Image: Molly, By Golly! by Diane Ochiltree, Illustrated by Kathleen Kemly
With Fire Prevention Week just around the corner, it's a great reminder that before we had the added bonus of technology to prevent (and keep us safe from) fires, communities had to rely solely on the quick action of the local fire departments to keep them safe from unwanted surprises. Up until the 1800s, only men were doing the heavy lifting when it came to water pumps and buckets of sand. That is, until one crazy winter that called for all hands, no matter whose they were, on deck.
Countless service people have a woman named Molly Williams to thank for opening the door into the fire safety career field. Williams was the African American slave of Benjamin Aymar, a merchant in the city who was affiliated with the firehouse Oceanus Engine Company #11. Williams used to go on calls with Aymar, jumping in to fight fires just as diligently as any of the men in the unit would. Her insight and knowledge surrounding fires made her an invaluable part of the team, with many firemen of the time confirming that she fought and worked just as fiercely as “any of the laddies.”
During the winter of 1818, a strand of influenza was steadily making its way around the firehouses of NYC, leaving the city at the mercy of any random flame that could spring up during a particularly nasty blizzard. When a call came in to fight a fire during said snowstorm, Williams answered as a first responder. She arrived on the scene pulling a heavy hand-pump through the snow, joining the other first responders and solidifying her place in history.
Today, you can find her story told in history and storybooks. There's even a children's book entitled Molly, By Golly! by Diane Ochiltree that tells the tale, illustrated by Kathleen Kemly.