The Lost Museum Archive

The New York Times Coverage of the Fire, July 14, 1865

Northern newspaper readers delighted in the flood of stories and illustrations about disgraced Confederate leader Jefferson Davis. This excerpt from a New York Times article about the fire that destroyed the American Museum on July 13, 1865, chronicles the gathered crowd's boisterous response to the "Belle of Richmond" wax figure, which was thrown from the building to save it from the encroaching flames. The "sour apple tree" refers to a popular Civil War song (sung to the tune of "John Brown's Body," known to modern listeners as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic") which promised "We'll Hang Jeff Davis From A Sour Apple Tree." After Davis' capture a sheet music publisher quickly put forth "The Sour Apple Tree; Jeff Davis' Last Ditch" to commemorate the event.

This scene of terror was not without its


which we here give in the language of one of the few enterprising reporters who ventured into the fiery furnace and came forth unscathed. Mr. W. B. HARRISON, the extemporaneous and comic stages, had some very funny adventures in his attempts at escape. He reports that while in his dressing-room he heard considerable noise in Broadway, and thinking it to be merely a firemen's diversion, he went up stairs to look out of the window. When he reached the stage the auditorium was filled with a dense mass of smoke, but he was informed that the fire was in the engine-room, and that it probably would soon be out. Going back for his wardrobe, Mr. HARRISON found great difficulty in reaching his room, so dense was this smoke beneath the stage. At length, succeeding securing his character wigs and a cash-box (with something over $100 in it) he determined upon leaving the building. On reaching the main saloon, where the wax figures stood, he found great confusion existing. A man was endeavoring to save a Swiss animated landscape, while others tried to get out various other articles, including the wax figures, which they sought to take through the [neighboring] billiard-room; but the proprietor of that institution entered a protest against the crowd of rescuers making a thoroughfare of his premises for the passage of curiosities, as he did not comprehend the extent of the fire at that time. Foiled in thus escaping with their respective burdens, the crowd rushed for the front windows, and speedily emptied their arms of the gimcrack articles, throwing them indiscriminately into the street. Mr. HARRISON says that one man had the JEFF. DAVIS effigy in his arms and fought vigorously to preserve the worthless thing, as though it were a gem of rare value. On reaching the balcony the man, perceiving that either the inanimate Jeff. or himself must go by the board, hurled the scarecrow to the iconoclasts in the street. As Jeff. made his perilous descent, his petticoats again played him false, and as the wind blew them about, the imposture of the figure was exposed. The flight of dummy Jeff. was the cause of great merriment among the multitude, who saluted the queer-looking thing with cheers and uncontrollable laughter.

The figure was instantly seized, and bundled off to a lamp-post in Fulton-street, near St. Paul's Church-yard, and there formally hanged, the actors in this mock tragedy shouting the threadbare refrain, commencing the "sour apple" tree.