The Documentary Record on Fire and Reading Intentionality


On March 29, 1911, a fire tore through the New York State Capitol Building. From the third floor of the Assembly Library, where books and papers served as kindling, it shot up to the capitol’s iconic towers. By the early morning, much of the building was in ruins, and many of the books and manuscript papers housed within it reduced to melted ink and char.

Anyone who’s used the Papers of Sir William Johnson knows the fire well. Every other page is a reminder of the embers that destroyed letters, accounts, conference minutes. It’s also a reminder that the current documentary record has been shaped in ways that—while often times hidden away—were also bright and fiery and loud.

I’ve often joked to friends about my theory of history: the elegantly termed people-go-crazy-and-burn-things.[1] The French Revolution? People go crazy and burn things.[2] The Civil War? People go crazy and burn things.[3] Samuel Pepys and his questionable reading habits? Man goes crazy and burns things.[4]

I know, it’s more than a little bit reductive and a whole lot scientifically/psychologically questionable. But the ways that people (or phenomena) have set fire to documents do provoke important questions about intentionality and historical perspective.

How do we interpret the use of fire against documents? How do we interpret the suspected use of fire against documents? And how should it shape the ways we approach the archive?

A few more historical examples:

On June 27, 1752, a fire broke out in Lincoln’s Inn New Square. Both Nos. 10 and 11 were entirely consumed. The chambers included those of various members of Parliament, the master in chancery, the solicitor to the Treasury; their papers, books, deeds, mortgage papers, money, and bank notes had all been destroyed. When the fire was discovered “most of the watch were asleep or drunk.”[5] At the time, the cause was uncertain.

On October 13, 1759, Thomas Falconer, the newest commandant of Fort Niagara, wrote to Thomas Gage. With regrets, he informed the general of Colonel Farquhar’s decease, the sad end to 9 days of flux and a “Violent Fever wch. made him sometimes delirious.” Unfortunately, Falconer had still more bad news about his predecessor. In one of his delirious fits, Farquhar had decided that his servants should “Burn all the Orders” he had received over the past six months. Only a few orders, directions, and accounts remained in garrison.[6]

On July 21, 1787, the papers in Richmond, Virginia reported that “Sunday night last, some person or persons yet unknown, set fire to the prison at New Kent court-house, after which they proceeded to the Clerk’s Office, (about two miles distant from the prison) and set fire to that also, which contained all the papers, records, &c belonging to the country, and burnt both to the ground.”[7] The culprit had not been found, but the targets, government buildings, were quite clear.

In each instance, fire engulfed and destroyed papers that may have—if these same papers had also managed to survive numerous other threats, such as water, mold, or being thrown in an attic and forgotten—eventually made their ways into archives and repositories. These were official records destroyed by arson or accident, not personal letters burned to preserve modesty and family legacies.[8] The only records we have of them now are accounts of their destruction. Or, in the luckiest scenarios, duplicates and copies.

The intent behind each of these acts is hard to read. Were the chambers of Parliamentary politicians specifically targeted for their papers? What about the papers in the Virginian clerk’s office and prison? And how on earth do we begin to reconstruct why Colonel Farquhar decided, in his dying days, to set fire to all the in-letters at Fort Niagara? Can we bestow the same degree of intention to a man suffering from delirium as we can to another seemingly clear-headed actor?

It’s hard to resist the allure of ascribing intention to these events. We look for political acts, for actions of purpose. Perhaps we read back our own understandings of the power of documents and words, and of the silencing of the past.

But for every instance of targeted burning of court papers was another instance of chance or sheer ineptitude. Not to be outdone, water has also proved to be an effective weapon against paper and parchment. Letters between commanders during the Seven Years’ War regularly invoked the follies of batteaux men. They set fires to creek banks, left provisions at the wrong posts, sunk their flat-bottomed boats, and dropped ordnance overboard. They also dropped letters into rivers. As Captain Browning noted to General Gage, unfortunately the letters “yu mention have been dropt there by Some of the Batteaux Parties, who are extreamly Stupid.”[9]

By the end of the eighteenth century, at least some American officials had begun to read the loss of documents to fire as brazen attacks against the state. In 1789, just two years after the damage of the Richmond clerk’s office and jail, a new law was passed in Virginia. It became a felony “to engage in common law arson and the willfull burning of a courthouse, a county jail, or public prison, or an office of a clerk of a court.” A decade later, a slave, Claireborne, was executed in Petersburg for setting fire to the county jail.[10] Arson, long a crime, was extended to include not only personal property but also the paper records of the government.

Did this signal a new recognition of a purposeful, political act? Had the targeted destruction of official records finally become a common, understood, subversive act? Or was it simply a knee-jerk government reaction to an isolated event? The codification of law, the specific penalty for the destruction of government records by fire, at the very least suggests that intent—and the understanding of that intent—was present in early America.

I’ll pose to you the same questions I now ask myself: How much intent is there, and how much do we just want to read meaning in action? How did early modern actors envision their choices, and how badly do we want to see political acts and instances of resistance within them?

When did the targeting of documents truly become a political act? What does that answer say about the political gaze, and about Weberian and Foucauldian ideas of rationality? What do these questions mean for understanding how contemporaries—and successors—saw the legacy of the documentary record?

And, lastly, what do these answers mean for how we approach the documentary record today?


[1] Ok, I might usually substitute a different word for “things.” But let’s keep it family-friendly here, folks.

[2] Yes, I should be more specific and say the burning of the Chateaux.

[3] Yes, again, I should probably have said the devastation of Atlanta or Columbia.

[4] No, that one is about right. From 8 February 1668: “Away to the Stand to my bookseller’s, and there stayed an hour and bought that idle, roguish book, L’Escholle des Filles; which I have bought in plain binding (avoid the buying of it better bound) because I resolve, as soon as I have read it, to burn it, that it may not stand in the lost of books, nor among them, to disgrace them if it should be found.” Pepys later burned the pornographic book in his fireplace. The Illustrated Pepys: Extracts from the Diary (1983), 173.

[5] William Hone, The Every-day Book and Table Book: Or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Incident to Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-five Days, in Past and Present Times ; Forming a Complete History of the Year, Months, and Seasons, and a Perpetual Key to the Almanac … for Daily Use and Diversion, Volume 2 (London, 1830), 880. According to Frank McLynn, among the wreckage of the fire were the complete papers and library of Philip Yorke, Lord Chancellor Hardwick’s son. Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England (2013), 84.

[6] Thomas Falconer to Gage, Niagara, 13 October 1759, Thomas Gage Papers, American Series, Vol. 4, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.

[7] This news was then reprinted in the State Gazette of South Carolina. “Richmond, July 21,” 16 August 1787, State Gazette of South Carolina.

[8] Sarah Pearsall, Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). Moreover, while actively acquired by libraries now, personal records would not have been high priority for early archivists and record keepers.

[9] Browning to Gage, Fort Stanwix, 8 October 1759, Thomas Gage Papers, American Series, Vol. 4, William L. Clements Library, The University of Michigan.

[10] Thomas D. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Many historians have traveled thousands miles to an archive to only hear the dreaded words, “those documents were destroyed in the big fire.” When I was looking for Oregon state documents, I learned that much of what I was searching for was destroyed in the 1935 Capitol fire. While many of the these fires were accidents, historical documents have destroyed intentionally. Alyssa Zuercher Reichardt at The Junto asks whether the destruction of documents in these cases were political acts.

  2. And, lastly, what do these answers mean for how we approach the documentary record today?

    If, when, and where possible, corroboration and myriad categories of “documentary record” may facilitate answers to the last of these intriguing questions.

  3. Pingback: The Week in Early American History « The Junto


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