It seemed like a general conflagration

A portrait of Aaron Burr by John Vanderlyn, commissioned in 1802
Image: NYHS

In 1807, three years after shooting Alexander Hamilton dead in a duel, former Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr was indicted for a second time, for treason. Having once been at the pinnacle of American politics, he was now accused of plotting to carve out his own sovereign territory—a year later, although acquitted, he fled to Europe in exile. It was in Sweden in 1809 that Burr encountered a peculiar adversary: an unlit candle. Hours later, after temporarily setting fire to himself, he recorded the incident in his journal.

The Diary Entry

29 August 1809

I did go to bed at 10, promising myself a rich sleep. Lay two hours vigil; that cursed one single dish of tea! Note: My bed had undergone a thorough ablution and there were no bugs or insects. Got up and attempted to light candle, but in vain; had flint and matches but only some shreds of punk which would not catch. Recollected a gun which I had on my late journey; filled the pan with powder and was just going to flash it when it occurred that though I had not loaded it someone else might; tried and found in it a very heavy charge! What a fine alarm it would have made if I had fired! Then poured out some powder on a piece of paper, put the shreds of punk with it and after fifty essays succeeded in firing the powder; but it being dark, had put more powder than intended; my shirt caught fire, the papers on my table caught fire, burnt my fingers to a blister (the left hand, fortunately); it seemed like a general conflagration. Succeeded, however, in lighting my candle and passed the night till 5 this morning in smoking, reading, and writing this.

Further Reading

Aaron Burr’s handwritten journals are held at The Huntington in California, which obtained them in 1913. A decade earlier, they had been published in two volumes edited by William Bixby. Long out of print, they can now be read online.


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