Black Fire: The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco – Robert Graysmith

A firebug some called the Lightkeeper was plaguing San Francisco.  He always struck when the Lightkeeper’s Wind was blowing away from the camps of ex-convicts on Telegraph Hill.  In the course of eighteen months he would burn San Francisco to the ground six times.  Among the volunteer firemen was Tom Sawyer.  Yes, the REAL Tom Sawyer.  Some years after the arsonist was stopped, Samuel Clemens, then a reporter in San Francisco, became friends with Tom and loved listening to the tales of his exploits.  One thing led to another, and Tom became the star of Mark Twain’s novel.

This biography of Tom Sawyer is filled with details about the early volunteer fire fighters and the torch boys who ran ahead of the engines to light the way at night.  In this era before steam pumps and horse drawn fire engines, much volunteer man power was needed.  The firemen were the heroes of the day. Companies were vying for fans with parades, banquets and balls.  Brawls often broke out between rival companies.  In the course of the book you will meet a U.S. Senator, the world heavyweight champ, a lethal gunfighter, Mark Twain, Brett Harte, a volunteer fire girl, and a dozen other misfits.

The author is at his best when describing the fires.  The flames swirl around you.  You smell the smoke and become totally involved in the beautiful and horrible spectacle. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about a rather obscure period in the history of San Francisco.

eGalley review   Publication date: 10.30.12

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