A Life Lost to Save a Mother’s Painting  

The great fire on May 3, 1901 in Jacksonville is a story of devastation, fear, loss, struggles and determination by city leaders to help the citizens survive and rebuild a better city. There are many stories about the people who survived and some who did not survive. One such story is that of Henry Bounetheau, Jr., his fate during the fire of 1901, and his connection to the James E. Merrill House Museum.

Henry Bounetheau, Jr., called “Harry,” was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1842. At 19, he enlisted in the Civil War. His parents were painters. His mother, Julia Clarkson DuPree, went to Europe to study painting with the masters in Paris after leaving school. His father, Henry Brintell Bounetheau, was a nationally recognized miniature portrait painter. His works are in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Having health issues with rheumatism, Harry moved to Jacksonville after the war. He was a prominent citizen, a land commissioner and agent for a large English land syndicate, which controlled over 4 million acres of land in Florida. His house was on the corner of Bay and Market Street, a block from the St. Johns River. Harry was a connoisseur of art, tapestries, paintings, statuaries, books and fine china.

The fire broke out at 12:20 p.m. at the Cleaveland Fiber Factory when sparks from a nearby chimney caught on fire a pile of moss laid out to dry. An easterly breeze picked up and the fire was quickly out of control.

The fire was sweeping toward Harry’s home. The only route of escape was toward the river. Since he could not find a wagon, he carried some of his possessions to the wharf at the foot of Market Street, but then he remembered the picture his mother had painted hanging on his wall and he could not leave it, so he returned for the last time.

The painting was painted in 1845 and is of a girls’ school in Aiken, South Carolina. For two days his friends could not find Harry. The picture was found carefully placed against an oak tree near the river. His body was discovered two days later, his hands burned and the face disfigured. His style of clothing, his watch and jewelry, and a bundle of papers in his coat pocket revealed it was Harry Bounetheau. He left a 16-year-old son named Harold, and his wife, Emma Hudnall Bounetheau.

The funeral for Harry Bounetheau was held at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, located on Florida Avenue, now A. Philip Randolph Blvd. This church was the only house of worship to survive the fire because of the location. The same is true for the Merrill family house, originally built at 229 Lafayette Street. Because the fire did not cross Hogans Creek, the Merrill house and that part of the Eastside was spared. Although the house survived because of its location, the fire did destroy James Merrill’s company, Merrill-Stevens Engineering, located on Bay Street.

This painting, sought after by Harry Bounetheau because it was painted by the hands of his dear mother, is hanging in the front room of the James E. Merrill House Museum. It was donated years ago by a relative and is so much a part of the history of Jacksonville and the Great Fire of 1901. The painting does have a few holes due to the fire and it shows how close it came to being destroyed if it were not for the determination of Harry Bounetheau. He was one of seven people who lost their life during the fire.

The flames of the Great Fire of 1901 were under control by 8:30 p.m. on May 3, 1901. On May 4, Jacksonville leaders were ready to rebuild the city. Martial law was declared. Meetings were taking place and the heads of all municipal government bodies met to keep the government and city services working while they started their recovery. A Jacksonville Relief Association was formed. Seven committees were formed: Finance; Bureau of Information; Commissary Dept., Bureau of Employment; Bureau of Lodging; Sanitation; Transportation. At that first meeting, $15,420.50 was raised. Henry Flagler donated $5,000.

By Sunday, two days after the fire, sightseers were flocking into the city and Mayor J.E.T. Bowden asked for people to stay away. Dead animals were removed, temporary shelters were set up. The number of people burned out was nearly 10,000. The loss of dwellings and stores was 2,368. Steamship lines and railroads transported people from the city free of charge. Men were put to work cleaning and clearing the streets.

Vacant lots were filled with tents. Contributions of food and clothing totaling $22,500 arrived from the Merchants Association of New York. Also contributed were blankets, mattresses, cots and pillows. By a special train, New York sent 127 portable toilets. Other contributions from New York totaled $44,491.77.

Suffering was endured by all. The wealthy were walking the streets hungry, thirsty, tired and nowhere to go. Mothers looked for food for their children. People walking in the streets were weak and lacking sleep; they were broken. People were in line for bread, day and night, and guards were stationed with guns.

The relief effort started on Saturday to care for over 10,000 homeless people. By Monday, the rebuilding began. Some burned out businesses were back in business. Jacksonville was starting to come alive with the sounds of saws and hammers. Property losses hit $15 million, but insurance covered only one third. A year later, Jacksonville went from a city of ashes to a new city with an influx of money, construction and a population increase. Isaiah Hart, the founder of Jacksonville who laid out the city, would be proud. Bricks and stone were used in residential construction and by 1903, the concrete block was in use.

If you would like to learn more about the Great Fire of 1901, you can purchase the book by Bill Foley and Wayne Wood at the Jacksonville History Center and at our upcoming Great Fire Run 5km on May 4, 2024. To see the painting, please call the office at 904.665.0064 to schedule a tour of the house.

Nancy Gandy

Merrill House Museum Coordinator