Last Friday, our local news reported a fire in a 200 year old historic building in Boonsboro, MD, a hotel that was under renovation. I knew instantly that this was the hotel Nora Roberts had purchased. She’d had these wonderful plans to decorate each of the six rooms with some romance theme featuring literary couples, like, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy.

Read more about this here and see the horrific photos.

My heart goes out to Nora and the town of Boonsboro for this loss, but knowing Nora, she’ll find a way to rebuild.

I started thinking about fire in “our” period. How easy it must have been for fires to start when the heating, cooking, and lighting was by flame.

Here is an account of a fire from the 1814 Annual Register:

January 19, 1814
Fire in St. Paul’s Churchyard
About a quarter past six o’clock yesterday morning, a fire was discovered by foot-passengers in St. Paul’s Churchyard, who knocked violently for a time, but none of the family of Mr. Biggs was made to hear. At length the door was forced, when the flames burst out with such fury, to prevent anyone from alarming the family upstairs, but which at length was done by the ringing of the bells, and crying out “fire, fire.” Mrs. Biggs with an infant in her arms, and a servant maid, got first out of the house…the feelings of the mother were too much alive for the safety of her other five children, to admit of a moment’s delay, and it is supposed that she would have returned and rushed into the flames in search of them, had she not fainted dead away…So rapid were the flames on this unfortunate occasion, that no other person except a servant with another of Mrs. Bigg’s children succeeded in getting out the door by the door. We have accounted for only two of Mrs. Bigg’s six children, the eldest of whom, a son, was only nine years of age.

How terribly sad this is. I can feel the emotions of that poor mother at such a time.

Another terrible mishap was the occurance of clothing catching fire. Woman were most at risk with their long dresses. Gillray (1802) satirizes this in his Advantages of Muslin Dresses

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew his beard after being scarred trying to save his wife when her dress caught fire from a match.

Two famous fires near “our” time period:

1809 fire destroying Drury Lane theatre, owned at the time by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who sat at a nearby inn, watching the building devoured by flames. He quipped, “It was hard if a man could not drink a glass of wine by his own fire.”

Burning of Washington, in 1814.

Dolly Madison’s courage in rescuing the portrait of George Washington from the White House made a big impression on me as a child, so much so I named my favorite doll after her.

I’ve never been in a fire. When I was seven and we lived in Japan where my father was stationed, a dog kennel caught fire nearby and we could see the flames from our house. The fear of the fire spreading was very real. In more recent years a co-worker’s house was destroyed by fire after the oil in a pan caught fire and quickly spread.

Have you ever been in a fire?
Do you think, as I do, that burning candles is too much of a fire risk to be worth it?

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Deb Marlowe
14 years ago

Oh, I’m so sorry to hear about the hotel. So sad.

I have indeed lived through a fire. When I was 6 our house was destroyed by a fire that started in the kitchen wiring. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling that something was wrong. Saw the flames from my bed (they had made it into the hallway) and ran to wake up my Mom. She grabbed up my baby sister and told me to run to the neighbor’s house–1/4 mile away– to call for help. I will never forget that run through the night–or how cut up my feet were! Mostly I remember pounding on their door yelling “Fire!”

We were lucky, everyone made it out. But I think that explains why I’ve always been a light sleeper!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Oh, Deb! I remember you telling me that. My piece from the Annual Register was too close to that horrid experience of yours. One must suppose that “someone” knew you could be awoken to save your family.

14 years ago

I hate to hear of any historic building falling to fire. It seems sacrilegious to me. Deb, how frightening for you! I am so glad your guardian angel woke you up.

O Divine One, that piece from the Register was heartbreaking. I am sure that happened more often than not.

I was awakened one night by my old Doberman’s pointed cold nose poking me in the ribs. He whined so I thought he wanted to go out. I followed him to the door, but he continued down the hall to my reptile room. There was smoke coming out from under the door. A heat lamp had fallen on the floor and was burning a hole in it. I freaked out and started hauling aquariums and cages out onto the porch. I dragged my 13 foot python out and put her in the car. My six foot boa went into a laundry bag! Once I cleared the room I remembered the fire extinguisher in the kitchen and used it to put out the fire. Thank God for my dear departed Phantom or all creatures great and small in the house could have died, including myself.

An uncle I never met died at the age of fifteen as a result of burns after an accident at a gas station (1948)He lingered for months before he finally succumbed. I have had a fear of fire since I first learned of that bit of family history.

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

Deb, I am so sorry! I’m very lucky and have never gone through such a thing. With all the books stacked in my house, the place would go up like a tinder box. 🙂

I remember hearing that Nora’s hotel was going to have “romance” themed rooms, it sounded so interesting. I’m always sad to hear of the loss of an historic building.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’ll keep you posted on what happens with Nora’s hotel. She said she’d “fix it” and I’m sure she will. Ironically, a little over a year ago in Boonsboro, her son’s pizza parlor was destroyed in a fire. They’ve reopened it now in a new location down the street, I think.

O Doggy One! I’m so glad you saved all your…pets. Did the firemen come? I just wonder what they thought of a python in the car and a boa in a laundry bag!

Keira Soleore
14 years ago

Diane, right after I submitted an order for a candle to help me get into my writing zone (I’m planning on using specific music and a specific candle), you talk about candels being a bad idea because they’re a fire hazard.

Deb, OMG. What a horrific experience!!

Women getting burned because of their clothes is certainly a note in every historical period. The medieval period was particularly rife with such deaths and scarring.

Another reason for fires in Regency period, other than candles that is, is smoking in bed. All those closed bed curtains or that bunk bed-like cot in a wall. Scary and unsafe.

I always unplug the Christmas tree lights before going to bed, too.

Pam, you seem to be a fan of James Herriott’s books “All Creatures Great and Small.” I love all his writing.

I was so sad to read about Nora’s inn and the destruction of a historic monument. But Nora? She knows about hardship and deprivation and courage during those times. She’ll build another at the same site with the same plans as before. And that inn will open for guests, perhaps a couple years after the previous opening date.

Cara King
14 years ago

I think candles in most homes are okay, if folks are very careful. One also has to be very sure that one doesn’t overload the wiring at Christmas — I know a woman who died from a fire caused by that.

Deb & Doglady, so glad no one was hurt in the fires you personally experienced! Though so sad about Doglady’s uncle.

It is tragic, too, about the historic house. Wonderful to know that the great Nora Roberts has pledged to rebuild, but still a tragedy for the actual historic building.


Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Keira, I didn’t say candles were a fire hazard. I just said I WORRY about candles starting fires. I never knew anyone who experienced a fire from a candle, though.

My friend Melissa James uses candles for creative stimulation…and I have also used aromatherapy, the oils heated by candles. So don’t worry about it, Keira. Just keep the flame away from the curtains.

Deb Marlowe
14 years ago

Pam–you have been blessed with some furry guardian angels and they have all been blessed to have you! I always get the biggest grin imagining your menagerie!

14 years ago

I didn’t call the fire department, but I did call my neighbors and those who did not know about the reptiles previously were a bit . . . disturbed. LOL Although nobody volunteered to carry the pillow case or the big python back inside. They helped with the large lizard cages, but those two big snakes were all me!

Deb, at one time I had a veritable zoo at my house. Reptiles, parrots, ferrets, hedgehogs, a possum, a blue fox, goats,a horse, a chicken, a crow, spiders, a regular squirrel, two flying squirrels and a tank full of Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I used to do presentations at schools and other places to encourage people to be kind to animals and to the planet. My parrots were all quite old. They were rescues that had been dumped when their elderly owners passed away. Some of them had very “colorful” vocabularies! Most of my animals were rescues, actually. They gave me far more than I gave them. I learned so much from all of them. Old age and disease gradually took them from me. Thank God I have five acres as I have a very large, but nicely kept pet cemetery. When my brothers found out I buried the 13 foot python they were furious. They were thinking belts and boots! Now it is just me, two house dogs, three house cats and nine rescue dogs in outdoor dog runs. I have definitely had and continue to have some furry guardian angels in my life. Phantom, the Doberman who woke me up was rescued from a junkyard where he was starving and had been shot. He was six years old and had a bad heart. They told me he would probably only live six months. He was 17 when he passed away.

14 years ago


If somebody tried to turn a pet of mine into boots we would have serious words, brother or not! 🙂


14 years ago

I worry more about candles and oil lamps now that we are back in California, where there is always the chance of an earthquake coming along and knocking things over. So now we only occasionally light a candle or two, and stay close by them.

When I was on my own in Pittsburgh for a while, I experimented a few times with lighting candles and oil lamps and turning off all the lights, to see how difficult it would be to cope. It was interesting! Your eyes adjust up to a point, but it’s just too difficult to light an entire room, they way we routinely do with electric lights, without using many, many candles. It’s much more efficient to light the area right by you, and if you move, to bring a candle or lamp with you. But I don’t think I’d risk an experiment like that in California…


Eliza Knight
14 years ago

I heard about the fire on the news too (I live in Mt. Airy, just south of Boonsboro)

I didn’t know it was one that Nora Roberts had purchased! That sounds terrible! I am really sad about that fire, what a shame.

My house burned down in December of 2006. It was terrible, right before Christmas. I was at home, and was getting ready to pick my daughter up from the bus when I heard a loud crash out back. I looked out the window and my neighbors house (I live in a townhouse) was completely engulfed in flames. Grabbed the babies, handed them to a neighbor, grabbed my dog and hauled a*s out the house. 4 of the 5 houses in my row burned, from 3pm until midnight, gas issues… Nobody was hurt, luckily.

Any word on what her plans are, or if they caught the arsonist?

Cara King
14 years ago

My house burned down in December of 2006.

Ack! How awful for you! (Though SO glad you and your little ones and your dog escaped safely!!!)

As to the Nora Roberts property, it seems it wasn’t anything like arson; one of the construction workers accidentally knocked over a liquid propane tank.(!!!) (Sounds like insane carelessness to me, but I’m no construction worker, so what do I know!)


Diane Gaston
14 years ago

I’ve been through Mt Airy, Eliza! I live in Virginia and it always amazes me how different the two states look, both beautiful, but each unique.

How awful to lose your house in a fire like that and how fortunate no one was hurt.


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