Mysterious deaths; fire in 1857 investigated after 3 men die in custody

EDITORS NOTE: Three Nashua men had been picked up for being disorderly while out on the town on the night of Jan. 8, 1857. They were locked in cells in the basement of Nashua City Hall, then located at 120 Main St., the current block where The Telegraph’s office is located today. This is the second of a two-part examination of what happened that night, and it is based on accounts published in The New Hampshire Telegraph.

"We believe the men were put in about half past twelve. At half past two (William) Saunders was asleep, but the Irish boys were singing and making some noise. Police officer Rand left the building at four o’clock, and everything was quiet then. He did not visit the cells, but if there had been any unusual noise there it would have been heard." – The New Hampshire Telegraph

The accounts report, "Mr. Hiram F. Flanders a police officer was the first person there, and unlocked the cells. He testified as to the condition in which Saunders was found. …"

All three men were found on the floor. In the close confines of the basement holding cells, they had perished. A fire had somehow started.

"He was upon the floor partly covered with bed-clothing, as if to save himself from suffocation.

"The alarm was given at about half past six in the morning, but how long the fire had been burning in the cells it is impossible to tell."


The newspaper’s account is comprehensive – and graphic.

"(John) Hudine was dressed, but his (unreadable) good deal burnt off, and his coat, vest, shirt and undershirt were burnt through in many places. (John) Sullivan had but ‘little clothing on.’ Both were badly burnt. His testimony in relation to the position of Saunders was not taken, though we understand he was found lying upon his face.

"The fire seemed to have caught in the east cell, occupied by William Saunders, and burnt through to the west one, occupied by the two Irish boys John Sullivan and John Hudine, though the west cell is burnt much the (unreadable) with the exception of two holes which are burnt entirely through the floor in the other.

"The west one is burned to a cinder pretty much all over, while the east one is not very much charred excepting overhead.

"Dr. Hammond made a post-mortem examination of Saunders on Sunday. The face and some parts of his body and limbs were burnt to a blister, and his hair was somewhat burnt. His mouth, nostrils &c. also show evidence that he breathed after the fire became so hot as to burn, but it is not probable that any consceiousness (sp) remained at that time. He found some small black and blue spots on one arm, but which had the appearance of having been occasioned some time before his death. Beyond this, there were no marks upon his person indicating anything like blows or violence, at any time."


There was much conjecture and a few raised eyebrows as the investigation began. The newspaper followed through.

"That the City Hall should have been left alone from four o’clock to half past six, with three men confined in the lock-up, was an oversight, which every body sees now. But had no calamity resulted, it is probable that the same thing might have been done a thousand times, without exciting any remark, or being deemed hazardous in the least. It is a terrible lesson alas, that the wisdom which it teaches comes too late for the ill-fated victims."

As sad as it was, the gathering of evidence continued.

"One of the holes in the floor is close to the partition and the other’s feet from it near the middle of the cell. The ceiling on the partition burnt through from bottom to top, and a plank is knocked off from the ceiling of the other cell, by which the fire probably communicated with it.

"There is no appearance of the fire having caught in the bunks, and we can hardly conceive of how the holes should have been burnt through the floor without some combustible material to assist (unreadable)."

The story proved newsworthy for several days through the cold month of January.

"Since making up our account last week, we understand that an iron kettle was found tipped into one of the holes burnt in the floor. This (unreadable) of the probable origin of the fire completely. We are inclined to believe that Saunders kindled a fire in the kettle to warm himself, without thinking of the consequences, and that subsequently, in his death-struggle, from suffocation, perhaps it was tipped over, and the combustibles in it, falling on part of one side and a part on the other, burnt the fire hole in the floor. We do not think it possible that any of the three could have been alive when the fire reached them. There was no ventilation in the cells, and the progress of the fire must have been very slow, and being no escape from the smoke, they must have inevitably suffocated before the fire reached them.

"The inquest continues its session through Saturday and until Thursday this week, when it adjourned to Thursday next at 10 o’clock, A.M. No less than seventeen witnesses were examined, but never light was elicited to the cause of the fire, beyond what was above stated."


Apparently the former mayor, the Hon. Josephus Baldwin, who lived across the street, had other ideas. Could the fire have been set?

"Why, upon mere hearsay, does he set up a theory of implicating somebody in having set fire to the building outside of the cells, when by crossing the street he could have ascertained that there was no evidence at all that the fire was set under the cell?" the newspaper reported. "He could have seen that it was not possible to set a fire there, that the location of the floor timbers preventing – that the timbers show no marks of fire there, and that the holes were burnt most upon their upper surface. We examined the cells again on Thursday with special interest to this matter, and we are confirmed that the belief we stated last week as to the origin of the fire, in which we are mainly corroborated by the verdict of the coroner’s inquest."

The Primal Cause Is Rum

As the investigation, and gossip, continued, the newspaper offered this to its readers:

"The great primal cause of this terrible tragedy is rum. That its victims were all under the influence of liquor is a matter as fully established as any fact can be. It demonstrates that everybody knew well enough before, that there are places in town where rum is dealt out to whoever asks for it, ‘without stint’ and ‘without mercy’ too. And this is another lesson to be learned from this awful event. – We would not have been the man to have sold a glass of rum to either of them ‘for all the wealth that spirits bought and sold have ever earned."

This fits with one take on the circumstances that brought Saunders to be placed in the lockup – the man the fire was traced to.

"There has been a good deal of talk of a conspiracy among the police to get Saunders drunk for the purpose of arresting him. Isaac Eaton, late City Marshal, testified that he met watchman Case in course of the evening, who said that there was to be a ball at Franklin Hall, and that they were going to get Saunders drunk and get him into the lobby, but Mr. Eaton did not understand that by ‘they’ was meant the watchmen or police, but other individuals who might be about the hall."

The newspaper continued to offer its opinion:

"If it shall waken to consciousness a single mind to the horror of the traffic, or awaken the community to a sense of the danger to which they are exposed from a (unreadable) enemy in their midst, terrible as it is, these men will not have died martyrs to a hellish cause wholly in vain."

Death By ‘Misfortune’

The coroner’s inquest offered the final word:

The "whole basement of City Hall was filled with a dense smoke, sufficient to cause the death of said persons by suffocation – that said fire was accidentally caused by said Saunders alone, without the agency, of instrumentality, of any other persons, by his setting fire to a portion of the contents of the mattress in his cell, which he had taken therefrom, and placed in an iron pail upon the floor of his cell, kept and used there for the necessity of the prisoners confined therein, and the death of each of said three prisoners was caused by suffocation from the smoke arising from said fire."

"upon their oath

"Isaac Spalding

"Israel Hunt

"Charles H. Nutt

"Coroner Jefferson Rockwood

"February 22"

The old Nashua City Hall building was torn down in 1940, the year after the current Nashua City Hall was erected at the corner of Main Street and West Hollis streets. There is nothing obvious in the basement of The Telegraph’s current office to indicate anything happened on Jan. 9, 1857.

Don Himsel can be reached at 594-1249, or @Telegraph_DonH.