In the language of the past “mechanical” meant those small businessmen including storekeepers, shoemakers, tailors, copper smiths and ironmongers who united as the Mechanical Company of Baltimore in 1763 to promote the welfare of their community especially in the fighting of fires and raising militia units to fight the British. Today that tradition is celebrated by those who trace their immediate origins to a small group in the 1960s, “the mechanical remnant” who, when facing extinction, "decided to re-invigorate the group on a … limited basis that would insure its perpetuation--that being its only purpose. They believed that the wisdom of their predecessors in doing this …. would hold if anything would. …”
In that spirit I was invited to reflect on 250 years of the history of the "Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company" of Baltimore.
On September 24, 1814, Hezekiah Niles, member of the Mechanical Company of Baltimore since 1800 and a future president (1832) informed the readers of his “Weekly Register” that he was far too busy the previous two weeks to meet his usual publication deadline.
The defeat of the British at Baltimore in 1814 was a stunning victory for the assembled Citizen Soldiers of the City, of which the members of the Merchant Company were well-represented. Niles would go on to record the general history of the times, while his newspaper colleague would publish the most famous song ever to come off the Baltimore presses, or any press for that matter, the song that became the “Star Spangled Banner.” Composed by Francis Scott Key while observing the bombardment of Ft. McHenry as a British detainee, it was delivered to the printer by a friend and set to type, so some would argue, by an apprentice who remained behind to guard the office while everyone else was at the ramparts celebrating the successful repulse of the British.
General Samuel Smith who was in charge of the successful defense of Baltimore in 1814 would, twenty years later, as Mayor of the City, praise the readiness of the Mechanical Company to be first responders to the defense of Baltimore:
“Indeed, it is [a] matter of notoriety that your Company has, from the first day of the Revolutionary War to the end of the War of 1815 with England, furnished volunteers in every great combat both on land and sea, and notwithstanding many of your members were of the “Society of Friends” there were always men enough to help the cause of liberty. No matter where, under the most discouraging disadvantages, the boys of the Mechanical were to be found first in the foremost line.”
The ancient and honorable mechanical company of Baltimore, from its creation in 1763 until its evolution into an annual remembrance of the contributions of the company to city government and fire prevention was a civic organization devoted to the protection of the businesses and homes of its members. It began when the population of the town was a mere 2500 and ended its active involvement in fire protection in 1859 when the population had mushroomed to over 200,000, among whom were 3,000 slaves and over 25,000 free blacks. In that year the city took over responsibility for fire protection. From that point forward the Mechanical Company devolved itself of its assets including its fire engines and cash in hand, and carried on the memory of its accomplishments at annual banquets that have continued to the present day. In dispersing its remaining treasury it was fitting that in 1874 the Company donated $1,230 to the Boys Home. Many of the Boys of the Mechanical that Mayor Smith referred to in 1814 had been apprentices at the businesses of the members and were no doubt drawn from those who had similar backgrounds to the residents of the Boys Home in 1874.
The Mechanical Company was the first civic organization in Baltimore and would count the first six mayors of the city among its members. It’s primary purpose and one that it adhered to until the City Fire Department took over its services was to provide fire protection. At times this posed a dilemma as the records of the Company reveal. When there was a fire involving buildings of members and non members, the rules required that they attend to the member’s property first, a rule that apparently was honored more in the breach than in fact.
From the days of the Revolution until 1829, the firehouse was just around the corner from the Battle Monument on East Fayette Street and Calvert, under what is today the southwest corner of the Mitchell Court House. It probably was no accident that the principal consumers of paper, the printers and publishers of Baltimore’s newspapers, books, broadsides and pamphlets, had their printing establishments nearby as can be seen on the map that depicts their locations in 1814, although it was also no accident that the firehouse was close by the courthouse, ready to protect it in case of fire.
The map is a "screen shot" of an interactive google map file of the Poppleton map of Baltimore (1822;1855) showing the location of newspapers, printers and print shops in 1814.
To provide the best fire protection the Company needed not only plenty of leather buckets and a good water supply, but also a fire engine. They were the first to have one which they apparently bought of a Dutch ship captain in 1769, although there is no official port record of the ship, referred to as the ‘Dido’ in the first comprehensive history of the Company. However they came by it, the “Little Dutchman” as it came to be known was so famous by the 1830s that it may have been used to advertise fire insurance in the local newspapers as can be seen in contemporary ads. The best image of the hand pumped fire engine was used by an insurance company endorsed by the Mechanical Company, but a competitor also used its image in a medal created especially to promote its brand of insurance. That a volunteer fire department was also represented on the board of directors of a major fire insurance company poses some interesting questions about conflict of interest and "protection money" in more contemporary terms. As to whether or not the fire engine as depicted was in fact the original "Little Dutchman" is a matter of debate. It resembles more an English model than one found in a Dutch museum today according to Stephen G. Heaver, director and curator of the Fire Museum of Maryland. Perhaps we will never know, although a closer look at the detailed records relating to the support of the Mechanical Fire Company contained in the newly cataloged records of the Baltimore City Archives may provide some clues.
When danger other than fire threatened the City, members of the Company also responded with alacrity. James Cox proved a fallen hero of the Revolution, killed at the battle of Germantown, while Henry G. McComas, with Daniel Wells, is remembered as one of the possible sharpshooters who killed British General Ross at the Battle of North Point. The roster of Cox's militia unit has survived and includes a number of members of the Mechanical Company (see: Steuart Rieman, History of the Maryland Line ... (1969, p.69) and Henry C. Peden, Revolutionary Patriots of Baltimore .... (2003, p. 303; 321).
Cox's widow did not fare well initially in her efforts to obtain relief because she was making too good a living as a storekeeper:
1779 Cox, Mary, Baltimore. To Gov. Thomas Johnson.
Apr. 15 "The unhappy widow" of Maj. James Cox was left, on the death of her husband at Germantown [Pa.] October 4 with only £50; to maintain her 5 children she applied to the Orphans' Court who granted half pay; all spare furniture had to be sold and part of the stock; to make a living she turned to shopkeeping; now the court says "you are making money fast and we dont think you are intitled to the Benefit of that Law"; expects the governor to "do everything in your Power to alleviate such Dystresses."
A.L.S. 1 p.384XXV, 80
Not all members of the Company supported the Revolution. Its First President, Melchior Keener, proved to be a loyalist and left Baltimore for the safety of the British lines. He did so, however, with the sympathy of his fellow members, including Captain James Cox, who petitioned successfully to the Maryland authorities for Melchior to be permitted to take his possessions with him. It should also be added that Keener did return and his relatives seem to have remained active in the Company in later years.
Not all businessmen in Baltimore were as patriotic as the majority of the Company. In the War of 1812, one saddler, George Mackenzie, not a member as far as can be determined, tried to keep Daniel Wells of Wells and McComma’s fame from serving in the militia because he still had time to run on his apprenticeship. When Mackenzie sought a writ of habeas corpus to keep Wells out of service and back at work in his shop, the Maryland Gazette reported the Judge’s response:
"The Judge [Theodorick Bland, of the Baltimore County Court] in conclusion observed that ... when, perhaps, the services of every man in the District might be instantly wanted to repel an invasion ... could any reasonable man suppose, that the Legislature intended that judges and Courts of Justice should be employed in uselessly issuing Writs of Habeas Corpus when the enemy might be at our doors?" [MG, 3 Sep. 1813, p. 1].
While much has been written by George McCreary and Carl Everstine about the history of the Mechanical Company, there has been little written about its brave efforts to put out fires apart from the increasing rivalry among the volunteer fire departments that led to a robust competition in which some companies (particularly the Patapsco Fire Company) were accused of setting fires and sabotaging their competitor’s equipment. By 1835 there were fifteen volunteer fire companies in the City as evidenced in the advertisement for fire insurance that appeared in the March 1834 issue of the Baltimore Gazette. Note who represented the Mechanical Fire Company on the board.
The Mechanical Company apparently was never faulted for such unseemly behavior as setting fires in order to put them out or to contribute to a mob brawl, although it did have one black sheep member who proved to be a possible arsonist and robber of the post office. He was one of those orphan boys taken in as apprentices by the members of the Company. His sponsor was William Gwynn, one of the newspaper publishers in town in 1814, and a well-known Baltimore lawyer whose portrait hangs in the Mitchell Courthouse. It is not clear whether or not William Gwynn was related to, or adopted by William Gwynn, but when William Gwynn retired in 1834 from publishing, he sold the business to William Gwynn Jones who in May of 1835 was caught robbing the post office.
1835 was a year of great tension in the City. Baltimore lived up to its reputation as 'Mob Town gained in 1807 when a mob attacked Luther Martin's house in search of the disgraced Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr. Hezekiah Niles expressed his concern in the "Register" on September 5, 1835:
During the last and present week we have cut out and laid aside more than 500 articles relating to the various excitements now acting on the people of the United States, public and private! Society seems everywhere unhinged, and the demon of blood and slaughter has been let loose upon us! ... We have executions and murders and riots to the utmost limits of the Union! The character of our countrymen seems suddenly changed, and thousands interpret the law in their own way --sometimes in one case, and then in another, guided apparently only by their own will!
The Banks were having a difficult time after a speculative romp that ended as another did recently with a dramatic downturn in the economy. The citizens of Baltimore were not happy. The mayor resigned because of the rioting and General Sam Smith at the age of 83 was called back to be the mayor. He restored order, but in the meantime, William Gwynn Jones a member of the Company since 1822, and one of the Company's director's of the Baltimore Fire Insurance Company robbed the post office and may have set fire to the Atheneum.
Edgar Allan Poe writes about the robbery in a letter to Mr. T. W. White:
William Gwynn resumed publication of the Gazette for a few more years and Jones went to prison, ultimately to be pardoned by President Van Buren.
|William Gwynn, Baltimore Courthouse Collection|
Perhaps the most famous printer/publisher to be a member of the Mechanical Company was Hezekiah Niles whose Weekly Register is a gold mine of reporting for historians for the era of its publication which ran from 1811 until the 1840s.
Niles does not say much about the Mechanical Society in the Register, although at one point he is called upon to defend a check drawn upon one of the banks that was at the center of the 1835 bank riots. His defense was a noble one. He explained that it was a check sent to Louisville on behalf of the Mechanical Society in support of the victims of a disastrous fire there. The reach of the Company was not just to the citizens of Baltimore in putting out fires, but also helping residents of other cities in their time of need.
As to their role as first responders, until recently it was not possible to easily access the accounts of those who were lost in fighting fires in the city. With the efforts of the American Antiquarian Society, the Maryland State Archives, and now the Library of Congress, slowly but surely the images of all newspapers published in America are making their way on line. The indexes provided by the American Antiquarian Society through Genealogybank.com and the recent efforts of the Maryland State Archives with regard to newspapers in its collections, allow a better window into the fallen heroes of fire fighting in Baltimore, one that can be come increasingly better with donations from the public and organizations that realize the value of retaining the memories of the past.
One such example is the fate of Stewart Downs of the Mechanical Fire Company. In February 1835 fire broke out in the stables at the rear of the Western Hotel at the corner of Howard and Saratoga Streets. Arson was suspected. “The building was destroyed, but the horses, carriages, which it contained were all removed in time to save them. … We regret to state that four members of fire companies, Wm. Macklin, Wm McNelly, Michael Morran, and Stewart Downs, were killed by the falling of the walls of the stable, that John Thomas had his leg fractured, and several others severely injured from the same cause. Mr. Downs has left a wife and five children to deplore his untimely end.”
The Mechanical Fire Company called a special meeting the day following the fire “to adopt such measures as may be thought expedient in relation to the unfortunate death of several of their brother firemen, at the fire last evening.”
It is to such fallen heroes that we need to pay constant and perpetual tribute at occasions such as this and in the teaching of our children. The newspapers are a fragile source of what we can know of those falle heroes and first responders Let us hope that the preservation scanning effort to save them and index them continue to funded before they crumble to dust and the memories they print are lost. For example of the newspapers in print in Baltimore in 1814 as depicted above on the map along with the location of the Mechanical Company's firehouse, only two are fully on line for that year, and only one freely accessible and thoroughly indexed by the Maryland State Archives. It costs about $1 a page to move an original newspaper to images on line, an another $1 to index it. The annual cost of sustaining the newspaper images and index on line runs to about $.10 a page. This is an investment well worth it, but it can only happen with private support to such non-profit groups as the Friends of the Maryland State Archives.
Congratulations are in order to the Ancient and Honorable Mechanical Company for keeping the memory of the accomplishments of the Company alive. It is only with the engagement
In June of 1793, Adam Fonerden, President of the Mechanical Company in 1773, and at the time president of a much larger civic organization calling itself the “Mechanical Society” addressed President Washington on behalf of the Society. In contemporary terms it was written to support a policy of neutrality and expressed an abhorrence of war, but it was also a powerful statement of republican ideals to which Washington replied accordingly. Both
GW’s reply and the Mechanical Society’s address appeared in the 18 June
issue of The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser.
On behalf of the Society, Fonerdon wrote:
Our Country lately experienced all the miseries of a desolating and cruel War but by the interposition of a kind Providence, the Americans were enabled under your wise direction, and patriotic exertions during their arduous struggle, to secure the invaluable blessings they now enjoy. Being thus exalted to the possession of Civil and Religious Liberty, and enjoying the benefits of a free and equal Government: we cannot divest ourselves of sympathy for all, who struggle for the same blessings. ....
Adam Fonerden. President of the Society3
Attest Charles Peale Polk Secty
Washington replied on June 11:
The language of your Address shews that you have rightly estimated the purposes for which our general Government was established. And so evident are the benefits resulting to the industrious Citizens of every description throughout the United States from the operation of equal Laws, & from the security & tranquility with which they have pursued, their various avocations, under a Government of their own choice, that it becomes the duty of those who are entrusted with the management of their public affairs, to endeavour, by all proper means, to continue and promote those invaluable blessings: And that the happiness & true interests of a people are best secured by observing such a line of conduct as will, while they discharge their political obligations, preserve to their Country peace with other Nations and cultivate the good will of mankind towards them. ...If the Citizens of the United States have obtained the character of an enlightened and liberal people, they will prove that they deserve it, by shewing themselves the true friends of mankind & making their Country not only an asylum for the oppressed of every Nation, but a desirable residence for the virtuous & industrious of every Country”
footnotes to the Washington Correspondence::
The Mechanical Society, later known as the Mechanical Fire Company, was organized in 1763 and was the first fire company established in Baltimore. Incorporated by the state assembly in 1828, it continued its fire-fighting operations until 1859, when a paid fire department assumed its duties. The company, however, continued to meet as a social and civic organization until 1873, when it surrendered its charter (Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 1:244–45; see also McCreary, Mechanical Company).
2. GW’s reply of c.11 June reads: “The language of your Address shews that you have rightly estimated the purposes for which our general Government was established. And so evident are the benefits resulting to the industrious Citizens of every description throughout the United States from the operation of equal Laws, & from the security & tranquility with which they have pursued, their various avocations, under a Government of their own choice, that it becomes the duty of those who are entrusted with the management of their public affairs, to endeavour, by all proper means, to continue and promote those invaluable blessings: And that the happiness & true interests of a people are best secured by observing such a line of conduct as will, while they discharge their political obligations, preserve to their Country peace with other Nations, & cultivate the good will of mankind towards them, I trust no one will deny. If the Citizens of the United States have obtained the character of an enlightened & liberal people, they will prove that they deserve it, by shewing themselves the true friends of mankind & making their Country not only an asylum for the oppressed of every Nation, but a desirable residence for the virtuous & industrious of every Country” (LB, DLC:GW). Both GW’s reply and the Mechanical Society’s address appeared in the 18 June issue of The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser.
3. Adam Fonerden joined the Baltimore Mechanical Society in 1768 (McCreary, Mechanical Company, 122). In 1796, he was the owner of a shoe store at 54 Baltimore Street, and he remained at this address until at least 1800, when he was also the proprietor of a wool and cotton card manufactory. He represented the fifth ward on the City Council, 1797–1801 (Baltimore Directory, 1796, 27; Baltimore Directory, 1800–1801, 4, 39; Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, 1:187). The federal census of 1790 lists Fonerden as the head of a household consisting of 3 white males over 16, 3 white males under 16, and 7 females (Heads of Families [Maryland], 17).