Black Fire

The True Story of the Original Tom Sawyer--and of the Mysterious Fires That Baptized Gold Rush-Era San Francisco

Publisher: Broadway Books

The first biography of the little-known real-life Tom Sawyer, told through a harrowing account of Sawyer's involvement in the hunt for a serial arsonist who terrorized mid-nineteenth century San Francisco.

When San Francisco Daily Morning Call reporter Mark Twain met Tom Sawyer in 1863, he was seeking a subject for his first novel. He learned that Sawyer was a volunteer firefighter, local hero, and a former “Torch Boy,” racing ahead of hand-drawn fire engines at night carrying torches to light the way. When a mysterious serial arsonist known as “The Lightkeeper” was in the process of burning San Francisco to the ground, Sawyer played a key role in stopping him, helping to contain what is now considered the most disastrous and costly series of fires ever experienced by an American metropolis. By chronicling how Sawyer took it upon himself to investigate, expose, and stop the arsonist, Black Fire details Sawyer’s remarkable life and illustrates why Twain would later feel compelled to name his iconic character after him when writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

A vivid portrayal of the gritty, corrupt, and violent world of the Gold Rush-era West, Black Fire is the most vibrant and thorough account of Sawyer’s relationship with Mark Twain, and of the devastating fires that baptized San Francisco.



Broderick and the Christmas Eve Catastrophe

Tom Sawyer had known from the beginning that the fierce competition between the volunteer companies would eventually destroy them all. In 1844, when he was twelve, his job as a torch boy for Columbia Hook and Ladder Company Number Fourteen, an...
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"A harrowing account of Sawyer's involvement in the hunt for a serial arsonist who terrorized mid-nineteenth century San Francisco." San Francisco Chronicle

“Graysmith has amassed an impressive amount of historical detail….A well-researched work about community and fire.” Cleveland Plain Dealer

“The journalist delved deep into archival material to find the connection between Mark Twain and a heroic San Francisco firefighter named Tom Sawyer, who became the model for one of Twain's most beloved characters.” Sacramento Bee

"Fascinating." San Jose Mercury News

"A sizzling tale...[Graysmith] uncovers Mark Twain's friendship with the real-life Sawyer — a colorful figure in the city's early firefighting culture — and paints a detailed portrait of San Francisco, circa 1849-1866. It's jam-packed with notable residents whose long-ago importance lingers in the city's street names (Broderick, Brannan) — plus mustachioed hooligans and "The Lightkeeper," an arsonist as mysterious as he was destructive." San Francisco Bay Guardian

“Mark Twain fanatics and firefighter-history buffs alike will flock to the tale of the real-life Tom Sawyer’s adventures fighting fires in the Gold Rush–era city, depicted in remarkable detail by Graysmith…Black Fire captures the spirit of rugged adventure so beloved in Twain’s work and so characteristic of the undaunted city built—time and time again—on the hopes of fortune-hunters.” Booklist

“Rich…lively and chock-full of eye-opening tidbits” Kirkus Reviews

"Packing a whirlwind of events around dizzying details of boggy, impassable streets choked with decaying refuse, characters of all manner of disrepute, throughout a booming city haphazardly constructed of highly flammable material, Graysmith (who also drew the book's illustrations) inserts a teenage Tom Sawyer, newly migrated from the east, into one of the most tumultuous periods in San Francisco's storied history... the book truly shines." —Publishers Weekly