Newburyport’s Great Fire of 1811 has recently been on the nerds’ collective mind. The May 31, 1811 conflagration consumed over sixteen acres of the modern downtown area and caused over two million dollars in damage. When taking inflation into account, this roughly translates to somewhere between forty million and seventy million dollars in 2019 USD currency. By the time the fire was extinguished, Newburyport was economically and physically devastated.
Often visitors to Newburyport will ask the historical tour company Untapped History who was responsible for the fire. Admittedly, to this day no one knows who started the fire. At the time, many of the residents suspected that an arsonist set the fire in a stable or shed near Mechanic’s Row. A sizeable reward was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the culprit, but no one came forward.
Recently, we’ve come across several essays and books from modern historians who have indirectly suggested that the teenage arsonist Stephen Merril Clark may have been responsible for the fire. Similarly, we’ve encountered inferences from media sources that imply Clark was also responsible for Portsmouth’s (NH) Great Fire of 1813.
So who was Stephen Merril Clark and was he responsible for the Great Fire of 1811?
Clark was born on August 20, 1804, and was the son of Moses Clark of Newburyport. According to one early 19th Century account, the boy quickly “betrayed a stubborn and refractory spirit, often too turbulent for control. As he advanced in years it became more and more visible that mischief was his element, and falsehood and profanity became so habitual to him that a lie, or an oath were usually on his tongue, and the most vulgar insolence and abuse to his superiors were his characteristic traits.”
Shortly after his fourteenth birthday, he was brought before a magistrate for an assault and battery that he committed against an elderly man. Other accounts document how Merrill was the prime suspect in several petty thefts as well as far “more heineous depredations, as he often showed sums of money to an amount far beyond any honest means of obtaining them, which he was known to possess.”
In an effort to dissuade future criminal behavior, Moses Clark placed his son in the service of a relative to learn the trade of a baker. Unfortunately, Steven continued to engage in criminal mischief while with the relative and “was sent away on account of his bad conduct.” Desperate to steer him away from a life of crime, Stephen’s parents then arranged for him to serve as an apprentice to a Newburyport cooper. Unfortunately, “after three weeks' gross misconduct and several thefts from his master” he ran away to parts unknown.
Eventually, he returned and for the next three years Clark “loitered about the streets without employment or restraint; and spent his time in vile company and wanton mischief, insulting all who rebuked him for his conduct with the most hardy insolence.”
His father became so distraught over Stephen’s demise that in early August 1820, he begged the Newburyport selectmen to place his son in protective custody. Unfortunately, town leaders declined to interfere. Desperate to remove his son from a life of crime, Moses Clark appeared before a magistrate and swore out a warrant accusing his son of assault. However, when Stephen made a “show of penitence and promise of amendment, he (Moses) directed the officer not to serve the warrant at that time; and it was reserved in terrorem.”
Stephen Merrill Clark was never arrested and three days later, the teen tried to burn Newburyport to the ground.
According to period accounts, Newburyport had been plagued with suspicious fires throughout the summer of 1820. During the evening of August 16th, a building was torched and completely gutted. A few hours later, during the early hours of the 17th, the inhabitants of Newburyport were awoken to the sound of battle rattles being spun, bells ringing and the fearful outcry of “fire!”. This particular blaze started in a stable and quickly spread to a nearby dwelling where an entire family was sound asleep. Miraculously, the family escaped unhurt.
The fire burned for the next several hours and destroyed no less than nine residences and commercial buildings between Charter and Temple Streets.
Clark was immediately identified as the prime suspect and was quickly arrested. However, his father came forward and swore under oath that his son was at home in bed at the time of the fire. Without sufficient evidence, the boy was released from custody. In a last-ditch effort to get his son out of Newburyport and away from a life of crime, Moses sent Steven to Belfast, Maine to secure employment.
Of course, it didn’t help matters that Steven allegedly declared before his departure “that he would soon return, and set fire to the town in several places, so as it would not be extinguished.”
Unfortunately, Clark was unsuccessful securing work in Maine and sailed to Boston. After spending a brief time in the city, he began to walk home by way of Ipswich.
Meanwhile, a Newburyport prostitute by the name of Hannah Downes came forward and testified before a magistrate that Clark was responsible for the various fires in town. According to Downes, the teen had “smuggled a note telling her that he had started the fires. She immediately informed the authorities and told them also that he had confessed his crime to her the day after.” Later, the prostitute would recount how Clark had “told me he set fire to the building … that he went to his father's cellar, got a candle, broke it and thought it would not do; then took some matches and his cigar and went to Cross' stable between 8 and 9 or 7 and 8, I can not recollect which. He went up into the upper loft of the stable … scraped up a handful of hay and put it under the stairs, put the candle in the hay, lit his match with his cigar and lit the candle and went down from the stable to the fence.”
A warrant for Clark’s arrest was sworn out and the boy was apprehended while he was still in Ipswich.
Clark was tried for the capital offense of Arson in Salem in October 1821. During the proceedings, the prosecution revealed that he had not only admitted his guilt to Hannah Downes but to several other individuals who had visited him while he was held in a Newburyport jail.
However, Clark denied committing the crime and his attorney tried to establish an alibi. Unfortunately, the affirmative defense was rejected by the jury and he was found guilty. The next month the boy was executed.
Prior to his death he confessed to starting several Newburyport fires and placed the blame for his conduct squarely at the feet of Hannah Downes, who Clark charged had persuaded him to set the fires.
Of course, all of this still begs the question: did Stephen Merrill Clark start the Great Fire of 1811?
At the time of the Great Fire of 1811, Clark would have been approximately six years old. The American Psychological Association has identified child arsonists as young as four. According to the organization, children who only set fires once or twice and then terminate the behavior are typically classified as “curiosity firesetters”. On the other hand, if a child is repeatedly setting fires throughout their childhood and teenage years as a way to secure emotional and physical relief, then they are usually classified as “pathological firesetters”. This group of firebugs will often cause significant property damage and will also engage in aggressive and confrontational behavior.
Clark was living in Newburyport at the time of the Great Fire of 1811. From the testimony at trial and the accounts of Steven Clark’s childhood, there is some evidence that supports the proposition that he was a pathological firesetter.
For example, the prosecutor at Clark’s trial subtly suggested that perhaps the teen was a firebug who was responsible for the various fires that had plagued the town over the previous decade. During the rebuttal phase of the trial, he also introduced testimony from three witnesses who asserted Clark was a serial arsonist. A blacksmith who had repaired the boy’s shackles while he was in custody awaiting trial asserted Clark had threatened to burn the man’s house and all of Newburyport to the ground if he ever escaped. Ephraim Sweet testified that Clark had previously tried to burn down his shop while a gentleman identified only as S.W. Marston declared that the boy’s father often complained that as a result of his son’s behavior, he “could not sleep nights, for he was afraid he should wake up and find the town on fire.”
Following his conviction, the teen gave a full confession and described the other fires he set prior to the August fire. For example, he described how he and another boy had tried to set fire to a rum distillery located on Brown’s Wharf. When he was asked why he did this, he stated he had no ill will towards the owner of the distillery or the wharf and had “no cause for harbouring the design, which he had meant to execute.”
Of course, one could also argue that Clark was not involved with the 1811 fire. On the eve of his death, Clark was asked when he started setting intentional fires in Newburyport. The teen stated he only started committing arson after he had fallen in love with Hannah Downes and acted solely at her direction. Furthermore, in his post-conviction confession, he never mentions the 1811 fire.
So, was Steven Merrill responsible for the Great Fire of 1811?
We may never know!