The true story of one man’s quest to reform firefighting in America.

In Memory of Adam Myers, Middlebury (Vt.) Fire Department

The Atavist Magazine, No. 44

Matthew Pearl is the author of the novels The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, The Last Dickens, The Technologists, and The Last Bookaneer (published in April 2015). His nonfiction pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe,and Slate. He lives in the Boston area.

Editor: Charles Homans and Evan Ratliff
Designer: Gray Beltran
Producer: Megan Detrie
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Riley Blanton
Illustrator: Greg Coulton
Other Images: The American Antiquarian Society, The Bostonian Society, Christie’s Auctions, City of Boston Archives, Harvard Map Collection, Keno Auctions, Library of Congress.

Published in January 2015. Design updated in 2021.

Map of Boston, 1832. Photo: Courtesy of Harvard Map Collection.

The sun’s first rays were slipping between the brick buildings, and already a sizable crowd, coats pulled tight over dressing gowns, had gathered on the balconies and sidewalks to watch for the firemen. The church bells, doing their usual double-duty as fire alarms, clanged at an urgent pace. Twenty-eight-year-old Willard Sears ran ahead of the fire engine as it rounded the corner toward State Street. He and the other firemen pulled Number Eight by a long double rope, known as a drag rope, into the physical center of Boston, the heart of the city’s commercial and governmental district.

“Fire! Fire!” the men called in order to clear the way ahead, the rumble of the engine’s wheels and the men’s boots on the stone streets drowning out the warning bell dangling from the top of the machine. Turning onto State, Sears could see another fire engine ahead of them in the middle of the street, surrounded by men in long dark coats and black trousers—a mirror image of his own crew. An elaborate glittering painting of a bird adorned the side of the vehicle. This was Number Twelve, known as the Eagle Engine. But the firemen of Company Twelve were not rushing toward the blaze. Their attention was on the approaching crew. Sears realized what this was: an ambush.

Sears—a physically imposing man, square of jaw and shoulders—drew out the speaking trumpet that was holstered in his belt. He hailed the other commander: “Give me a chance to get through.”

Joseph Wheeler, Company Twelve’s foreman, stared down his counterpart from beneath the wide brim of his badge-adorned leather cap. “Go to hell!” he shouted.

Ash drifted in the late autumn air, and looking above him, Sears could finally see exactly where the thick smoke was coming from. City Hall was burning.

“I am going through there to the fire,” Sears called out.

“Go to hell!” Wheeler repeated.

“I shall run you down if you don’t give me room,” Sears warned.

“Go to hell!”

As the crowd of spectators grew, Sears considered his options. He came from a long line of fighters. One of his ancestors, an original Cape Cod settler named Richard Sears, was said to have lost an arm in a battle with Indians. Sears’s father marched more than a hundred miles to fight against the British in the American Revolution. His brother had trained recruits, again to oppose the British, in the War of 1812. When he had taken command of Company Eight a year earlier, Sears didn’t realize he was signing up for a war of his own, but it was clear now—he had found his battleground in the streets of Boston. He turned his back to the Eagle Engine and faced the forty-odd men of his company, their chests heaving for breath. He raised the speaking trumpet back to his lips and gave his command.

Lithograph of a fireman with his speaking trumpet. Photo: Louis Maurer, the Bostonian Society.

The stately granite neoclassical building that housed Faneuil Hall Market was divided by an airy, arched passageway, with doors and windows opening onto the streets. All the small touches, like the delicately fluted columns and the Grecian cornice, marked the esteemed priority the new city of Boston granted its business community. The throng that surrounded the vendors’ stalls swelled with tourists who flocked to the newly finished showstopper of a building. A plaque under the cornerstone noted not only the year ground was broken, but also that it happened “in the forty-ninth year of American Independence.”

Willard Sears picked his way between the lines of people waiting for vegetables, fish, mutton, pork, poultry, beef, butter, and cheese. The noises and smells were invigorating. He was on his way through the marketplace, across Merchants’ Row, and into venerable Faneuil Hall to meet with the mayor, Josiah Quincy III.

Raised in Cape Cod to work hard and believe in a kind of personal manifest destiny, Sears had moved to Boston six years earlier, in 1822, the same year the town of Boston incorporated as a city. The rapidly growing seat of commerce now counted 50,000 inhabitants and boasted every conceivable kind of enterprise. To a born entrepreneur like Sears, Boston’s growth offered irresistible opportunities, but the influx of people also brought vice and squalor. Witnessing this side of the city, he’d later tell people, turned him into a teetotaler. He was also a blustery abolitionist, and being against slavery was no more popular in Boston than opposing consumption of alcohol. Sears sought out socially conscious churches and joined the Young Men’s Moral Association, a group dedicated to discouraging drinking, gambling, and other behavior that disrupted a city’s moral compass. As Sears prospered in his fast-growing construction business, he became stubbornly convinced that moral virtue begat success, and he spread his gospel to anyone who would listen.

Sears and Quincy had met shortly after Sears moved to Boston, and they discovered that they shared a reformer’s spirit and preference for unconventional thinking. At 56, the lanky, handsome Quincy had been in politics almost half his life, serving in the Massachusetts legislature and the U.S. Congress before he was elected mayor—Boston’s second—in 1823. He was a native Bostonian who had grown up watching the city expand, together with the challenges it faced. The image he honed was of a politician who solved problems using every means at his disposal.

When Sears and Quincy first crossed paths, the newly elected mayor had been wanting to do something about the infamous, secretive gambling dens and unlicensed dance halls that played host to thieves and prostitution rings and had been the sites of several murders. At the time, law enforcement was in its infancy; a small number of constables and watchmen patrolled the city, but Boston would not have a branch of detectives with investigation skills for another 18 years. The police superintendent told Quincy that there was nothing to be done about these criminal haunts—and that trying to shut them down would be a fool’s errand. “A man’s life would not be safe who should attempt it,” he said.

The mayor, unsatisfied, turned to Sears: Would he be willing to go undercover to gather intelligence? “There shall be at least an attempt,” Quincy said, “to execute the laws.” Twenty-year-old Sears agreed. Posing as a sailor on shore leave—a typical customer who ventured from the nearby docks—he explored the notorious establishments of west Boston and Ann Street, collecting names and details about the building layouts. Warrants were issued soon after, and Sears became the unofficial “mayor’s detective.”

Five years later, as Sears took a seat in the mayor’s office at Faneuil Hall, Quincy told him he had a new target to investigate: the Boston fire department.

At the time, firefighting already had a long history, but the techniques had barely changed since the early 17th century. Then, households had kept ladders and leather buckets on hand so that neighbors could help fight fires. The members of these “bucket brigades,” organized by fire wardens, did not have the skills or the inclination to risk their lives extinguishing complex blazes. (One fire warden was known to knock reluctant citizens on the head with a pole to compel service.) The most useful innovation came from England late in the 17th century. It was the water engine, a kind of tub on four wheels that was filled with buckets of water and then transported to a fire. Clubs of firefighting volunteers—one of the earliest of which formed in Boston when Company One, “Old North,” took charge of the city’s first imported English engine in 1678—organized regular shifts and trained on the new equipment. When a new engine was acquired, another company would form around it and take up a post in a new neighborhood.

Companies had to be authorized by the city, but once formed each lived by its own rules, complete with its own constitution, and this unstable situation continued into the 19th century. The city paid for the engines, equipment, and repairs. But the men were strictly volunteers and were proud that they received no salary for their work as firemen. That did not mean money was not at stake. The city paid bounties to the first fire companies to reach a fire, and it was common for the companies—made up as they were of competitive and athletic young men—to break out into brawls when they met in the street while trying to beat each other to the blaze. There was a sense that men who engaged in fighting violent, dangerous forces would be inclined toward violent and dangerous behavior themselves. They even taunted each other in song while they worked to put out a fire:

There is an engine house not far away Where they are last at fires three times a day.

The newest fire engines, built by top engineers in New England, had suction systems that allowed firefighters to use hand pumps instead of buckets to draw water into the tubs from municipal reservoirs or fire plugs (early versions of the hydrant). But because the engines and the hoses attached to them were not yet powerful enough to pump water back out at a great distance, engines would often have to form a chain from the water supply to the fire, pumping water from one to the next until the hoses could reach the flames. Many firemen scoffed at this kind of cooperation. Sometimes they would arrange for an ally to cover a fire plug with a barrel and sit on it, to prevent other engines from using it. Certain companies refused to accept water from particularly hated rivals, or purposely pumped too much water into the next engine in order to flood it. For desperate citizens fearing their lives could go up in smoke, it was hard to know which to worry about more, the fires or the firefighters.

Even though the term fire department was in use by the time Sears and Quincy deliberated on the subject in 1828, it was largely a misnomer. A department implies a unified operation, but these fire companies—collectively totaling about 1,000 men—were a loose collection of quasi-sovereign societies. Dealing with them proved uniquely trying for Quincy. Even after he’d replaced the old neighborhood fire wardens with a citywide chief engineer and board of engineers in charge of all the fire companies, oversight proved elusive. The companies clung to their independence, and their leaders considered any government action to regulate them to be tantamount to oppression. As the city’s reliance on them grew along with its own size and density, the firefighters became more difficult to control.

Quincy lacked leverage and knew it. The mayor would push new oversight measures through the City Council only to have them ridiculed and resisted by the firemen, who would pass out broadsides that called for the public to crush the anti-liberty “monster” that was city government. Specific firemen could be dismissed, companies could be disbanded, but finding competent substitutes was not easy. The dispute became a major test for City Hall, which was still trying to gain the trust of a populace unaccustomed to centralized authority and still unsure whether a mayor “was a four-legged beast or some other kind of animal,” as one reporter later recalled. If Sears could secure a place for himself in one of the 17 engine houses, Quincy figured, he could feed the mayor information that would allow him to craft more potent initiatives, even if the firefighters themselves might never be won over.

Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society
Photo: Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Sears had reasons for taking part in the scheme beyond his relationship with the mayor. He and his brother, Ebenezer, had become prolific builders. They put up whole neighborhoods and specialized in building churches—a holy mission for Sears, who signed his letters “your brother in Christ.” They prided themselves on quality construction, but even the best buildings of the era were firetraps. A single clogged chimney, a handful of wooden shavings left too near a hearth, or a drunk nodding off with a cigar in hand was all it took. Newly fashionable architectural features such as high ceilings and taller buildings increased risks, and with older wooden structures such as barns, stables, and outhouses crowded together throughout the city, all of Boston was a tinderbox. Fires wiped out dozens—sometimes hundreds—of homes and businesses in the city each year. Some 349 buildings had gone up in smoke in 1760, the worst year on record. The following year, Faneuil Hall itself burned down. A few years before Sears moved to Boston, the magnificent seven-story Exchange Coffee House, which took three years to build, caught fire and collapsed in a horrifying spectacle that would be remembered as the moment the city seemed to be punished for its sins. If the problems in the fire department weren’t fixed, it seemed inevitable that a fire would one day rage so far out of control that it would permanently cripple Boston. Who better than a builder like Sears to help stave off such a disaster?

Sears assured the mayor that he could win over the members of a fire company—that he could make them believe he was one of them, just as he had the criminal denizens on his earlier undercover assignment. Sears had jet black hair and a strong and stoic face that beamed with confidence, with a glimmer of slyness in his flinty, dark eyes. One local paper described him as “sturdy” and “spirited.” His combative and overconfident style could push as many people away as he inspired. Still, after years of managing construction sites, he was used to dealing with the kind of young, rowdy men who filled the rolls of the fire companies. Most valuable, perhaps, was his age: 24 was young enough to convincingly blend in with them.

One Sunday morning, Sears, while making the rounds to study all the fire companies, approached a small wooden building on Warren Street, the temporary home of Company Eight in the energetic South End of Boston. Eight, also known as Cumberland, was ranked among the worst of the worst for its misconduct and had the highest number of members under the age of 21. (Companies like Eight also had even younger followers who rooted for and assisted certain engines without joining—fire roadies, so to speak, who could get hurt or killed when they got in the way.) And a paper trail suggested some profiteering. Eight’s former engine house needed repairs, so the city built the new structure on Warren Street and paid a $130 annual lease to the property’s owner, Thomas Emmons—who happened to be a member of Company Eight.

Sears slipped through the open doors and found nearly two dozen firemen sprawled out on the sparse collection of furniture and on the floor—on the Sabbath, too, the avid churchgoer and church builder noted. The members, along with a group of young women, appeared to be recovering from a decadent night. The sight appalled the temperance fanatic, but Sears also saw an opportunity. “For when I am weak,” taught the Book of Corinthians, “then I am strong.” Sears had found the weakness he had been hunting for.

Boston’s Exchange Coffee House Burning, by John Ritto Penniman, 1824. The fire depicted occurred in 1818. Photo: Courtesy of Keno Auctions.

Sears handed his fee to Company Eight’s treasurer and received the accessories that distinguished him as an official member: a leather cap, a number eight badge, and a personal copy of the company’s bylaws. Despite the fact that he was smuggling ulterior motives into the engine house, it would be hard for Sears not to feel a few inches taller suited up in firefighting gear. Part of a generation that felt simultaneously blessed and wronged by living in a time without a major war, the young man of action now had his uniform.

Sears had been forced to wait far longer than he had anticipated for his initiation. You couldn’t show up and expect to enroll in a fire company; most required a standing committee to accept an application for nomination and then, once there was an opening on the roll, three-fourths of the members’ votes to approve a new member. It called for the kind of glad-handing and maneuvering for which a man like Sears had little patience.

By the time Sears became a member of Eight, the engine had been moved from Thomas Emmons’s property on Warren Street to a now renovated, city-owned building known as the old Franklin Schoolhouse near neighboring Tremont Street. Sears, due to his standing as a businessman rather than any experience as a fireman, was made an assistant foreman. He might have been a spy, but he couldn’t repress his reformer’s instincts, and he was soon announcing his opposition to the men’s drinking and boisterous public behavior.

This made Sears less than popular in the engine house. The fire companies had spent years battling attempts to change their culture; back in 1825, Company Eight’s members had resigned en masse in response to Mayor Quincy’s creation of the board of supervising fire engineers. One of the company’s first slogans had been “Don’t tread on us.” When Sears’s beliefs became clear, he lost his place in Company Eight.

Sears, flustered with the quick failure, tried to join other companies, but the firemen had ways of warning each other about agitators, with names of personae non grata distributed and posted at each engine house. “We know you, you are a reformer,” Sears later remembered being told. “And we don’t want any such tomfoolery in the company.” He was refused wherever he went.

By now, Sears’s benefactor was long gone from City Hall. Boston’s 1828 mayoral election—at the time, they were held every year—was hotly contested, and the fire companies organized against Quincy, mobilizing their men, encouraging (or compelling) others to vote, and distributing broadsides throughout the city. More than 40 years later, Quincy’s family still blamed the firemen for forcing his withdrawal from the race after it became clear he could not prevail. The ousted mayor had a soft landing as president of Harvard University, but his bitterness lingered. His farewell address included a blunt reminder that, just as when he arrived in office, “the element which chiefly endangers cities is that of Fire” (with a capital F).

But by then, Quincy’s mission had become Sears’s. Perhaps Sears’s quest turned to an obsession the moment his fingers gripped the leather brim of the fire cap in one hand and the cold metal badge in the other. He would have to find his way back into an engine house.

On August 2, 1831, the members of Company Eight, fed up with the city’s meddling, voted unanimously to quit, sending a note.

to the city’s newly appointed chief engineer, Thomas Amory, that “we would have nothing to do with the Engine after 9 o’clock a.m. this day. Therefore the Engine will have no Company after that time.” The company surrendered their engine, their apparatus, and the keys to their engine house, and marched out.

It was a bold act of brinkmanship that could force the city to beg them to come back—but the firefighters had miscalculated. The timing was perfect for Sears. He quickly secured permission from City Hall to form a new company and take over the abandoned engine. He had gone far beyond Quincy’s undercover assignment. He now had a fire company of his own.

Company Eight’s fire engine, 1750s. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The company headquarters Sears inherited was nondescript and unadorned, part of a three-story building that was split between the engine house, a watch house, and a primary school. The floors and walls were thin, allowing noise to carry in every direction. Wandering through the empty engine house, Sears could hear the grammar recitations from the school. It was far from ideal. But it was Sears’s style to build success from humble beginnings. When he was listed years later in a book called The Rich Men of Massachusetts, his entry included the note that he “began poor.” Humble beginnings described the origins of the fire company, too, which in 1755 had salvaged its first engine from a Dutch vessel that wrecked off the coast of Boston. (The source of the company’s nickname, Cumberland, was lost to history, but may have come from this doomed ship.)

Alone in the engine house, Sears studied the fire engine. She—a fire engine was always a “she”—had been rebuilt in 1828 by Stephen Thayer, an established engineer who was once the captain of Eight. She wasn’t of the newest style, and she was heavier to pull than those made by rival builders. The base, with its four waist-high wheels, looked something like a working-class chariot, with a copper tub rising up in the middle. This was attached to an arachnid-like array of rods, which the firemen pumped up and down to draw water from a reservoir or fire plug, into the tub, and out segmented hoses. (Charles Dickens once described the American style of fire engine as resembling a “musical snuff box.”) The men dragged the whole contraption through the streets by ropes. Engines could be modified for horses to pull, but that risked bringing unwanted hostility from other firemen, who considered using anything but manpower a sign of weakness. Forget steam, too; in London, a prototype steam-powered fire engine was torn apart by a mob, presumably prodded by the fire brigades.

Sears envisioned himself as a fireman in the tradition of Benjamin Franklin, who in 1736 became one of the country’s first when he helped form Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company. Sears was another entrepreneur trying to overturn a broken system. He was a budding tycoon who preferred to be called a mechanic. (Franklin, too, had found a certain sublimity in the term.) Differentiating his fire company from the others, Sears felt, would be a matter of recruitment. He picked men who shared his moral values and brought with them useful skills, the sort that might be overlooked by companies focused on simply amassing the brute strength they needed to outdo adversaries.

Sears recruited Prescott Fisk, a 23-year-old grocer who refused to sell liquor in his store. Thomas Blasland Jr. came from a family of druggists and could mix the latest tonics and medicinal preparations he believed would keep up the firemen’s strength. Forty-four-year-old Marcus Howe was much older than the typical fireman, but as a shoemaker he could patch boots worn out from pulling the heavy engine back and forth across the city.

As the new members were settling in and trying out their equipment, a 29-year-old man walked through the door. Even the greenest of the recruits would have recognized him as William Willet, the man who had previously been the company’s highly experienced captain before disbandment. But the battle-tested ex-captain was not there to cause trouble, as Sears’s crew might well have feared. Willet, a clerk for his family lumber business, had been through enough power shifts and regime changes at the company not to take Sears’s ascension as a personal affront. He wanted to come back home.

Sears, for his part, had reached out with an olive branch to former members of Company Eight interested in rejoining. He wanted nothing to do with troublemakers, but he could benefit from having veterans such as Willet who knew their way around the engine house. Bringing former members back into the fold might also quell hostility from other ex-members.

Indeed, joining Willet in returning was George Veazie, one of his top protégés in the old Company Eight, a promising young carpenter who had moved to Boston from Quincy. But Willet and Veazie were exceptions. Of the more than 50 firemen who had walked away from Company Eight before Sears took over, only seven rejoined. Most former members wanted nothing to do with an interloper, much less one rumored to have radical reforms in mind. Their arrogant certainty that Sears would fall flat on his face was matched only by his own arrogant certainty that he was going to prove them wrong.

There was one man Sears wanted to recruit above all others: his older brother, Ebenezer. The only two boys among eight siblings, Sears and Eben shared a tight bond despite an eight-year difference in age. When he was 19, Sears left the salt mines and farms of their family homestead in Brewster, Massachusetts, to follow Eben to Boston.

After a series of apprenticeships, the Sears brothers hung their own shingle as builders in 1825. They were working on some brick houses on Haymarket Place one day in July of 1826 when the construction-site scaffolding collapsed; some members of the crew had been drinking and hadn’t properly secured it. When the wreckage was cleared away, lying in the debris was a seriously injured Eben.

The social pressure for men to drink was strong in Sears’s day, and alcoholic consumption was reaching historic highs without being curbed by education—or, too often, by common sense—about the effects of inebriation during dangerous tasks. This time Sears’s hero, his brother, was a casualty. The accident broke Eben’s collarbone and left him housebound for weeks. Sears, as he typically did, looked to pull redemption from failure. He offered ten cents more each day to the workers who gave up their customary eleven and four o’clock liquor breaks. About half of the men took him up on his offer. The idea stuck with Sears: that creating a more virtuous workforce would lead to a safer and more profitable business.

Although Sears had followed Eben’s footsteps as a child, as adults it was increasingly the younger brother who drove their plans and ambitions. Now 36 years old, Eben had adopted his brother’s vow against drinking, but he did not share Sears’s quick passion for taking on causes like reforming the firefighters. Sears badly wanted to recruit him to Company Eight, but unlike the bachelor Sears, Eben had a family to think about. He and his wife, Eliza Crease, had three children—eight-year-old Eliza, three-year-old Mary Jane, and two-year-old Eben—and a fourth on the way.

Sears lived in one of the Crease family’s houses, and he felt as close to his nieces and nephews as if they were his own children. They were the only family he had in Boston. So he was as devastated as Eben and Eliza were in the fall of 1831 when their eldest daughter came down with scarlet fever.

On a morning in late November, the Sears brothers carried Eliza’s body to plot number 24 in the Charter Street Cemetery. Sears was heartbroken to feel the lightness of the child’s coffin; in her final days, the sore throat and fever had kept Eliza from eating, and she’d wasted away. The Sears brothers came from a family that had been extraordinarily fortunate in its children’s health. At a time when it was common for a family to lose one or even several children to an early grave, their parents, Willard and Hannah, had raised six girls and two boys without any stillbirths or young deaths. On top of Sears’s own grief over his niece, witnessing the outward despair of the more introspective, reserved Eben was unbearable.

In early 1832, Eben told Sears that he would join his brother’s fire company. It presented one way to keep his mind off his loss—and for Eben to keep an eye on his irrepressible brother. Eben had a hair-trigger temper, not unlike his younger brother, but was proud of his self-control. Between the raging fires and the bitter ex-firemen running around, Sears would need someone to help keep him in check.

Sears’s meticulous investigations into the culture and practices of the companies had revealed that firemen often expected gifts, such as refreshments and liquor, from the people whose homes and businesses they saved—merchants and families who might have suffered thousands of dollars in damages minutes before. The prospects for such bonuses might influence whether or not the firemen responded to a call. (One particular Saturday night blaze at a barroom brought almost all the fire companies in the city out to help.)

Some fire companies expected more than wine. They waited after a fire for donations of cash—sometimes hundreds of dollars—from the owners of the properties they had saved from destruction. Such demands were not likely to be explicit; the sight of 30 or 40 strapping men in ash- and soot-stained uniforms who had just risked their lives, lingering, would be a hint. If the firemen did not get what they wanted, what would happen if another fire broke out and the same company answered the alarm? Public opinion was that firemen, as the ex-mayor Quincy later summed it up, formed “a class of citizens whose claims it was unsafe to deny.”

Sears prohibited this kind of extortionate muscle flexing and all other unseemly excesses. While his new crew members were still learning each other’s names, Sears put up a tablet in the engine house. Its three columns were headed “No drinking of liquor,” “No use of tobacco,” and “No profanity while on duty.” All of his firemen had to sign their names below the first column, while the other two pledges were voluntary—though most signed their names to all three.

As the company trained, Sears allowed one of the experienced firefighters to take on the role of foreman. The Quincy-born George Veazie, who had come to Boston the previous year, was not physically imposing. Twenty-two years old, with blue eyes that were in striking contrast to his dark complexion, he stood just shy of five foot five. But his skills and knack for leadership had impressed Company Eight’s previous regime, and the reputation carried over. Sears might have been the captain, but he would defer to Foreman Veazie when it came to the firefighting.

The week after three people died in a fire in Duxbury (too far from Boston for the city’s engine crews to reach), Company Eight responded to an alarm in Roxbury at the Chemical and Color Manufacturing Company—about as dangerous a setting for a fire as one can imagine; the facility’s 210-foot-high chimney expelled fumes from the acids and sulfates that the firm supplied to Boston’s growing industry. The blaze had started in a wooden building and quickly spread throughout the complex. Dragging its engine three miles from the South End, Company Eight worked with Roxbury firemen and another engine from Boston to contain the fire before it did serious damage or injured anyone. Fire companies could be penalized for leaving city limits; there were issues of jurisdiction to consider. But Sears was more than willing to take on fines if it meant being of use.

Hauling a fire engine through the streets was an exhausting business—and more than half the time there wasn’t any fire to be found. During the first half of 1832, there were 25 false alarms in Boston compared with 22 fires. Observers worried that this pattern would result in fire companies failing to respond to alarms—especially after a member of Company Fourteen was crushed by the group’s engine while rushing to a false alarm. The seeds for alarms could even be planted hours in advance, as when an anonymous letter writer sent a note to City Hall that read “there will be a fire in Boston to night.”

Ex-members of fire companies were known to exact revenge on their successors in any number of ways: setting off alarms in order to follow the company and start fights or disrupt firefighting, vandalizing or torching engine houses, and sabotaging engines by taking the screws out of the water pump or cutting the leather hoses, which could go undetected until they were needed. In addition to former members, active firemen could start false alarms to wear down or flush out rivals. The authorities rarely caught the culprits. There were too many suspects—including former members of Company Eight who couldn’t stand the “weak” (as some of them would later put it) temperance men running with their engine.

Sears cautioned his men to keep their heads down and concentrate on their duties. When the city celebrated George Washington’s birthday, the fire department held an elaborate parade. Engine Eleven marched under a banner reading SEMPER PARATUS: “Always ready.” (As bells rang and a gun salute fired, one bystander grumbled that Company Eleven’s motto should be translated as “Parades forever.”) Company Eight, in contrast, held up its plain and slightly archaic icon of fire ax, lantern, and fire bucket. Both Company Eleven and Company Seven—known as the aristocratic or “silk stocking” company—illuminated their engine houses with elaborate, expensive light displays. (In Eleven’s, lights shone through a transparency depicting Washington and the current president, Andrew Jackson.) Sears, despite enviably deep pockets, declined to decorate his engine house with flashy evidence of his patriotism and refused to host one of the celebrations that lasted through the night. The rest of the department began to notice that Eight was straying from the program.

Sears may not have cared about adding fancy decor to the engine house—a pastime for some companies that spruced up their headquarters with “an utter disregard of expense,” as one fire department chief later remembered. But when it came to the safety of the firemen and civilians, he spent hundreds of dollars at a time on the latest advancements. The “smoke cap,” invented locally at Lowell, was an early gas mask, giving what one newspaper described as “the semblance of a man with the head of a monster” and allowing a fireman to remain in a smoke-filled environment five times longer than usual without harm. Trained dogs could run ahead of the engine and clear the streets of pedestrians with warning barks—forerunners of the famous Dalmatians that would become familiar mascots of firehouses. Eight went from being one of the worst-behaved fire companies in the city to among the most efficient and best equipped.

An 1832 portait of Company Thirteen in uniform. The artist is unknown. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

The rash of fires on Independence Day 1832 started late the night before, when a four-story building housing a grocer and a furniture dealer (neither of which was covered by any fire insurance) was set ablaze by thieves. In the middle of the night, a ramshackle two-story Cambridgeport house—the dwelling of what one newspaper called “loose people of color”—burned down, possibly at the hands of another arsonist. In the morning, near Spears’ Wharf, a carelessly tossed cigar hit a kettle of tar in an engraving shop. The blaze traveled to the Vulcan, a docked brig known for being found two years prior adrift at sea with its crew murdered by pirates. The Vulcan in turn ignited the rest of the wharf, and soon two nearby schooners were aflame, the scent of their cargoes of mackerel, molasses, salt, and sugar choking the air.

Boston was the second-wealthiest commercial center in the country, and a stalwart businessman like Sears knew how crucial it was to protect the infrastructure of the busy harbor. Company Eight arrived, along with Companies Two and Thirteen, both of which had cleaner records than many of the city’s other companies. The press later lavished praise on the companies’ performance and cooperation. “They were at their posts and every man seemed to know his place and perform his duty,” reported the Daily Columbian Centinel. “There was no confusion, no interfering with each other’s duties: in the midst of the greatest activity, there was perfect order and harmony of action.”

But even with the buildings saved, the ordeal was not over. The ships in port continued to burn, and Boston had no fireboats to reach them. The entire wharf, including many other wooden buildings storing flammable materials such as tar and coal, was threatened with conflagration—and once Two and Thirteen had returned to their engine houses, the only firefighters on hand were the men of Company Eight. The July Fourth holiday meant that many smoke eaters were off to celebrate or already in no condition to work. As one newspaper would euphemistically put it, “Many of the firemen were absent from the .”

One of the city’s fire engineers was on the scene to supervise. “Captain Sears!” he called out. “I want your company to guard the fire.”

Sears hesitated. His men were exhausted and had been in danger long enough. He insisted that, according to city ordinances, another fire company should be assigned to keep watch on the fire.

“I can’t help it,” the engineer replied, alluding to the fact that the companies that had been on the scene had already left. “The other engines are all broken.”

“The other engines all broken?” Sears asked. “It won’t take me long to break my engine. It is not my duty to stay, and I shall go home.”

“I command you to stay and guard this fire!”

“If you will admit to me in the presence of witnesses that all of the fire companies of Boston except Number Eight are drunk, I will stay and guard this fire.”

“That’s damned impudent,” the engineer said.

“It’s the truth, and if you won’t admit it, this company goes home.” Sears turned to his men and put his lips to his speaking trumpet. “Limber up, men!”

The engineer gave in. “Look here,” he said before Sears and his men could finish gathering their gear to depart from the scene. “Let me tell you, just you stay and guard this fire. About the other companies being drunk, between us two, they’re damned near it, I’ll admit.”

Sears, having provided an object lesson to his crew, was satisfied. Turning his attention to the flaming sea, he gave the signal to Veazie, who ordered the men to station themselves along the harbor and snuff out any flames that licked the docks.

Robert Salmon’s A Fire in Boston by Moonlight, dated 1830–1835. Photo: Courtesy Christie’s Auctions.

Splitting the leadership of Company Eight with George Veazie had been a shrewd decision on Sears’s part. With Veazie handling the day-to-day business of firefighting, Sears was freed up to concentrate on charting their overall course. Veazie, having come from Quincy in 1831, was new enough to the city and the department not to be tainted by corruption or competitiveness. Sears could see much of his younger self in the hard-working carpenter, the go-getter who came from an outlying area of the commonwealth to find his calling and fortune in Boston.

Veazie, likewise, saw a vision of his future in the successful and enterprising Sears. If he had stayed in Quincy, he would have had to bide his time behind his uncle, an established carpenter—now in the midst of renovating former President John Quincy Adams’s house—who, like Sears, preached integrity and industriousness. Boston, on the other hand, presented a wealth of opportunities for a young man to earn respect and money, just as Sears had done ten years earlier. And joining a volunteer fire company in the city was a networking opportunity; it offered a rare chance to socialize with people from every rung on the social and professional ladder, from day laborers to wealthy engineers, cabinetmakers to bookkeepers.

But in the summer of 1832, there was little time for conversation in the engine house. Just three days after the Fourth of July fire, Boston suffered one of its worst blazes in years. An arsonist set a carpenter’s shop on fire in Merrimac Street, near the Charles River. The flames spread to a three-story brick stable—which collapsed into the street shortly after all 90 horses were safely outside—and then to several adjacent buildings before consuming the Warren Hotel. In a throwback to the bucket brigades of the colonial era, citizens were sent to nearby roofs with pails of water in case burning cinders were taken by the northeast wind. To make matters worse, the wells near the hotel were nearly dry because of drought and overuse by a cluster of nearby distillers—especially maddening to Sears and the true believers, like the temperate grocer Fisk, in his reformers’ squad.

That fire was massive enough that, according to a reporter for the Transcript, in the dark of night you were able to read a newspaper by the light of the flames in any street of the city. As people crowded around at a distance to watch the spectacular inferno, petty criminals saw a chance. A wallet and a gold watch were reported stolen. Another man was nabbed by two thieves and thrown to the ground before a bystander intervened. Thieves were known to set additional, smaller fires during a big blaze to add to the distraction. It was a perfect example of why men like Sears and Quincy saw fire not just as a destructive power in its own right but as a portal to moral disorder.

Companies from around the city rotated shifts on the July 7 fire for more than 12 hours before it was fully extinguished. Just a week later, another arsonist—or perhaps the same one—struck, burning down a stable and killing five horses on Leverett Street. Sears’s company answered the alarm for two other arson fires in Dedham on October 30 and in Dorchester a few days later—fires that together killed 60 horses and a Revolutionary War veteran who had been asleep in the Dedham stable’s loft. Sears continued to risk fines by venturing beyond the city limits with his squad. Company Eight was beginning to have the impact he had envisioned.

Sears refused to play games with lives on the line, ordering his men to take no part in the competitiveness among companies that was often on display at the scene of a fire. But the refusal was not mutual. Other companies often tried to block Eight’s routes to fires. Racing to respond to the Dedham blaze that October, Eight found itself neck and neck with Company Twelve and Company One. The scramble got out of hand, and a member of One broke his leg in two places when it was crushed under the company’s engine. The infighting came at great cost; before any of the engines made it to Dedham, the fire had already done its damage.

On the night of November 3, as the men recovered from their exertions at the Dorchester fire the day before, Sears noticed something amiss at Eight’s engine house: George Veazie was nowhere to be found. Perhaps something had come up with the 23-year-old’s new wife, Julia.

When there was still no trace of the foreman later, Sears could take his pick of what to worry about. Company Twelve, their most aggressive competitor, could have committed some mischief against the young man, or he could have fallen into the hands of a revenge squad of Eight’s own ex-members. They considered Veazie a traitor, a friend whom they had helped train upon his arrival in Boston, only to watch him become an interloper’s right-hand man.

Then Sears heard the news. Veazie had been .

Lithograph of fireman dragging the engine, 1858. Photo: Louis Maurer, Library of Congress.

Charged with passing counterfeit currency, Veazie swore innocence. The whole thing, he insisted, stemmed from a misunderstanding when he’d paid for new boots with a fraudulent bank note that someone had given to him. But even if Veazie wasn’t guilty, for the moment he was stuck in jail. Sears would have to pick up his duties as the coordinator of Company Eight’s day-to-day firefighting activities—at a time when Eight was under mounting scrutiny.

Charles Wells, Boston’s mayor at the time, was a former builder, which might have given him and Sears some common ground. But the two men were near opposites. In contrast to his reform-minded predecessors, Wells prided himself on his lack of civic ambition. He was out to cut costs. A former member of the city council, he was more interested in protecting the status quo than he was in innovative ideas. The other fire companies complained to Wells about Number Eight. “If Sears and his men weren’t such reformers, if they would only take a little with the rest of the boys and be one with us, we wouldn’t find any fault,” other firefighters told the mayor.

Things came to a head on November 21, 1832. It was about four in the morning when a young man, a newspaper deliverer, was on his way through the city to deliver the Advertiser to Roxbury. While still in Boston, he noticed light reflected onto the wall of the Second United States Bank; flames were bursting from the windows of the first and second floors of a brick building on State Street. The young man and others who were passing heard a dog’s howl. Some went to find a watchman to raise an alarm while others worked on breaking a window to free the terrified animal.

Company Five—which had recently been reconstituted after a fracas with the board of engineers led to its dissolution—was based close by in an engine house at Dock Square. The men fought the flames for hours, unaware that a canister in one of the ground-floor offices contained four pounds of gunpowder—more than regulations permitted to be on the premises. When the fire reached the canister, a massive explosion shattered windows in adjoining buildings and hurled the firemen to the ground. Ten members of Company Five were injured in the blast, two of them severely.

When the fire on State Street was finally extinguished, the city fire engineer dismissed the companies from the scene. Only upon closer inspection did the engineer notice that the blaze wasn’t actually out. The flames had spread to the roof of the building opposite the offices: the Old State House, which for the past two years had been used as City Hall. Cinders drifted into the attic through the cupola, and soon the building was aflame.

The church bells sounded again. Sears and Engine Eight were trying to chase down the location of the fire, following the shouts of bystanders and watching the sky for smoke, when they came upon the engine of Company Twelve—the same squad that shadowed their movements at consecutive fires the previous month—blocking the way in the middle of the street.

Company Twelve, led by a candlemaker named Joseph Wheeler, had one of the closest engine houses to Eight’s, based a few blocks south on Washington Street—and in the Boston fire department, proximity usually begot rivalry. What was more, seven members of the earlier incarnation of Company Eight, men who had quit before Sears took the reins, were now part of Twelve, including Alfred Dow, William Willet’s former assistant foreman. Twelve’s members had designs on the old Franklin Schoolhouse—Eight’s station house—which, while cramped, provided access to both Tremont and Washington Streets, two main thoroughfares that could be used to travel rapidly north and south, almost the entire length of the city, and beat other companies to a fire.

But if Sears was about to meet his match, it might not have been in Wheeler but in one of the men who flanked him. Company Twelve’s assistant foreman, 24-year-old Joseph Drew, was a goldsmith by trade, and like Sears he proudly traced his ancestors to the founding of the American colonies. Like Sears, Drew wanted to command his own fire company. He had no interest in reforming the department, but sought to place himself in a position of power to help fulfill his political aspirations.

With Twelve’s squadron standing in his way, Sears had a choice to make. If he recharted his own company’s course—not an easy thing, with the bulky engine—he risked overexerting his men before they reached the fire and giving the flames more time to spread. If he sent his men to challenge the blockade, it could lead to a violent confrontation—the sort of disorder that had created a need for a reform company in the first place.

The dense black smoke on the horizon came from the gilded cupola that capped the Old State House’s tower and at one point had made it the tallest building in the city. Below the tower, the building stood three stories tall, and at 110 feet long it was more spacious than it first appeared. The offices of the mayor, the city council, and the board of fire engineers were inside the building. Sears knew this was his chance to show Eight’s worth to the city authorities in the most dramatic fashion possible. He could demonstrate once and for all that the old guard of firefighters were no longer in charge.

“Forward, men!” Sears cried into his speaking trumpet. Eight’s crew took their places around the engine, checking their grips on the drag ropes. “Close up, run them down, smash their crane’s neck, and never mind breaking legs.”

Company Eight charged. The Eagle’s men leaped out of the way, and Eight rammed the front of their engine. The base of Eagle’s engine snapped. Wheeler’s enraged men, threatening to “clean out” their enemies, chased after Sears’s squad as Eight continued its course to the fire. “Fire out!” shouted men from other companies who were aligned with Twelve, hoping to confuse Eight’s firefighters. When Eight stopped in front of the burning City Hall, Wheeler’s men, unencumbered by their engine, had them surrounded.

Fights between fire companies could be brutal. Clubs, wrenches, and axes were popular weapons, along with whatever else was handy. Mose Humphreys, a printer in New York who spawned Paul Bunyan–like folk legends about his time as a fireman, was said to have his shoes fitted with spikes for such occasions. Sears might have abhorred the foolish feuding between fire companies, but as the saying went, he wasn’t brought up in the woods to be scared of an owl. Once, when he’d rented the only hall in Boston that would allow the English abolitionist George Thompson to lecture against slavery (with a more than $1,000 deposit out of Sears’s own pocket), he personally stood guard outside the door in the face of an angry mob.

Now Sears counted 18 firemen from the rival company who had made it as far as City Hall—but those men were struggling to catch their breath, while Sears’s better-conditioned firefighters, 40 in number, remained ready for anything. Of course, Eben would be at his side, as usual, but so too would this other kind of family that had formed around the engine and its charismatic, unwavering captain. Sears ordered them to hold their position. Wheeler and Drew, seeing that they were outmatched—and knowing that the political ramifications of a burned City Hall would be too far-reaching for any fire company to contain—finally called off their men.

Fire crews were arriving from around the city, and Company Eight jumped into the precarious state of affairs. The men had to tie ladders together to reach the upper windows and clamber on top of the building. Scaling City Hall, they surrounded the cupola and lowered themselves into the attic, where the worst of the fire was concentrated. After a three-hour struggle, the flames were successfully confined to the attic floor, which was destroyed. The rest of the building was “saved almost by a miracle,” as the Boston Statesman put it three days later. An engraving by British painter Robert Salmon of the fire companies battling the blaze was adopted a few months later as the background for a certificate of service given by the city to firemen.

The year after Josiah Quincy had left the mayor’s office, fire companies negotiated an exemption from serving on juries and in the military after seven years of firefighting. Had there been a war going on, Sears surely would have volunteered regardless of how long he had been a fireman; even when he was nine years old, watching Eben suit up to fight in the War of 1812, he and other boys of Brewster formed a guard patrol along the shore to watch for British ships. If some firemen saw the benefit of their roles primarily in replacing other civic duties, for Sears it was civic duty.

But Sears knew enough about the current administration not to expect commendations for his dedication. Interrupting the elation that followed the extinguishing of the City Hall fire, Mayor Wells called Sears in for a meeting, which quickly became an interrogation about the incident with Company Twelve.

“Why did you run into Number Twelve?” Wells demanded.

“Because they obstructed our way to the fire,” Sears replied.

Damaging another company’s engine was as serious a charge as there was among firemen. Wells threatened to discharge Sears and disband Company Eight altogether. “You broke their machine,” he said.

Sears was incredulous. “We did,” he said, “and the next time they purposely get in our way, we will smash their machine into pieces.”

“You might have broken their legs.”

“We don’t want to break any legs, but we may next time. What is the fire ordinance? What are our orders?” Sears wondered if this mayor—unlike Quincy—even knew the answer. “‘You will proceed at once to the fire, and break down all obstructions.’ There, Mr. Mayor, is the law, and we only obeyed it.”

The irony was thick as smoke: Here they were, sitting in the very building that could have burned to the ground, which had already happened once since it was rebuilt in 1713 after a fire. “And now I will resign and you can have the engine,” Sears said. “I will have nothing more to do with it.”

Old State House in Flames, 1832, by Robert Salmon. Photo: Courtesy of the Bostonian Society.

Mayor Wells might not have liked Sears, but he was pragmatic. He knew that Sears had turned Company Eight into a powerful model of efficiency. Losing one of the best fire companies in Boston could lead to hikes in fire-insurance rates, which wasn’t good for Wells’s political position. Besides, the mayor had enough problems to deal with as it was. The city struggled with debt—caused by dreamers like Quincy with big projects like the Faneuil Hall Market (also known as Quincy Market)—and was in the midst of a serious cholera outbreak. He walked back his reprimand. But Sears was too proud a man to forgive easily, and before he finally agreed to stay on Wells practically had to beg.

Sears now had some leverage over the mayor. But internal problems were multiplying at the South End engine house. George Veazie, it turned out, was being accused of more than accidentally using a fraudulent bank note. He was being charged with intentionally passing counterfeit bills to multiple businesses—and records indicated that he had tried to do the same thing on a visit to New York earlier that year.

His case went to trial in December. Veazie, prosecutors claimed, went into three stores trying to pass two $10 notes—promissory documents from the Suffolk Bank—in exchange for boots and a few dollars’ change in bills. One of the storekeepers was suspicious of the bank note Veazie showed him and left to warn the neighboring stores and fetch a constable. Veazie was cornered. Although he pleaded not guilty, he had already admitted to the arresting constable that the bank notes were counterfeit, a fact the bank officers confirmed at trial (while also marveling at the counterfeit notes’ high quality).

Even the prosecutors seemed to accept Veazie’s explanation that he received the counterfeit notes from his father-in-law, who promptly disappeared and apparently was never found by the authorities. But Veazie’s family members never disputed that he knowingly committed the crime. His family and friends in Quincy assured the court that Veazie was honest and hardworking but acknowledged that living in Boston may have changed him; he had thrown himself wholeheartedly into his role as foreman of Sears’s groundbreaking company, but time spent in the engine house and at fires naturally took away from his work and steady income as a carpenter. In the end, Veazie was sentenced to four years imprisonment with hard labor. “Look out! Look out!” ran the headline in the Transcript, warning Bostonians of the criminal in their midst.

Veazie was taken to the State Prison in Charlestown—a structure that Sears had worked on as a builder—on December 22, 1832 to serve his sentence. Sears had lost a foreman, a firefighting mentor, and a potential protégé for his construction business. At the next monthly meeting of Eight, Sears and his men reluctantly voted to give Veazie a dishonorable discharge—the first and only time that would happen on Sears’s watch. The incident was enough to make Sears question his own famously decisive judgment, especially in an endeavor where faith in one’s comrades was a matter of life and death. It also shattered the naive idea that he had created a shining city—or at least a shining engine house—that would be a bulwark against moral weakness. Perhaps the young men Sears had judged harshly from afar, rather than being deficient in character, were overwhelmed by a system that not only tolerated rash, impulsive action but counted on it to keep the men primed for their death-defying duties. Sears had been set on fixing the failures of the men to protect the public, while in fact the young men needed protection from a system lacking any stability.

Sears’s enemies took advantage of his distraction. With Veazie’s case going to trial, a faction of discontented members of Eight held a secret meeting to enroll a new contingent of 26 men as members of the company—which would provide them with enough votes to force Sears out. The new recruits included eight embittered ex-members whom Sears had replaced, among them William Weston, John Anderson, Thomas Emmons, and Company Twelve’s Alfred Dow. (It was now clear that the malcontents had been feeding intelligence on Eight’s whereabouts to Twelve—probably through Dow—which had allowed the rival company to shadow its movements.)

The breakaway faction and the new members made a scene at the next general meeting of Company Eight and threatened Sears and those loyal to him. Chief Engineer Amory intervened, using the authority of the city government to expel the new members. Sears had come full circle: Officials now recognized that he had built something that was worth protecting. The coup attempt ultimately failed, but with every step Sears took, he felt his company grow more brittle.

Boston firemen cleaning the machine, 1851. Photo: John Prince, Library of Congress.

When Eben Sears told his brother that he wanted out of Company Eight, the writing was on the engine-house wall: Sears’s experiment was coming to an end. Over the course of a few months, between January and May 1833, Sears watched the pile of returned badges grow as men resigned in the face of harassment and obstructions—their furniture vanishing, the rival companies breathing down their necks, the mutineers and ex-members trying to gain control, the government officials flip-flopping about regulating the department or loosening the reins, and George Veazie’s embarrassing conviction.

Even Sears grew exhausted from the disruption and disappointment. He craved a settled life. On January 24, 1833, he had married Mary Eastabrooks Crease, the younger sister of Eben’s wife, Eliza. He had a new project to throw himself into: starting a family.

Sears’s Company Eight finally disbanded altogether in the early summer of 1833. The engine was taken over by a new group that included former members—as well as key alumni of archrival Company Twelve, whose ambitious assistant foreman, Joseph Drew, became the new captain of Eight. The tablet admonishing “No drinking of liquor” was probably the first thing to come down as Eight returned to its old habits. Almost immediately, the new Eight challenged Company Thirteen to a public competition between their engines in the Boston Common on July 4. Company Thirteen, likely the most sympathetic among the other fire crews to Sears’s reform push, declined the challenge, citing its experience of the “evil arising out of such meetings.”

Six months later, the old Franklin Schoolhouse caught fire, incurring thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. The incident came only a few months after the new officers of Company Eight the city for upgrades to the engine house. Whether the fire was a message to the slow-moving government bureaucracy to comply with their demands, an arson committed by a rival company, or an accidental fire that started in the building’s furnace (as the Boston Post reported), it remained a startling image: the epicenter of Sears’s reform movement, engulfed in flames. To add insult to injury, a thief braved the fire in order to steal a writing desk and some ammunition.

Misfortune followed Sears, too, after his departure from Company Eight. His and Mary’s first child, Willard, died at birth in the fall of 1833, exactly two years to the day after his niece Eliza died. Two years later, Mary died during the birth of a second son, Samuel—who also died—barely two and a half years after she and Sears had married.

After the loss of his family, Sears threw himself into his business dealings and social causes with even greater ardor. He bought Boston’s Marlboro Hotel, which had been famous for its tavern at the terminal of a stagecoach line. Sears did what only Sears would even try to do, turning an establishment known for raucous drinking into a temperance hotel. It was not only a complete break with the Marlboro’s history but an entirely new concept: There was no drinking, smoking, or profanity permitted. The landlord said grace before meals, and a Bible passage was read and hymns sung in the lobby twice a day. The transformation proved unexpectedly savvy from a business standpoint. The Marlboro soon became the go-to accommodation for the many devout Christians who passed through Boston.

When no venue in Boston would lease a room to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society for its annual meeting, Sears had his employees put in studwork and platforms in the hotel stable and provided seating for the audience. He soon razed the stable and replaced it with a chapel, where hotel guests were expected to attend services and which Sears leased out for meetings and lectures.

Some of these events were abolitionist or otherwise related to Sears’s personal crusades, but giving a platform to speakers whom nobody else would host became its own cause. The devout Christian Sears liked to say that, given the opportunity, he would welcome Abner Kneeland, the radical preacher who declared churchgoers’ traditional view of God “a chimera of their imagination” and was about to become the last person in America convicted of blasphemy. In addition to political reformers and advocates, the chapel played an important role in literary and cultural history; it was the first venue for the Lowell Lectures, a famed speaking series that brought James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz, and William James to the Marlboro.

The city marshal of Boston—a forerunner to police chief, which the city did not yet have—warned Sears in the spring of 1837 not to allow Sylvester Graham to hold a meeting at the Marlboro chapel for a women’s group. Graham was controversial for advocating vegetarianism and a new kind of flour that would later give rise to the graham cracker. A mob of bakers and brewers had already prevented Graham from delivering his lecture once, at Amory Hall on Washington Street, a block away from the Common, by threatening a riot. “I am in favor of freedom of speech,” Sears said to the city marshal. “If the time has come to decide the question whether that freedom can be maintained, I am as ready to meet it on the subject of Grahamism as on any other reform.”

“We can do nothing to stop a mob,” the marshal said. “Your building will most likely be torn down.”

“Let it be done,” Sears replied. He was not particularly interested in Graham’s diet. With typical grandiosity, he assured the marshal that he was ready to offer himself “as a sacrifice on the altar of freedom.”

Boston’s new mayor, Samuel Atkins Eliot, reiterated the city marshal’s warnings and again urged Sears to cancel the lecture. “Our police is nothing, nor can we depend upon the military.”

“It is said by some that public opinion is human omnipotence,” Sears told Eliot. “But when it is going wrong, it should be made right.” To Sears, giving in to what he called “mobocracy”—rule by those who seemed most dangerous—would flip the correct social order of things, allowing the powerful to deprive the downtrodden of their rights on a whim and, conversely, permitting the poor to demand that those who had earned wealth and power yield it.

The mob descended on the Marlboro as predicted. Sears had been directing one of his construction crews to pull down some plaster for a repair project, and knowing that he would have no protection from city officials, he told his workmen to place the stripped plaster and some chemical lime near the windows. When Sears could not persuade the anti-Graham mob to go away peacefully, he went back inside the hotel, climbed to an upper floor, and gave a signal, at which point he and the workers shoveled the mixture of mortar and lime into the air. The cloud of noxious dust temporarily blinded the crowd, and it dispersed without causing further trouble. Sears’s heady days with the fire department had taught him that however lofty his ideals, brawlers were to be met on their own terms.

A few weeks after his victory over the rioters, Sears, now 33, took a trip to New York and married for the second time, to a 23-year-old Vermont antislavery activist named Susan Hatch. It was during this stage of his renewed domestic contentment, four years since his brief career as a fireman, that Sears returned to their home near the entrance to the Boston Common one afternoon to find a group of unexpected visitors waiting for him.

A circa 1837 cartoon depicting a group of wealthy blue bloods on Boston Common, trying hard (but mostly failing) to learn how to be firefighters. Photo: David Claypoole Johnston, Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Sitting in the Searses’ parlor were representatives from eight of Boston’s fire-insurance companies. While the fear of fire had for years been a boon to the city’s insurance industry, the worsening performance of the city’s firefighters meant the firms regularly paid out big settlements. The city had been forced to disband or accept resignations from six more fire companies for misconduct. The latest delinquent edition of Company Eight had just abandoned its engine in angry protest against another new city ordinance. The successes and ambitions of Sears’s squad might have been short-lived, but they had not been forgotten.

“Mr. Sears,” pleaded one of his guests. “The city government is helpless, and what are we to do?”

Sears wasn’t eager to relive the ignominious end of his Company Eight experiment. “Really, gentlemen,” he said, “I have no advice to offer.”

“Mr. Sears, we have organized an impromptu company and have taken one of the engines. We are trying to do something so that the city may not be entirely unprotected. We want you to come and help us out of difficulty.”

Sears sensed an opportunity, though it was not the one the visitors had in mind. He agreed to take the Boston Brahmins (as Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes years later would famously brand the city’s elite) out to the Common and train them in basic firefighting techniques. In the new company were leaders in various fields in Boston, including George Hayward, a prominent surgeon who lived in Beacon Hill, and Deacon Charles Scudder. It was surreal for Sears to once again be called captain, to pull on a fire cap and adjust it over his now receding widow’s peak.

Sears had brought along some of the members of his old team of firemen, who put the blue bloods through the ringer. “Man the hose!” yelled one of his assistants as the aspiring volunteers tried haplessly to screw the sludge-filled segments together. “Get down on your knees, take that hose between your legs, pinch it between your knees and get it together.” With a crowd gathered, the aristocratic executives in fine coats and neckcloths sprayed themselves with water and grease as they tried shooting water up a flagpole, a scene memorialized with glee by a local cartoonist.

“Gentlemen,” Sears told them when it was over, “I will have nothing to do with a volunteer fire department. I will not do anything unless you organize a paid force.” He had made his point. Instead of a new fire company, a committee was put together to pressure the mayor and the city council to consider Sears’s idea.

Momentum slowly began to pick up. Then, a few months into the campaign, a group of fire companies got into an altercation with a large Irish funeral procession—it started with an apparently accidental collision between a fireman and a funeral-goer—that turned into a nearly citywide brawl. The fight, which came to be known as the Great Broad Street Riot, was brutal and bloody, though somehow no one was killed. It was one of the ugliest incidents the fire department had ever been involved in, and Company Eight was right in the middle of it.

Between the political pressure and the riot, Mayor Eliot and the City Council were compelled to act. They passed legislation reorganizing the entire department, replacing the volunteer system with a paid (though not yet full-time) professional force. This experiment created the first professional fire department in the country. People joked that only free blacks and the Irish would make up the companies—the implication being that no one else would be low enough on the professional ladder to consider being a fireman a paid occupation. But the new Boston model would be followed in every city in the United States. Sears’s Company Eight, as one newspaper put it later, had been “the entering wedge that finally split, and broke up the existing system.”

The men who had come together to join and challenge Sears’s Company Eight went their separate ways over the years. William Willet, who had commanded Engine Eight in the days when it refused to accept Quincy’s implementation of a board of engineers, joined the board himself shortly after the company’s disbandment. Eben and Eliza’s family continued to expand, adding four more children in the years after little Eliza’s death, and Eben had more time for his busy household; he was still involved in some of his younger brother’s construction projects but was content to let Sears tackle the most ambitious ones without him. Sears and his second wife had no children, but he remained close throughout his life with his nieces and nephews. One of the ringleaders of the attempted takeover of Company Eight in 1832, carpenter William Weston, died a few years later at 29, from heavy drinking, while Joseph Drew, who inherited Sears’s captain’s badge, had to testify his way out of a scandal when caught at the scene of the burning of a Catholic convent.

George Veazie, whose arrest for counterfeiting helped push Sears’s project off the rails, received a pardon more than halfway into his four-year sentence. His family had petitioned the governor on the basis of Julia Veazie’s poor health, and the fact that Veazie’s father had died shortly after Veazie’s conviction, leaving his younger children in precarious positions. Veazie’s uncle promised that his nephew would “live in future an exemplary and honest life” and be “a useful and industrious citizen.” In 1843, Veazie reportedly went west to follow the gold rush, only to return to Quincy defeated, unsuccessful at another shortcut to wealth.

Sears accumulated more businesses and causes, always happy to defy the conventional wisdom of the establishment. He helped to charter the Female Medical College in Boston, with a mission to train women doctors, to make childbirth safer—a legacy of his sorrow over losing his first wife and sons. He was also a patron and original board member of a new evangelical Christian college in Ohio called Oberlin, one of the first colleges to be coeducational and to admit African-American students. He helped guide the formation of the Northern Pacific Railroad and built some of the first major buildings in San Francisco (later destroyed, ironically, by fire).

He also kept his promise to the executives who had visited his home that if Boston’s fire department was professionalized, he would be involved. With the new department in place, Sears helped restructure Company Nine, known as Despatch. Sears was briefly a member, and he brought in Jonas Fitch, a trusted employee at his construction company, as the captain.

With the revamped department in place, Boston developed a kind of nostalgic curiosity about the freewheeling days of the volunteer department. Stories of Sears’s exploits as the head of Company Eight were passed down within his family and among his contemporaries at the fire company. But aside from a few obscure newspaper articles, his legacy was never preserved, and he appears to have been forgotten long ago. With all the literati and reporters he encountered, Sears could have ensured that a definitive chronicle was written, but that wouldn’t fit the style of a “true-hearted mechanic,” as the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator called him.

Besides, Sears preferred looking forward to looking back. Once the fire department was in place, he added another title to his résumé, taking advantage of the safer new order he’d helped forge. He started his own fire-insurance company and installed himself as its president.

A Note on Sources

The most recent mention I can find of Willard Sears’s Company Eight is a three-sentence summary in a 1967 book about the Boston police by Roger Lane called Policing the City. Earlier, in addition to references to his time in the fire department in obituaries of Sears in 1890, there was an article in the Boston Herald in 1884, for which at least one former member (and, I suspect, Sears) shared memories of Company Eight with an unnamed journalist. But because the records of the Boston Fire Department from the 1830s are so fragmented, the full story has never been told.

I pieced together that story from what survives of the early fire department records, including correspondence, membership lists, city council communications, broadsides, fire-company constitutions and bylaws, and the minutes of meetings of Company Thirteen and Company Six, the only ones I have found that survived from the years Sears was involved in Company Eight. I also reviewed many Boston newspapers from the time. There was indispensable material in the Boston City Archives, the Bostonian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Boston Public Library Special Collections, where Kimberly Reynolds was a great help. Elizabeth Bouvier of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court archives and the staff of the State Archives of Massachusetts helped me unearth the material about George Veazie’s arrest and trial.

Secondary sources contextualized Sears’s fire-company experiment, including Samuel Pearce May’s The Descendants of Richard Sares (Sears) of Yarmouth, Mass., 1638 – 1888, Josiah Quincy’s A Municipal History of the Town and City of Boston, Edmund Quincy’s Life of Josiah Quincy, Arthur Wellington Brayley’s A Complete History of the Boston Fire Department, Amy Greenberg’s Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City, Robert S. Holzman’s Romance of Firefighting, Stephanie Schorow’s Boston on Fire: A History of Fires and Firefighting in Boston, Mark Tebeau’s Eating Smoke: Fire in Urban America 1800–1950, and the Bostonian Society’s collection guide prepared by Phil Hunt. I also consulted Daniel Cohen’s enlightening “Passing the Torch: Boston Firemen, ‘Tea Party’ Patriots, and the Burning of the Charlestown Convent,” from the Journal of the Early Republic, and I benefited from personal correspondence with Cohen, James Teed of the Boston Fire Historical Society, and Eben Sears’s descendants Willard May, Susan May, and Wendy Eakin.

On an unexpected personal note, at the time I was finishing my work on this article, my wife was finishing research on the Cape Cod side of her family and found that she descends from Richard Sears, placing her and my children—and, less directly, me—in the same family tree as Willard Sears.