“I screamed ‘Fire’ and called to Pa”

Lavinia Goodell, December 28, 1853

Fourteen-year-old Lavinia Goodell experienced two harrowing events in December of 1853. On December 10, while working in her father’s offices in lower Manhattan she witnessed the huge fire that destroyed Harper & Brothers publishing company. On December 28 she was again helping her father when a fire broke out in the next room.

William Goodell had moved to Brooklyn with his wife and daughter earlier in the year and began publishing American Jubilee, an anti-slavery publication, at 84 Beekman Street, in what is now New York’s financial district.

Lavinia helped prepare issues of the paper for mailing by writing the names and addresses of recipients on “wrappers.” (Lavinia was compensated for her efforts. She reported earning $8.00 for sixteen days of work and after deducting $1.66 for stage and ferry expenses she said, “I have made quite a speck and feel very rich.”) She and her father, along with other workers, were in the American Jubilee office three days after Christmas when a fire broke out. Lavinia recounted the frightening event to her sister:

Lavinia Goodell’s December 28, 1853 letter to Maria Frost

We were about frightened out of our wits this afternoon. They were putting gas pipes into the rooms of the offices and it caught fire in the room adjoining the one where I was. It had begun to grow dark, and some of the green chaps didn’t know any better than to take a candle to see to work by and the gas caught and flashed up in an instant. I saw the light and, jumping up, looked in. There was the blaze, as high as the wall and as large around as a man. I screamed “Fire” and called to Pa, who was in a room on the other side of the fire.

The other girls in the room caught up their bonnets and ran downstairs. My things were in a closet some distance from there, and I didn’t dare to go for them for fear I could not get back, so I threw my apron over my head and followed the girls. By this time everyone was stirring. Girls from the other parts of the establishment coming out with their things in their hands. Men running with pails of water, etc.

Pa was screaming “Fire” from the front windows, and the girls were much alarmed, so we all ran through mud and rain over to the police station opposite. Pretty soon an engine came and a number of firemen.

1850s fire engine

The streets were all blocked up with people, and for a little time I feared the worst, but after a while the engine went away and I went back, found the floor covered with mud and water, all the doors open, a great wheel barrow in our room, a crowd of men and much confusion. One man had his face badly burned. I was relieved to find Pa and all our things safe. There was not as much damage as I feared. If the engine had been a few minutes later the house probably would have gone.

For the rest of their lives, Lavinia and her parents distrusted gas. When some of their neighbors installed gas light fixtures in their homes, the Goodells continued to use lanterns. The 1853 fire may have been a contributing factor in their unease.

Sources consulted: Lavinia Goodell’s letters to Maria Frost (December 28, 1853; January 8, 1854).

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