The Great Earthquake

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The most pronounced damage from the American disruption occurred in New England, from New Haven to Portland. Accounts focused on Boston, probably because of its population of fifteen thousand, some of whom insisted they had heard Gabriel’s trumpet blow before the bricks began bouncing off their roofs. “The effects of the earthquake are very considerable in the town,” a reporter for the Boston Gazette wrote. The Reverend Charles Chauncey noted that, beyond the “breaking of our brittle wear and the bruising of our pewter,” the damage to structures in just one part of the region was “set, moderately computing, at about 50 thousand pounds in the common way we reckon money,” in a day when a barrel of West Indies rum cost three shillings sixpence, or a barrel of beef forty shillings.

Fortunately, the effects were worst where the concentration of residences was least—near the docks and warehouses on the “low, loose Ground, made by the Encroachments in the Harbour,” where one witness described his passage impeded by “large quantities of mortar and rubbish.” Although the large-scale filling of the waters around the original peninsula of Boston did not begin until 1804, the city had already begun to creep into the harbor with the building of wharves such as the fifty-four-foot-wide Long Wharf which stretched 1,586 feet into Town Cove. Atop the fill and pilings were a road and merchant houses vulnerable to earthquake. The original residential settlement of Trimountain, as Boston was called in 1630, covered Beacon Hill, which is geologically stable bedrock less responsive to earthquakes than silted sites.

“Never was such a scene of distress in New England before,” the voluble Thomas Prince reported. Dr. Prince, who managed to publish a small book on past earthquakes within a week of the Boston shock, quoted an acquaintance who went through the tremor while lying in bed “under the best Composure of Mind I could bring myself to.” When he emerged to examine the damage, he encountered a populace of “ghastly” faces, traced with “an Awe and Gloom … as would have checked the gay airs of the most intrepid Libertine among us.”

Disturbed twice more by the return of a trembling earth felt as far south as Pennsylvania on November 24 and December 19, and soon mindful of the Lisbon debacle, New Englanders took to prayer and fasting to ward off further manifestations of what the Bay Colony’s Lieutenant Governor Spencer Phips publicly pronounced God’s “righteous Anger against the heinous and provoking Sins of Men.” How directly Divine Providence participated in the events was a matter of considerable discourse.

The Reverend Mather Byles of Boston, who would be banished from his pulpit as a Tory after the Revolution, espoused the popular mechanistic philosophy of the day, under which cause and effect are considered intricately geared to events everywhere. If the world were analogous to a clock, the seventeenth-century chemist Robert Boyle observed, then God, who created the mechanisms and stood back watching them work, was the Divine Watchmaker. If the mechanistic attitude considered how an event occurred, the alternative philosophy of the day subscribed to the so-called teleological view, under which events are purposeful means to prescribed ends. The teleological approach is to ask, “What for?”

Thus, a teleological—and tedious—thirty-six-verse anonymous poem distributed after “the great earthquake” saw Divine intent, explaining:

In seventeen hundred and fifty-five,
When vice its empire did revive,

Consuming fire, a jealous GOD
Call’d on New-England with his rod.

But the mechanistic Reverend Byles proved more sanguine. “No Doubt natural Causes may be assigned for this Phaenomenon,” he told a group of colonists at Point Shirley, across Boston harbor. “An imprisoned Vapour too closely pent or too strongly compressed in the Caverns beneath, will thro, a natural Elasticity, abhor confinement, dilate and expand, swell and heave up the Surface of the earth, producing a tremor and Commotion.” Or, he conjectured, the mass of “Sulphureous and Combustible materials” underground meets with a spark and explodes. “How thin the Arch which interposes between us and a Furnace of Flame,” he exclaimed.

Elements of a nascent science of geology appear in the Americans’ analysis of their worst earthquake. Advances in chemistry, physics, and the concept of scientific method had followed the work of the Boyles and Newtons and Bacons of the seventeenth century, supporting a departure from such geologic convention as the biblical assertions that the earth was roughly eight thousand years old, that its crust had been shaped by the great flood, and that earthquakes—as Psalm 18 or Revelations 15 told it—were a fundamental tool of God’s wrath.