"Chicago in Flames: Scene at Randolph Street Bridge," depicting the Great Fire of 1871. Currier & Ives. Library of Congress.

Where There’s Smoke

A History of Fire

This summer, hundreds of thousands of acres are burning across the West. It’s a reminder that a force of nature, mastered but not tamed over the millennia, doesn’t always bend to the will of human beings. Until the early 20th century, fire was essential for heat, cooking and light. But as electrification spread, few Americans still relied on fire at work or in their homes. Brian, Ed and Peter will blaze a trail across time in search of stories about how Americans have harnessed the power of fire, managed its dangers, and made meaning in its flames.

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PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

MALE SPEAKER: Scorching heat in the west means even more wildfires in Southern California–

PETER: You’ve heard the news. America’s wildfires are getting bigger and badder.

MALE SPEAKER: –threatening 500 homes, the other torching cabins and scattering wildlife.

PETER: Coping with fire has a storied past. Whether it’s firemen fighting a bad reputation,

MALE SPEAKER: He was a particularly violent and manly individual, and that really became the stereotype of what the firefighter was like.

PETER: Fire victims battling political heat,

FEMALE SPEAKER: So many political and business leaders were actually excited about this social equalizing disaster, because it limited in Chinatown. And they thought, we’ll never rebuild it.

PETER: Or experts trying to extinguish BS, bad science. A history of how Americans have management and made sense of fire. Today on BackStory, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Don’t go away.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

MALE SPEAKER: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

ED: Welcome to the show. I’m Ed Ayers, here with Brian Balogh.

BRIAN: Hey there, Ed.

ED: And Peter Onuf.

PETER: Hey, Ed.

ED: We’re going to start off in August, 1910 with an event known as the big blowout.

MALE SPEAKER: It was quite a sight. If we had a movie out of that, oh boy, we would have something.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And the hot ashes were falling. You know, those things make an awful impression on a child. Something like that, you’ll remember.

PETER: These are oral histories of Idaho residents recounting the Big Blow-up, one single wildfire that spanned three states and more than three million acres. One report likned the sound alone to 1,000 trains rushing over 1,000 steel trestles.

MALE SPEAKER: The roar of it, when you went by, you couldn’t talk. You had to shout, get right up and shout in a man’s ear in order to make him hear.

FEMALE SPEAKER: You know, if you’ve never heard the roar of a terrible forest fire, it’s worse than any thunder, I think.

PETER: The inferno forced residents from their homes, leaving their positions to the oncoming flames. As it stretched across the northern Rockies, the blaze became so large that according to some reports, smoke could be seen as far away as northern New York.

ED: The federal government had responsibility to extinguish the flames. Wildfire historian Stephen Pine says a new federal agency, the US Forest Service, had been formed just years earlier.

PETER: Before there’d been large fires, hundreds of people killed, whole communities wiped out. Just extraordinary catastrophes. And in this case, the Forest Service was on board. And now this would be taken as the test.

ED: The agency didn’t exactly pass that test. Even before the big blow up, the meager number of fire rangers had to be padded with men from work gangs, employment centers, and the US Army. By the time rain and early September snows extinguished the flames, 78 firefighters had died, several towns have been leveled, and the Forest Service was $1 million over budget.

BRIAN: Pine says the leaders of the young Forest Service took away one lesson from the traumatizing event. It could have been stopped. And in the following years, the agency poured resources into a policy of absolute fire prevention.

STEPHEN PINE: That every fire will be controlled by 10 o’clock the morning following its report. And that’s whether the fire is a mile away from the ranger station, or 100 miles away. There is one universal unblinking standard, and the idea was that we could, once and for all, beat the fire menace by just throwing massive amounts of effort at it.

BRIAN: But Pine says this policy had long term consequences. They cut down on the number of smaller forest fires that had been productively blazing in years past.

STEPHEN PINE: So one of the consequences of 1910 and the effort to exclude fire, shut fire out from the landscape, is that stuff keeps growing. And fire is not pruning, and cleaning out, and shaping in all the ways it traditionally did, and recycling. And so what happens is that made the fire scene far worse than what it would have been.

PETER: In other words, as more temper built up, more fuel has been available to feed wildfires. Wildfires at the center of news reports, like this one on ABC earlier this summer.

FEMALE SPEAKER: And in California, the scorching heat and persistent drought fueling the worst fire season conditions ever.

PETER: Indeed, 2015 is shaping out to be one of the worst years on record for US wildfires. Around 6.5 million acres have burned so far, well above the average for this time of year. And that, says Pine, is why 1910 should be remembered. It wasn’t the biggest fire in US history, or the most destructive. But while factors like historic droughts bear some blame for the current crisis, Pine reminds us that our history also plays a part.

STEPHEN PINE: Big fires can come and go without much impact. But what matters is how that fire interacts with society. And over and over again, we’re living with the consequences of the great fires.

ED: So today on the show, we’re blazing a trail through history with stories about America’s fraught relationship with fire. we’ll hear why so many arson convictions are now in doubt, and how San Francisco’s thriving Chinatown rose from some controversial ashes. And we’ll find out if modern firefighting companies are actually descendants of gang warfare.

PETER: All that and more. But first, we’ll spend some time with a physician named Francis LeMoyne In the 1870s, he was looking to fire as a tool to solve one of the biggest problems of his day.

ED: Le Moine wanted to stop the spread of disease. Outbreaks of cholera and dyptheria periodically plagued communities across the country. LeMoyne soon settled on a theory.

CLAY KILGORE: He really latch on to burial practices.

ED: This is Clay Kilgore, a historian in LeMoyne’s hometown of Washington, Pennsylvania.

CLAY KILGORE: What he looked at was, somebody’s dying, and they die, we put them in a rickety pine coffin. Bury them in the ground. It rains, ground water runs through the body through the coffin, it washes down into our wells and our water supplies. We drink that, and then we end up getting sick of the same thing.

PETER: With this theory in mind, LeMoyne turned to a new idea from Europe. Fire was supposedly more sanitary than burial. The new technique was called cremation. But in the US, many Americans were dead set against burning bodies, including many residents of Washington, Pennsylvania. They felt that cremation was pagan, barbaric, and un-Christian.

CLAY KILGORE: There was a newspaper account, I think it was The Washington Reporter. And there was a quote in there from a local man who said, when the body is consumed by heat, the soul is at the same time destroyed. So when Francis LeMoyne built the country’s first crematorium in 1876, the protest turn to a fever pitch.

ED: Clay Kilgore’s Historical Society maintains LeMoyne’s controversial crematory. It’s a museum today. So I asked him, given this atmosphere, how did he get around cremating anybody in the first place?

CLAY KILGORE: Because of what he would consider an irrational fear of fire, he built this crematory, built the furnace so that the way it worked, is that as the body was being broken down, it was purely from heat. It had nothing to do with the flames touching it, it was only heat. So the furnace would get up to about 2000 degrees, and the body would be broken down by that.

ED: How did they test it? Who was the lucky candidate?

CLAY KILGORE: They had two bodies that they put in, and they were two marino sheep that Francis had on his farm. And I’d like to tell people that they did die of natural causes, they were not sacrificed for the testing of the cremation.

ED: Good. And we don’t know their religious preference.

CLAY KILGORE: No, we don’t. I’m guessing that they were Presbyterian, just because most people in Washington were at that time.


CLAY KILGORE: So that’s how they tested the furnace. And when they moved on to actually what we consider the first cremation in the United States, that was a gentleman by the name of Baron DuPont. He was a Bavarian prince. He was in New York City at the time of his death. And when he died, his caretakers, overseer, was a gentleman by the name of [? Olkot. ?] And Mr. [? Olkot ?] arranged with Francis to have him cremated.

ED: What year is this, Clay?

CLAY KILGORE: 1876. The year that the crematory was finished.

ED: Was the cremation a public affair?

CLAY KILGORE: It was. I mean, so much so that Francis sent out invitations.

ED: Oh my goodness. So who were the people that were actually invited?

CLAY KILGORE: Well, the reporters were invited. There are reporters from throughout the United States, but also London, Paris. But he also invited doctors. Because if doctors study it and see how clean of a process it is, then they can go back to their own communities, and they can try to start spreading this idea.

And the people of the town came out. So you would have been standing there with several thousand people there. The same people that were opposing it only weeks before, and yet now they’re here to see it, because it’s a fascination. Now we finally get to see it. So they drop that opposition, and they come up and say, OK, let’s see what’s going to occur.

ED: OK, so it’s the moment to light the fire, so to speak. What would I see, or feel, or God forbid, smell if I’m standing there?

CLAY KILGORE: Well, you would have been very disappointed. I imagine that people that showed up for this, after the service was over, were standing around going, really, I stood in this– because it was cold that day. It was one of the coldest days of the year, it was snowing. You’re standing in the building. And what you would have seen is a guy throwing coal into a furnace. And you would have had to have stood there for probably about six hours, watching him stoke this fire. And that’s what you would have been watching, just trying to get the fire hot enough.

ED: And then how long is the Baron in there before he’s cooked?

CLAY KILGORE: About two hours, that was about it. Unfortunately, what you had to do was stand there for another four hours and wait for the first to cool down enough that they could go back in and get the ashes. So 14, 15 hours later, you finally get to see ashes come out. And that’s what people wanted to see. They wanted to know what it was going to look like. And it’s so much different than what we think of today of this really fine powder.

But back then, what it was was large chunks of bone. It was a white ash, but there were 7 and 1/2 pounds of it left over.

ED: Wow.

CLAY KILGORE: And the best part for you is that Francis, wanting people to see how clean of a process it was, hands out samples of the ashes to the physicians and doctors and attendants. And so you get to take a small piece of bone from the Baron, and you get to take that home with you.

ED: So I take it that cremation took off. It swept the nation. LeMoyne had a growing business on his hands.

CLAY KILGORE: No, it really didn’t. I mean, the LeMoyne crematory, your first one in the United States, operates up until 1901. From 1876 to 1901, there were only 42 cremations that actually took place there. So it didn’t take off.

ED: How do you explain the fact that almost half of Americans today I prefer cremation to burial?

CLAY KILGORE: I don’t know why they do. But even if you look at it today, there’s still opposition to it. I found it amusing, not too far from Washington there’s a little place, Peter’s Township. And there was a person trying to build a crematoru in Peter’s Township. And all of a sudden, there was renewed interest in the LeMoyne Crematory. Because people were so opposed to it that they start calling the Washington County Historical Society wanting to know, how did people oppose it back in 1876, so we know what to say today?

ED: Clay Kilgore is the executive director of the Washington County Historical Society in Pennsylvania. You can read more about America’s first crematorium on our website, backstoryradio.org. Earlier, we heard from environmental historian Stephen Pine in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University. He’s the author Fire, Nature and Culture.

PETER: It’s time for us to take a short break, but stay with us. When we get back, we’ll find out if 19th century firemen were really just a bunch of thugs.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be right back.

ED: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. With wildfires raging in about a dozen states, we’re spending an hour talking about the history of fire in America.

ED: Nowadays, firefighting is one of the most respected lines of work. We hail firefighters as heroes who sacrifice their lives for others. But if you look to popular historical accounts of fireman, like the 2002 film, Gangs of New York, you’d think that in the 19th century, they were basically ruffians.

MALE SPEAKER: There were 37 amateur fire brigades, and they all fought each other.

ED: At this point in the movie, one brigade pulls up to a burning building just as another rounds the corner. And instead of rushing toward the flames, dozens of men collide into fisticuffs. This common image of the tough, bare knuckle firefighter prompted one listener to give us a call.

MALE SPEAKER: Hi, this is Brian calling from Baltimore, Maryland. My question is, many firefighters were originally formed as gangs which fought each other to be the one to put out the fire. How does such a wacky form of civil service come to be, who were these people, why did they fight fires, and how were they finally superseded by fire departments? Thanks very much. Bye-bye.

BRIAN: We called up Brooklyn College historian Benjamin Carp for the answer. Carp says that in the colonial era, firefighting was the responsibility of everyone in the community. Everyone grabbed a water bucket, got in line, and passed it hand to hand to put out the blaze. By the turn of the 19th century, as cities became denser and fires became harder to handle, fireman’s brigades sprang up. But Carp says that Hollywood’s rough and tumble portrayal of those guys is something of an exaggeration.

BENJAMIN CARP: Firefighters weren’t necessarily originally formed as gangs, they were originally formed as volunteer companies. As firefighting equipment became a little bit more specialized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, all of a sudden you needed men who would volunteer to work with the hand pumped engines and put out fires. And given the ethos of the day, this was a way to display your manly prowess, to be a good Republican citizen, to protect your community from the deadly effects and destructive effects of fire. It was a proud tradition of service.

So while they were volunteer organizations, I don’t know if I would necessarily call them gangs. And they’re definitely was a golden age of volunteer fire service in the early 19th century.

ED: So who were these volunteer firefighters that Brian’s asking about?

BENJAMIN CARP: Sure. The volunteer firefighters actually represented a surprising mix. Some of them were artisans, journeymen, craftsmen who worked with their hands. But there were also people from the developing middle class. Clerks, and merchants, and even wealthy men. They were also racially very exclusive, which doesn’t reflect very well on these early volunteer fire companies. But generally, African Americans were excluded in most northern cities.

ED: So with these people organized by neighborhood, I think Brian’s question’s reflecting the widespread sense that these groups are pretty competitive with each other. And you have stories of them racing to the fires, and trying to beat the other team, so forth. Is there truth to that story?

BENJAMIN CARP: Yes, there’s some truth. The firefighters were sometimes cooperative with one another. They would stage parades together, they would visit one another, they would have meals together. But sometimes they could also be very competitive, as well. They would compete to see who could pump their engine the hardest, they would compete to see who could throw water the highest. And it absolutely was true that some of these volunteer fire companies would fight each other at the scene of a fire. But I do think that to some extent in popular culture in some of the popular history since then we only remember the competition and not the actual firefighting that these volunteer fire companies really did accomplish.

And in part, that’s actually because of early 19th century theatre had a character called Mose Humphries was based on a real firefighter, but he was a particularly violent and manly individual, and that really became the stereotype of what the firefighter was like.

ED: So there’s nothing particular about firefighting that made them especially rowdy?

BENJAMIN CARP: Well, yes. I mean, one of the things that makes this a particularly fraught discussion is because firefighters were supposed to be protecting the city, when they did get disorderly, they were extremely vulnerable to that type of criticism. And so especially beginning in the 1850s and 1860s, you have a group of reformers, anti-immigrant critics, and insurance companies who really target the firefighters for their rowdiness and do really begin to depict to them as gangs. And so that combination of forces eventually lead some of the largest cities to turn to paid fire departments, and doing away with their older volunteer fire companies.

ED: We called our listener Brian back to find out if Ben Carp’s answer lined up with the history he had been reading on the subject.

MALE SPEAKER: What he raises, I think is really important is a dimension of thinking about that there was a volunteer dimension, right? And there were some economically diverse cooperation that went into it. And so while I very much appreciate that that aspect of highlighting the virtue and the cooperative spirit the time, I’m a little dubious. And I think that what we find is a much more richer system of coercion and crime probably driving this as well.

ED: So I hear you saying one thing and really meaning another, to be honest, Brian. You’re polite.

MALE SPEAKER: Oh really?

ED: You say, Yeah, I find that kind of persuasive, but you don’t, really.

BENJAMIN CARP: No, I do. I cite historical [INAUDIBLE], which is to say, that’s another I give that I’ll keep in my head, but we’re talking history, right? So you’re comparing anecdotes, and it’s like which anecdote you should focus on.

ED: That’s fair. It’s kind of like a court of law. We talk about the preponderance of evidence, you know? And so, yeah, I think it’s fair to say that if you’re going to enjoy history, you have to enjoy that wobble in the explanations. And recognize in many ways, the interesting part is the variance. I think the thing that was revealing to me from Ben’s response was how our own belief in professionalization can go back and make us think that what came before professionalization was more problematic than it might be.

So I would say as a historian, thank goodness that we have this wobble, or else we’d be out of business after we answered all the questions. So we appreciate you asking your good question, and I appreciate your manly, if I can use the phrase from the early 19th century, resistance to Ben’s countervailing response.

BENJAMIN CARP: All right, thanks so much for your time.

ED: My pleasure. Bye bye. Earlier we heard from Benjamin Carp, a historian at the City University of New York’s Brooklyn College.

PETER: While firefighters’ reputation has changed over time, it’s also clear that technology they use to fight fires has changed too. While researching this show, we heard about one piece of historical technology related to the age old question, what would you save from your home if it were on fire? So we sent producer Bruce Wallace to the town of Katonah in New York’s Hudson Valley to track it down.

HENRY BERGSON: Hi, Bruce. I’m Henry Bergson. How are you?

PETER: Over his 50-year firefighting career, Henry Bergson has turned his home into a private museum of firefighting artifacts. He’s collected over 1,500 items. So every room is pretty much stuffed. Bergson’s collection displays everything from this 19th century speaking trumpet, used by fire chiefs to direct action on scene–

HENRY BERGSON: Now boys, [INAUDIBLE] shake the engine up?

PETER: To a fire alarm box. When triggered, a code wheel telegraphs the location of the box to the firehouse, telling them where the fire is.

ED: But Bruce was there to see one of the most unassuming firefighting tools in the early days.

HENRY BERGSON: This is the exalted bed wrench.

ED: That’s right, a bed wrench, around the size of the average wrench in your toolbox. In colonial times, every firefighter carried one. Mutual aid societies, those neighborhood collectives we heard about in the last segment, actually required them.

HENRY BERGSON: The bed was the most important thing, normally the first piece of store bought furniture that a family would have. It’s too big to take out the front door, so the fireman would have to take it apart.

BRUCE WALLACE: It just fits in and turns.

HENRY BERGSON: It mates up with a bed bolt that goes in the end of the bed, so you can undo the rope mattress. And then you end up with two side rails, a headboard, and a footboard. You could turn the footboard and headboard sideways and head right on out the door. By the time the 1850s or 1860s rolled around, brass beds became very popular. You could disassemble that by hand. So the use of a lot of bed wrenches, at least as a firefighting tool, had passed on by.

BRUCE WALLACE: Does that indicate that fireman’s responsibilities in the early 19th century were different than they are later, that saving the personal property would have been a priority?

HENRY BERGSON: I don’t really think so. I think today, if you ask a fireman what’s your job, it’s preservation of life and property. We carry salvage covers on our trucks, and we’ll go in as part of the fire suppression operation and try and preserve the owner’s goods and valuables. When I was fire chief here in Katonah, we had a serious attic fire. We put a ladder up to get into the attic, and I can recognize a good painting. So I recognized the Renoit and the Picasso.

The owner was with us, and he made a comment to me, he said, it’s always nice to have a fire chief at least appreciates good art.

ED: That’s Henry Bergson in Katonah, New York.

BRIAN: Over the past few weeks, we’ve been asking our faithful listeners what they would save from a fire. Here are some of their answers.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Hi, my name is Katie. I’m calling from Washington DC. And I think that I would have to choose my son’s blue stuffed elephant Slimy, who isn’t slimy anymore. But my son will turn 10 next month, and I’ve been keeping track of this elephant for so long that it would just be wrong and horrible not to have him around anymore.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Hi guys, this is Christine from Philadelphia. When I was in college, I spent a semester abroad in Ireland, and lived in a boarding house. Within the first week or so, there was an intense grease fire in the kitchen, so we all had to evacuate. I didn’t worry about photos or even money, but I made sure to grab my passport. For some reason, I’m thinking that if there was a fire today, I would still go grab this passport, even though my trip was in the late ’90s, and not for anything. So just a lot of memories attached to that passport.

MALE SPEAKER: Hi, my name’s Matt from to Skokie, Illinois. I’m going to try not to get choked up over this a little bit. But my dad died when I was really young, but he’d done a lot of wood carvings. And when he died, he had created a beautiful wood carving of Santa Claus, and has just finished painting it. And it was a commission for somebody. And for years, nobody had come forward to claim it. And then somebody finally got in touch with us, they were able to find us. And they asked about it, and we explained what had happened. And they, through the goodness of their hearts, let us keep the statue, and not worry about repaying them either.

ED: Thanks to Katie, Christine, and Matt for sharing the stories with us.

PETER: In the spring of 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake set off a fire that engulfed San Francisco, and reduced much of it to ashes. As that inferno bore down on the city’s Chinatown neighborhood, there was no question what Lee Yoke Suey had to save. It was the one position that proved his US citizenship, his birth certificate.

CONNIE YOUNG YU: That birth certificate was so important to the Chinese. You always save everything, you have to save everything, or else the immigration authorities will always question why you’re here. Why you, as a Chinese person, are here.

PETER: This is Connie Young Yu, Lee Yoke Suey’s granddaughter. At the time that Lee and hundreds of thousands of others fled their homes, the City by the Bay was deeply divided. It’s steep hills and sand dunes marked the boundaries of race, class, and ethnicity. Everyone knew their place. And for around 25,000 residents of Chinese origin, stepping out of bounds was especially dangerous.

ED: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 placed Chinese immigrants on the margins. Acts of racial terror were a daily threat. While Chinatown was a segregated ghetto, it provided its residents with 15 blocks of desperately needed refuge. The devastation the great fire of 1906 brought to Chinatown would change that reality in surprising ways. Producer Chelsea Davis takes the story from here.

CHELSEA DAVIS: It was around 5:00 in the morning on April 18 when the ground begin to shake under Lee Yoke Suey, a shop owner in Chinatown. He glanced out his kitchen window to see houses collapsing, and terrified people rushing through the streets. So Lee gathered his wife and newborn daughter, and together they fled the house. Calls of, the earth dragon is stirring, echoed around them as rumors spread of a fire heading for the neighborhood. Here’s Lee’s granddaughter again, Connie Young Yu.

CONNIE YOUNG YU: It was chaotic. Probably he felt like he was in a war.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Yu says her grandfather put his family onto a wagon headed for the bay. Then he went back for that birth certificate. Lee quickly ducked into his store and rustled up what he needed. But as he emerged into the street again, Yu says, a white soldier caught sight of him, and assumed he was a looter.

CONNIE YOUNG YU: And the soldier stabs him with his bayonet. And my grandfather, he crumpled to the ground, and he played dead. He just lay there.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Lee escaped with a flesh wound. But as his run-in with a soldier suggests, the fires engulfing the city that day left Chinese residents exposed to all kinds of social dangers as they fled through unfamiliar neighborhoods.

ANDREA DAVIES: The built environment keeps everyone in their place. So if you’re an elite leak white synthesis can you don’t have to see the presence of Trento as you go there.

CHELSEA DAVIS: This is Andrea Davies, a historian at the Stanford Humanities Center, and herself a former firefighter in San Francisco.

ANDREA DAVIES: And so with everything gone, they’re watching all these people rush through the city. As the Chinese are leaving their homes in desperation, they’re being yelled at to get out, and don’t turn back. I call it heightened post-disaster racism.

CHELSEA DAVIS: And according to Davies, it wasn’t just private citizens. She says increased racism during a catastrophe can influence city officials’ responses, too. Think of the soldier who mistook Lee Yoke Suey for a looter, or the responders tasked with extinguishing the flames.

ANDREA DAVIES: The fire department did very little to stop the fires in Chinatown. And, in fact, made it worse. If you look at Chinatown, which is nestled right against Nob Hill where all the elite mansions are, all the water goes directed by the mayor to save Nob Hill. And all the dynamite goes into Chinatown.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Yeah, dynamite. It was a last ditch effort to stop the fire from reaching the richest, whitest district. The effort failed. And thanks to the explosives, Chinatown burned all the faster. In the following days, as the embers of Chinatown cooled, the Chinese residents found themselves homeless and newly vulnerable in hostile streets. But things were about to get worse.

ANDREA DAVIES: So many of the city’s political and business leaders were actually excited about this social equalizing disaster, because it eliminated Chinatown, and they thought, we’ll never rebuild it.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Many whites had seen the neighborhood as a Gamorrah of opium dens, prostitution, and disease. But Chinatown also occupied prime downtown real estate. Real estate that the city’s power brokers had long been eyeing. In 1904, two years before the fire, then mayor James Phelan had asked architect Daniel Burnham to draw some sketches of a new downtown. And in those sketches, there simply is no Chinatown.

ANDREA DAVIES: And so the minute the city goes up in flames, I’m not kidding, I don’t think the city’s finished burning. And James Phelan is telegraphing Daniel Burnham, send a more reports immediately. Get them in the hands of the city leaders and business leaders. Here’s the perfect city.

CHELSEA DAVIS: In the days after the fire, the current mayor, Eugene Schmitz, worked fast to make that perfect city a reality. He appointed James Phelan and other powerful leaders to a committee entirely dedicated to relocating Chinatown. The leading proposal punted Chinese residents to the outskirts of town, among the city’s slaughterhouses. Davies says the beleaguered Chinese community soon caught wind of the plan.

ANDREA DAVIES: And they fought back, and I think they fought back very intelligently.

CHELSEA DAVIS: The Chinese launched their self defense on multiple fronts. First, they simply started rebuilding in Chinatown before others got there. One Chinese language newspaper, the Chung Sai Yat Po, made sure Chinese refugees knew their land rights.


MALE SPEAKER: According to US laws, if the land belongs to the building owner, the landlord has the right to build on his land. Local officials have no right to stop him.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Even China’s Empress Dowager, Tzu-hsi, got involved, sending consul general from Washington to meet with San Francisco officials. But the most significant move was economic. For decades, San Francisco had been a key hub for lucrative trade with China. So a group of the city’s top Chinese merchants wrote to Mayor Schmitz in a language city officials easily understood.

ANDREA DAVIES: And so the negotiation was, OK, you don’t want us to come back? We can go to Tacoma, we can go to Portland. So there’s a panic of a loss of revenue for the city.

CHELSEA DAVIS: By May 10, less than a month after the fire, the mayor dissolved his committee to relocate Chinatown. Filmmaker Felicia Lowe says it was a political victory on an unprecedented scale.

FELICIA LOWE: They outsmarted, and they outplayed the city fathers to fight fire with fire.

CHELSEA DAVIS: But the Chinese community took their victory one step further. San Francisco was a blank slate after the fire. So instead of letting the city draw up new architecture, an American-born Chinese merchant named Look Tin Eli had a plan.

FELICIA LOWE: The word was build me a pagoda.

CHELSEA DAVIS: Before the fire, Chinatown’s architecture had blended in with the rest of San Francisco’s Italian buildings. But Look Tin Eli’s blueprint would make the rebuilt Chinatown into what he described as a new oriental city.

FELICIA LOWE: He was able to pull together the resources and a committee of like-minded Chinese merchants to hire white architects to create a Chinatown that looked the way white people imagined Chinatown to look. Even though he knew in his own mind that the buildings in China didn’t look like this.

CHELSEA DAVIS: The result was a Chinatown that Lo calls a Disneyland vision of China. Pagoda-topped buildings, bright reds and golds, and dragon symbols everywhere. It used Western stereotypes to rake in tourist dollars, and to give the district a new reputation for cleanliness and safety. Consider it a sort of architectural revenge. Today, Chinatown remains one of San Francisco’s most visited neighborhoods.

Of course, this makeover didn’t change everything. Sinophobia persisted for decades, and Chinese immigrants couldn’t even become naturalized citizens until 1943. But even the 1882 nationalization ban had a lot less bite after the fire, because there was one final ironic boon from the 1906 catastrophe that created an influx of immigrants.

FELICIA LOWE: The fire destroyed the City Hall, which maintained all the vital records. Births, deaths, marriages. So what happened was that some of the Chinese went to City Hall claiming that they were, in fact, citizens. And there was no way to disprove it.

CHELSEA DAVIS: On one level many see Chinatown’s story as grim. It took a natural disaster, a devastating fire, to give the Chinese a political voice in the city where they’d lived for more than 50 years. But Lee Yoke Suey, the merchant stabbed as he fled, refused to be bitter. If anything, his granddaughter says, the great fire and the fierce fight for Chinatown, gave the Lee family a greater sense of belonging in their country, the United States.

FELICIA LOWE: And they felt that somehow being in the earthquake and coming back made them part of the city, that they felt they had a stake in, look, we were here, and we survived.

PETER: Reporter Chelsea Davis brought us that story. We’ll have a link on our website to Felicia Lowe’s films about Chinatown, and to Andrea Davies’ book, Saving San Francisco, Relief and Recovery After the 1906 Disaster. Just head to backstoryradio.org.

ED: It’s time for us to take another break. When we return, a battle between fire’s timeless mystique and the science behind the flames.

BRIAN: More BackStory coming up in a minute.

ED: This is BackStory. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. We’re talking today about all the ways fire has influenced the course of American history.

BRIAN: Peter, Ed, I know that fire was incredibly important as a tool, and as a symbol in your periods. In the 18th and 19th century. I’ll confess that when I think about the 20th century, it just seems to me that fire doesn’t play as critical a role in people’s everyday lives. So I want to know if you think it’s fair to say that fire was just a bigger part of everyday life back in ye olden days?

PETER: Well, the short answer is yes. The danger of colonial towns burning down, that’s an ongoing threat. And you can expect every generation there’s going to be a major fire. But what I think is really interesting about the ubiquity of fire and how it’s fuels and fires everything– I mean, we can’t live without fire– is that it really has positive connotations, too. And I think that opens up an interesting window on the history of American culture, and I’ll briefly lay it out.

Fire is associated with transformative events. Fire is what is associated on the one hand with the sacred fire of liberty, that that love of liberty that burns in the breast of every patriot. But it’s also associated, I think, with metallurgy, and crucibles, and changes. And it’s a perfect metaphor for a new nation.

ED: And what strikes me about the 19th century is it really is defined in some ways by playing with fire. Some things that we might not think of as fire are actually fire-based. And what am I =king about? The defining technology of the railroad. Think about this. A moving fire is what that locomotive is, right?

PETER: Causes a lot of fires, too.

BRIAN: Don’t try that at home, Ed.

ED: Or the steam boats. The amount of wood that a steamboat had to burn to create enough force to drag all those bales of cotton up and down rivers, just immense. So not only do you burn a lot of the landscape to clear it as they had back in the American Indians for time immemorial. But in the 19th century, they literally began, as the cliche goes, to harness it.

You had it burning on a wooden boat, of all things, and then a locomotive. But then you think about, what’s the defining image of new industry? It’s the fire of this iron foundry, the steel mill, right? To go from the old blacksmith’s shop to these huge industrial things with those big cauldrons pouring molten steel. So in some ways, the 19th century is about mastery of fire. But on the other hand, I only to point out to you things like the Great Chicago Fire.

PETER: Yeah, I was going to mention it, Ed. So there’s a high incidence and tolerance for fire, it’s part of progress, it marks change. And we would find those levels of fire accidents intolerable today. That’s why the insurance industry exists.

ED: Well, that’s how the insurance industry began, as you know. Our best source of information about the geography of 19th century America are fire insurance maps put up by the Sandborn company. And that’s because the greatest threat to property was fire. So Brian, if you’re saying is true, that somehow the 20th century and in our own time, fore seems kind of denatured, it certainly wasn’t in the 19th century. So when was it that things came under control? When was it that fire was suppressed?

BRIAN: Let’s talk about the transition from those steam engines and steam boats you were talking about, to the car. We all have fires in our car. We don’t think of it in those terms at all, because fire really became so tamed and so recessed, so hidden from view–

ED: It’s almost as if the combustion became internal.

BRIAN: Exactly. Very well put.

PETER: I think as far as we look at fires and think about them, they evoke nostalgia on the one hand. And then to reverse the metaphor of internalizing, we externalize them to this dangerous force in drought-ridden areas that fires can encroach on our lives, particularly if we happen to live in California.

BRIAN: But think about what word we use for that. It’s a wild fire. So we’re used to tame fire.

PETER: Out of control.

BRIAN: Yeah, that’s right. And that’s what makes it so threatening. It seems archaic. It seems like something we should have been able to–

PETER: A primitive force. that we’ve been unable to master.

If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And today, were spending an hour playing with fire in American history.

BRIAN: Hey, Peter. You wouldn’t be playing with those matches if you knew what was coming next on the show. It’s no joking matter.

ED: That’s right. Because we’re going to end the show with a story about fire of a malicious intent, arson. And specifically, we’re going to talk about a case that helped change the history of arson investigation.

BRIAN: In 1991, John Lentini took a trip to Jacksonville, Florida. He was there to investigate a house fire. It left six people dead, including four children. The authorities suspected the family’s father had set the blaze. Lentini had been studying arson for the better part of two decades by this point, and he knew the playbook cold.

JOHN LENTINI: When I looked at it, it had all of the characteristics of a typical arson fire. It had low burning, it had deep charming on the floor, it had a V pattern at the doorway to the living room.

BRIAN: What did that V pattern mean?

JOHN LENTINI: Back in the day, we looked for a V pattern, because at the base of the V, that’s the fuel package that created that fire plume. If you go to the base of the V, you should find the origin of the fire.

BRIAN: That day, Lentini saw all the telltale signs of arson he had learned over the course of his career. Not only V patterns that pointed to a suspicious origin, but charring on the floor that looked like–

JOHN LENTINI: –a sharp, continuous, irregular line of demarcation between the burned and unburned areas on the floor.

BRIAN: Which basically meant that someone had splashed the area with some sort of flammable liquid.

ED: Now, if Lentini’s language sounds a little technical it’s because unlike many arson investigators at the time, and even to this day, he’s a trained scientist. And, as a scientist, it bothered him that what on the surface looked like an open and shut case had some big holes in it. For one, he did his own lab work on some samples that the fire marshal had taken from the scene. The authorities thought they had found gasoline.

JOHN LENTINI: When I looked at it, I said, this is not gasoline. I got a lot of colleagues, people at the top of the profession, and they looked at it and they said, this is not gasoline.

ED: The case was pointing to a disturbing reality that Lentini had suspected for a while. The entire history of arson investigation with those telltale signs that he was schooled in, and swore by for years, that was all pretty much bogus.

JOHN LENTINI: Total BS, bad science.

BRIAN: Lentini says that over the decades, arson investigators had developed a conventional wisdom that was more art than science.

MALE SPEAKER: It’s a living thing, Brian.

BRIAN: This was quasi-mystical knowledge of the sort that Robert De Niro’s character, a firefighter turned arson expert, imparts upon a young apprentice in the 1991 blockbuster Backdraft.

MALE SPEAKER: It breathes, it eats, and it hates. The only way to beat it is to think like it.

BRIAN: That movie came out around the time Lentini was puzzling over the deadly fire in Jacksonville, and the case gave him the ideal chance to test the doubts he’d been nursing. So what kind of test did you set up? You didn’t burn down another house, did you?

JOHN LENTINI: We did. We actually burned down another house. There was a condemned house that was two doors down from the house where the six people had died. And the city owned it, and so we saw an opportunity to test the hypothesis that the fire was intentionally set by setting another fire and videotaping it.


JOHN LENTINI: We got trustees from the county jail to redo the interior of the home.

BRIAN: So you literally recreated the home that had burned.

JOHN LENTINI: We had identical furniture. We had the same couch, which was the most important piece. We took a Bic lighter, and lit one part of the sofa where the defendant had said he saw the fire. He said he saw a fire on the sofa, and he and his wife had tried to put it out. So we let the sofa in one point. and just stood back and watched. And within four minutes, the entire room was engulfed in flame.

And I was standing next to the two prosecutors, and they were shocked. Because I had told them, and my colleague had told them that it would take quite a bit longer. I was running a video camera at the time, and one of the Jacksonville fire marshals said into my open mic, wow, that may prove the defendant’s story.

BRIAN: Since around 1950, the average American home has become very flammable, with polyurethane replacing a lot of wood and cotton in furniture. This allows for even accidental fires to spread quickly, flashover, in a matter of minutes. Flashover happens when a room is completely engulfed in fire, top to bottom. The flames spread wildly, and leaves those puddle marks and V shapes in odd places. And that’s what Lentini saw in his test fire. It was an epiphany.

JOHN LENTINI: In Florida, we have depositions in criminal cases. And I was scheduled to be deposed on the day after the test. And I cancelled the deposition. The prosecutor dropped the charges within a week, and I put my video together into a training film, and began teaching what I had learned.

BRIAN: And as fire investigators slowly began seeing the light, they realized the consequences were staggering.

ED: The frequency of supposed arson and the subsequent convictions had steadily increased since the mid 20th century, as homes themselves were becoming more dangerous. And Lentini thinks that dozens, perhaps hundreds of people ended up in prison for fires they did not set. People like Ernest Ray Willis.

ERNEST RAY WILLIS: I woke up, and the house was on fire.

MALE SPEAKER: Were you surprised they even called it a crime?

ERNEST RAY WILLIS: Yeah, I really was. Because I thought it was an electrical fire, or someone went to sleep and–

MALE SPEAKER: Well, isn’t that the evidence now? When they went back and looked at after all these years. What kind of–

ED: That’s Willis talking with host Chris Matthews on MSNBC, After Willis had been released from a Texas prison in 2004. Willis spent 17 years on death row, wrongly convicted of killing two women in a house fire. The same year he was freed, another Texas death row inmate convicted in a similar case was executed, only to be posthumously exonerated years later.

BRIAN: Nowadays, Lentini works to re-educate fire marshals around the country. He’s helped rewrite the rules for arson investigations, but still struggles to extinguish the old ideas. In many places, he says, determining what caused the fire is still left to underpaid officials who base their findings on persistent misconceptions about fire chemistry.

PETER: And so when you tell a jury fire burns up and out, and that the floor won’t burn unless there’s help, they’ll agree with that, because they think they know something about fires. There’s brush fires, and grass fires, and trash fires, and campfires. People know about that. They have no clue what really happens in a structure fire. And until we, as a society, are ready to pay to have scientists investigate fires rather than amateurs, we’re going to continue to have problems with the credibility of fire origin and cause determination. It’s easy to turn a scientist into a cop, but much harder to turn a cop into a scientist.

BRIAN: John Lentini is a fire investigation consultant who has written about the history arson cases. We’ll link to some of his work and more about fire science at backstoryradio.org.

PETER: That’s all we have for you today, but visit us at backstoryradio.org. We want to hear what you thought of the show, and get your input for upcoming episodes. We got shows in the works about Catholicism in American, censorship, China, and a Labor Day special, meat. You can also send an email to backstory@virginia.edu. We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Our is @backstoryradio. And whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: This episode of BackStory was produced by Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Robert Armengol, Bruce Wallace, and Bridget McCarthy. Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Henry Wiencek. Special thanks this week Alex Hu, Jean Wong, Dewey Angstrom, and the Latah County Oral History collection at the University of Idaho. Our reader from the Chinatown segment was James Scales. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and the Arthur Vining Davis foundations. Additional funding is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. And by History Channel. History, made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is Professor of History Emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.

MALE SPEAKER: BackStory is distributed by PRX the Public Radio Exchange.