valuable than gold, souls are dearer than merchandise, brain is more powerful than stocks, intellect more beautiful and sublime than the most delicately decorated temples; so their loss, and the bereavement of others who suffered like them, were greater and deeper than the sacrifices of us all.
Capt. Daniel Cochrane of Boston Hook-and-Ladder Company No. 4, where he had formerly acted as second foreman, was burned to death in the store, formerly 175 Washington Street, on Sunday morning. He resided at Boston Highlands, and left a wife and two children.
Near Capt. Cochrane’s charred remains were also found the scorched bones of Capt. William Farry, also of Hook-and-Ladder Company No. 4. This is a short tale; and the sympathizing heart naturally longs to care and to do for the broken-hearted ones, whose griefs and trials may be imagined, but never fully known.
Walter S. Twombly of Malden, connected with Sheridan Hose Company, was also killed while in the discharge of his duty. It was a sad sight indeed, and one which drew tears from every close observer, when his widowed mother sorrowfully but persistently searched through the ghastly piles of smoking débris for some sign by which she might find the body of her son.
William S. Frazer of Hook-and-Ladder Company No. 1, and until recently a much-respected citizen of Bangor, Me., also fell a victim to the relentless, remorseless flames.
In a falling building on Franklin Street there were seen through the flashes of fire the forms of men attempting to leap from the windows; but they never reached the pavement: their cries were heard above the crashing timbers and the noise of explosions, awakening shrilly echoes in the ears of those who heard, which will never cease to call.
Lewis C. Thompson of Worcester was struck by the fragment of a falling wall, and instantly killed. Five other persons were consumed in the buildings between Franklin and Milk Streets. Forty persons were severely injured, among whom were Thomas Maloney of Worcester; Col. Freeman, William T. Woodard, G. W. Gardner, and Francis Croshier, of Boston; Charles Paine and Thomas Waldron of Charlestown; John Richardson of New Haven; Charles H. Roster of Malden; and William Fitzgerald of Boston. There is still a long and ominous list of missing, which doubtless includes many of those sacrificed that fatal Sunday morning in New England’s direst holocaust.