“The Conflagration of Moscow” Exeter Courthouse Fire 1841

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 8, 2019.

Charles Bell’s History of the Town of Exeter, New Hampshire, written in 1888, packs 250 years of town history between its covers. Lengthy chapters on the ecclesiastical, judicial and military history of Exeter are occasionally interrupted by short entries that warrant more investigation   none so much as the following. “In the spring of 1841 the court-house that had been moved seven years before into Court Street, was destroyed by fire. An exhibition called the ‘Burning of Moscow’ had just been held in it, and was the cause of this less extensive conflagration.”

Governor Bell, you have GOT to be kidding me. This type of coincidence is what makes the study of history so damn enthralling. To unpack this story, we’ll need to connect a stodgy Exeter court house to Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812, and the traveling panoramic autonomaton spectacle shows of the early nineteenth century.

The court house was completed in 1793 and originally stood in the town square, just about where the bandstand is located today. Dr. William Perry remembered it as, “a fine looking building of two stories. The court room was on the second floor…(and was used for) town meetings and lectures,” with a gallery. There it stood for forty years, in spite of the fact that as Perry noted, “the court house being surrounded by the street on all sides, the judges and lawyers were disturbed by the noises of the bustling town, and by their wish it was removed to the present Court street.” In November of 1834, the entire building was jacked up and with the assistance of numerous teams of oxen, moved out of the town square and onto a newly laid-out road, which, as Perry pointed out, was christened “Court Street” in honor of its new importance. There the solid little building stood – the only public hall in town, Perry noted, “except for a small one in the Burley Tavern.”

Because there was no great place for public entertainments, the court house not only served as the site for the county court and town meetings but also as the venue for traveling lectures and presentations. Before the development of vaudeville and burlesque shows, other forms of entertainment came to town. One of the most exciting spectacles was a program called the “Conflagration of Moscow.” The original version of the exhibition was created by John Nepomuk Maelzel as early as 1813. The program arrived in the United States in 1827, with performances in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston. It was a panorama presentation with a huge canvas scroll that would gradually unroll the scenes of Napoleon’s arrival in Moscow in 1812 as the citizens of the city evacuated and the Kremlin began to burn. Surrounding the panorama were dioramas of the buildings, troops and civilians that would slide into place as the events moved along. Joseph Earle Arrington, who wrote about Maelzel in John Maelzel, Master Showman of Automata and Panoramas, described how the performance was achieved. “The din of war was produced by hand machines. A musket machine had twelve springs to force striking hammers. Cannon drums were struck with the fist in a sparring glove, and pots of burning charcoal gave off awesome smoke effects. The equipment for lighting the fire scenes in the city consisted of sixteen lanterns, twenty-five Argand lamps, six candlesticks with springs, snuffers, and trays, forty half-circular patent lamps with reflectors, nine square and six oblong lamps, and thirteen common japanned lamps with stands. There were double fire screens extending across the stage, meeting in the center, ‘which, by being gradually withdrawn…exhibits the appearance of the fire spreading from the center to the extremities of the city.’” He notes, “Great precautions had to be taken to prevent destructive fires in the hall, while at the same time maintaining the illusion of flames in the scene.”

Audiences were left feeling that they had experienced the great fire for real. It was a program that dazzled the senses and it was all done before the invention of photography, recorded music or electric lighting. Maelzel would recruit local children to assist with the mechanics of the presentation. Suzanne Wray, a New York researcher, wrote that the climax was achieved with explosions. “Augur holes placed a few inches apart in a long strip of wood were filled with gunpowder, and a trail of gunpowder run between these; the last hole contained a chemical that would burn with colored light. This was fired by the showman, who then ran back to the cylinder to crank out more musketry sounds. After more crashing, hissing, and flashing, the stage was filled by purple light, and the curtain went down.” Maelzel’s original “Moscow” was copied by other showmen to varying degrees of excitement. It was most certainly one of the knock-offs that reached Exeter in 1841. The great conflagration scene was only part of a larger show, although always the finale. The playbill in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society lists “Miss Hall the American Enchantress” performing her “polite illusions” as the opening act. After she caused a “gentleman to disappear from the room in a wonderful and mysterious manner” there was a moving diorama of western scenes, a gymnast, the Fantoccini Automatons – mechanical puppets of sorts – and the “Green Mountain Boy” violinist. But most people came to see the “Magnificent Spectacle of the Conflagration of Moscow.”

The fire call came in at 3 AM on March 12th. “When first discovered, the flames were bursting out of the windows, and there was no possibility of saving the building,” reported the Exeter News-Letter. The show was ruined. “The proprietors of the Exhibition are severe sufferers. The paintings, automata, etc., are said to have cost them thousands of dollars, and all are lost.” Also lost were the equipment and uniforms of Exeter’s artillery company and band instruments belonging to the brass band. But the real loss was the court house itself. “The Court house was venerable in age, but not distinguished for its beauty. How much of learning, and eloquence have been displayed there! – how much of management and chicanery have been exercised there! – how much of falsehood and perjury have been committed there! – how many rogues have been convicted, and how many greater rogues have escaped there! – how many honest men, through much tribulation, have secured their rights, and how many have suffered wrong, and wrong without redress in that temple of law, but not always a temple of Justice? Was it to be purified by fire! Alas! When it had gone through the purifying process, it was entirely gone.”

The incredible coincidence that caused the burning of the court house by the Burning of Moscow cannot be understated. Had it been a program called “The Delight of Spring Flowers” that took down the court it would have been as near to an insult to Exeter jurisprudence as could be. Hat’s off to John Maelzel, Dr. William Perry, John Kelly (the editor of the Exeter News-Letter), Charles Bell and Napoleon Bonaparte for saving us from that fate.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Support the Exeter Historical Society by becoming a member! Join online at: www.exeterhistory.org

Image: Handbill advertising the “Conflagration of Moscow” in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. The performance featured mechanical diorama with fire and explosions mostly controlled by local children. What could go wrong?


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