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Black Fire

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Robert Graysmith is a San Francisco writer best known for his true-crime accounts of serial killers: Zodiac, Unabomber, and Amerithrax: The Hunt for the Anthrax Killer. In a way Black Fire is a true-crime story as well. Only this time the crime is arson and the period is historical: eighteen months during 1850 and 1851.

It’s the aftermath of the gold rush. California has just achieved statehood. The city of San Francisco is newly minted, having recently changed its name from Yerba Buena. The political leader, once the alcalde, is now the mayor. But the gold rush has left chaos in its wake. The bay is clogged with hundreds of vessels recently abandoned by the gold seekers. San Francisco is a city of mud streets, saloons, and gambling dens. There is no police force, not even a jail. The buildings are tents and hastily assembled structures made from shoddy materials.

The whole place is a disaster waiting to happen. The calamity takes the form of an arsonist known as the lightkeeper. In less than two years, he burns the city down six times. Black Fire is the astonishing story of how a lone individual could destroy a major American city over and over again. Primitive firefighting is conducted often in darkness in a famously hilly town that has no piped water. Graysmith tells the almost unbelievable story of the volunteer firefighters who fight the flames and the civic leaders who learn all too slowly to make their city fire-resistent.

It’s also the riveting tale of the arsonist, the lightkeeper, who was ultimately identified, captured, came close to being lynched, but then unaccountably vanished.

The subtitle of Black Fire is The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer. He was one of the firefighters during this early period. The youthful Mark Twain came to know this man and eventually appropriated his name for one of the most famous creations in all literature.

The real Tom Sawyer was an interesting individual who began as a torch boy, lighting the way for hand-operated fire wagons. Sawyer lived to see firefighting in San Francisco become a much safer paid profession. He also lived to see his name attached to a celebrated book. But Sawyer’s story is completely overshadowed in “lack Fire by the legend of the lightkeeper. How San Francisco was repeatedly destroyed in its infancy dominates the book and takes more than half its length to recount.

How Mark Twain met and befriended the real Tom Sawyer is actually better told in an article in the October, 2012 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. The article reads like a deleted chapter of Black Fire and is well worth tracking down.

One caution to the reader: Graysmith chooses not to employ traditional narrative in Black Fire. Instead he relies on a massive accumulation of historical detail and trivia to tell the story. The cast of characters is vast and somewhat unwieldy. Many players are introduced. But most perform only a minor part in the drama. This can be disconcerting to the impatient reader expecting a faster pace. Fortunately, the story of the fires is so gripping and compelling that the reader simply charges right through to the end.                  – Dan Erwine

Also available by Robert Graysmith: Zodiac; Zodiac Unmasked; The Girl in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shower; The Sleeping Lady: The Trailside Murders Above the Golden Gate; Unabomber A Desire to Kill; The Laughing Gorilla: A True Story of Police Corruption and Murder; The Bell Tower: The Case of Jack the Ripper Finally Solved; Auto Focus: The Murder of Bob Crane; Amerithrax: The Hunt for the Anthrax Killer.


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