A few weeks ago, Tim and I attended a recognition of service ceremony. One speaker addressed the crowd as “Firemen” then quickly corrected himself and added “Firewomen.” A female voice, from the back of the room, corrected him with a loud, “Firefighters.” This got me to pondering… Firefighting has historically been a male profession throughout the world, so who was the first American firewoman?
The first known female firefighter in the United States was Molly Williams. An African American, she was held as a slave belonging to a New York City merchant by the name of Benjamin Aymar. In most cases, the men that volunteered in the early days were those who had the most to lose. Merchants like Aymar could be wiped out by one spark of the “red devil” if it flamed out of control among the warehouses along lower Manhattan. Whatever Aymar’s motivations were, he didn’t give up his lifestyle when he worked his volunteer shifts at Oceanus Engine Company #11. To make sure he was properly tended to he brought along his slave, Molly. Molly cooked and cleaned for the firemen. She also helped maintain the heavy, hand-pulled water pumper. According to lore, Molly was in the fire house with Aymar, doing her chores as well as taking care of the men who had been stricken with a severe flu.
The alarm bell sounded. There was a fire, and Molly was one of the few well enough to go. She had been around the fire house enough to know how the pumper worked, so it was during the blizzard of 1818, Molly Williams took her place on the dragropes and hauled out the pumper with as much strength and speed as any man. Answering the call of duty, she helped pull the pumper to the fire through the deep snow.Continue Reading →