Friday, May 17, 2019

Mooresville's Great Fire of 1842 (Mooresville Moments #16)

Learn about the Great Fire of 1842 that consumed nearly all of Mooresville, Indiana, and the amazing acts of generosity that assured the town's resurrection.

Mooresville's Great Fire of 1842
(Mooresville Moments #16)
by Mooresville Public Library

The fire occurred on Tuesday night, November 22, 1842.  According to the New York Tribune, the blaze began in the home of James G. Slocum, in which an unidentified woman and three unidentified children were sleeping, and all four tragically died in the inferno.  Slocum was apparently away at the time.

The New York Tribune, Friday, December 16, 1842, page 2
(Click images to enlarge)

The New York Tribune article was repeated verbatim in several newspapers, including the following:

The Schenectady (N.Y.) Cabinet, Tuesday, December 20, 1842, page 2

 The Boston (MA) Trumpet and Universalist Magazine, Saturday, December 24, 1842, page 3

The Montpelier (VT) Watchman, Friday, December 23, 1842, page 3

The New York Spectator, Wednesday, December 28, 1842, page 46

The identification of Slocum's residence as the start of the conflagration is an amazingly precise detail for a New York City newspaper to relate about a small Indiana village, especially when one considers the following:

  • Mooresville historian Clara S. Richardson stated that the 1842 fire was "of unknown origin," and she does not mention the Slocums nor any deaths from the fire (page 24 of A Brief History of Mooresville, Indiana, 1824-1974.  [1974].  Mooresville, IN: Dickinson Publishing Company--available online here);
  • No one named Slocum (or with variant spellings, such as Slocumb or Slocom) is buried in any cemeteries in Morgan County, Indiana;

  • No one named Slocum (or with variant spellings, such as Slocumb or Slocom) was listed as living in Mooresville or Morgan County, Indiana, in the 1840 Federal Census, although a James Slocumb was shown to reside in Monroe County, Indiana in the 1840 and 1850 Federal Censuses and was extensively discussed (spelled as both Slocumb and Slocum) in Charles Blanchard's 1884 historical and biographical sketches of Morgan, Monroe, and Brown Counties (available online here). 
  • No one named Slocum (or with variant spellings, such as Slocumb or Slocom) was mentioned in Almira Harvey Hadley's A Brief History of Mooresville and Vicinity (1918) (available online here) or in Margaret W. Fogleman's Early Mooresville (1884) (available online here) or in John Matthews' Ye Early Pioneers (1875) (available online here) or in The Pioneers of Morgan County:  Memoirs of Noah J. Major (1915) (available to checkout from Mooresville Public Library).

So, did the 1842 fire start in James Slocum's home and kill four people?  There is no local evidence to support the New York Tribune's claim, but it can't be completely ruled out.  The deceased woman and children could have had a different surname (or surnames) than Slocum, and they might have been visiting from another community (to which their remains could have been returned and interred).  Thus, looking for Slocums in the county cemeteries or federal censuses would not have identified the fire victims, if they were not named Slocum or came from out-of-town.  Nonetheless, the absence of James G. Slocum from the local historical record and U.S. censuses weighs against the Tribune's account, as does the paper's failure to identify the victims.

Let's quote from Clara Richardson's Mooresville history:

"In 1842 a fire of unknown origin hit Mooresville.  Before the fire, there were eleven stores and houses in this wooded area; next morning only the Moore Store and house were left.  Trees were cut, burned, houses and shops were deliberately torn apart to try to check the blaze on both sides of the street.  Work to construct new homes and stores started immediately, so the story goes."  (Page 24 of A Brief History of Mooresville, Indiana, 1824-1974.  [1974].  Mooresville, IN: Dickinson Publishing Company--available online here).

Quoting from Margaret W. Fogleman's Early Mooresville:

"About 1842 Mooresville was visited by the greatest fire it has ever known.  Beginning with Pa's [Samuel Moore's] store there were ten houses and shops before the fire.  Next morning there was Pa's store and our house left.  The Dr's [doctor's] shop at the west and a dwelling house at the east were torn down to check the fire."   (Early Mooresville [1884] [available online here]).  Margaret Fogleman was the daughter of town founder Samuel Moore (and his wife, Eliza Moore).

I'm inclined to give the local sources greater credence than the New York Tribune's account.  Perhaps Horace Greeley's reporters enlivened the tale to make for more interesting reading.  Clearly, the eastern newspapers that reprinted the story didn't check the facts further.

During December 1842 news of the Mooresville catastrophe was related in several papers across the United States as well as one in England (click images below to enlarge).

The Bristol (England) Mercury & Daily Post, Saturday, 31 December 1842, page 4

The Philadelphia (PA) Saturday Courier, December 17, 1842, page 3

The Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle, Monday, December 12, 1842, page 2

 The Charleston (S.C.) Mercury, Tuesday, December 13, 1842, page 2

The Wheeling (VA) Gazette article was also cited in many other newspapers, including The New York Herald (December 13, 1842), the Baltimore (MD) American and Commercial Daily Advertiser (December 10, 1842), and the Washington (DC) Daily Globe (December 12, 1842).

 The New York Tribune, Thursday, December 15, 1842, page 1


The Niles National Register, St. Louis, Missouri, Saturday, December 17, 1842, page 16

Some of the accounts quoted the original story that appeared in the Indiana State Sentinel, November 29, 1842, without adjusting for the time delay in printing.  For instance, the New York Tribune on December 15, 1842, incorrectly stated that the fire took place "Tuesday night of last week," which would have been December 6, two weeks after it happened.  This mistake was repeated in the Charleston (S.C.) Mercury, The Philadelphia (PA) Saturday Courier, and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Daily Eagle.   The Niles National Register was only a week off (reporting November 29 as the fire date, when it was actually the Tuesday before, November 22).

Indiana State Sentinel, November 29, 1842

The fire consumed nearly all of the town, sparing only Samuel Moore's general store and residence on the northeast corner of Main and Indiana Streets in downtown Mooresville.  Moore supplied lumber and labor free-of-charge to help citizens rebuild their homes and businesses.

Fall Creek Furniture Company (Mooresville Moments #15)

At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Mooresville, Indiana, was about 1,200.  During that time, local businesses employed roughly 2,500 workers, most of whom commuted to town from surrounding communities on the interurban railway.  Among the largest employers here were Bolton Sorghum Factory (the world's largest in 1897), the Indiana Brass & Iron Bed Factory, two brick manufacturing facilities, and Fall Creek Furniture Company.

In the following installment of Mooresville Moments, a local history video series, Fall Creek Furniture Company is showcased.

Fall Creek Furniture Company
(Mooresville Moments #15)
by Mooresville Public Library

Pure Oil Gasoline Station (Mooresville Moments #14)

This installment of Mooresville Moments, a local history video series, looks at the Pure Oil gasoline station, which was located on the southwest corner of Main and Indiana Streets in downtown Mooresville, Indiana, which had been the site of the Lindley Block (burned down in 1925).

Pure Oil Gas Station
(Mooresville Moments #14)
by Mooresville Public Library