Riot leads to reforms in the fire service.
On June 11, 1837, a fight broke out in Boston that escalated so precipitously that the state militia had to be called in. The fight was between volunteer firefighters, who were mostly native Protestants, and Irish immigrants, who were coming to the city in droves.
This was before the professional fire service and before civil service law allowed the Irish to become synonymous with the fire department. Volunteer fire departments were heavily involved in politics and were known to be the muscle of many political causes.
At around 2 p.m. a fire broke out on Boston’s Neck. Engine Company 20 responded and after the fire was extinguished, the firefighters went immediately to church. Or was it the bar? – Yeah, it was definitely the bar.
After a solid drinking session, the hose draggers stumbled out into the street. The ran into a group of Irishmen who were on their way to a funeral. No doubt there was some drinking going on with that crowd as well.
The two groups exchanged pleasantries and a highly intoxicated fireman named George Fay pushed one of the Irish funeral goers. Fists were soon flying and calls for reinforcements went out from both sides. The firefighters called in additional alarms and responding crews thought they were going to fight a fire, but fighting Irishmen was fine with them as well.
The entire Irish funeral was now engaged in the melee and more Irish immigrants were streaming from their homes to join the fracas. One fire officers called for even more fire companies, exclaiming, “The Irish have risen upon us, and are going to kill us!”
The fight continued for hours until Mayor Samuel Eliot called out the militia. After numerous arrests the militia was able to restore order. It became apparent that the city needed a professional fire service.
Three months later, in September, Mayor Eliot established a professional, paid fire department, with all new hires requiring the approval of the mayor and aldermen. The Boston Fire Department was the first professional service in the country. The Boston Police Department was established the following year. The Irish quickly got revenge on their attackers by taking over both departments.
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