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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Postcard Thursday: The Fire of 1776

courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Museum

This past week marked the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1776, which broke out sometime after midnight September 20-21.

As we write in Inside the Apple:
The fire started on the evening of September 21, 1776—perhaps in the Fighting Cocks Tavern on the wharf, though that has never been substantiated—and quickly engulfed the city west of Broadway. The churchyard surrounding Trinity Church kept the fire from heading south, but neither Trinity was spared, nor anything between it and St. Paul’s Chapel. St. Paul’s, itself only ten years old, had a bucket brigade manning its roof and was saved. In all, over 400 buildings were gone—nearly twenty-five percent of the city’s structures. 
The British immediately blamed the Americans. (One American blamed by the British was Nathan Hale, who was arrested for spying that same day. Hale, however, had nothing to do with the fire.) General Howe called it a “horrid attempt” by a “number of wretches to burn the town….” As most of the damage happened on “Holy Ground” and other Trinity Church property, some saw it as an explicit attack on the Church of England’s power and influence. In truth, the Americans had contemplated the idea of torching the city if it fell into British hands. One of Washington’s generals, Nathaniel Greene (the “Fighting Quaker”), had pressed Washington in that direction. However, when Washington floated the idea by John Hancock, the Continental Congress immediately nixed it and it is unlikely that either Washington or Greene disobeyed Congress.
The image displayed here, Représentation du feu terrible à Nouvelle Yorck, ca. 1776, is in the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Museum, and is actually what's called a "cut-out optique view." The print, which was engraved by Francois Xavier Habermann in Germany and is attributed to French artist André Basset, was designed to be displayed in front of a candle.

As the museum's text panel explains, "windows, door, and the flames have been cut out using a knife and decorative punches. The colored paper pasted to the back of the print was thin enough to allow light to pass through the holes. The flicker of the a candle made the blaze come to life for the viewer."

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Our next public walking is Sunday, October 9, at 10:00 a.m. Join us as we explore Central Park and its many representations of Christopher Columbus. Click the link for details:

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