The Final Straw
1852 – On a hot August morning in 1852 an unnoticed trader was asleep outside the house of a Merchant called Aureni.
According to Eeva Palm in Vaasa:
“Attempts were made to find the culprit immediately after the fire, but it is only now that a team of investigators has been able to piece together all the facts and even to come up with a name for the man who started the conflagration. The fire was started through the carelessness of one Mårten Pehrinpoika Ohls, a farmer and merchant from Vöyri. Ohls died in the Vaasa Lazar Hospital in April 1853.
“Apparently, he arrived at the hospital running a very high fever and died within a couple of hours. Before he died he made a deathbed confession that he had been responsible for the previous year’s fire, passing the information to Mathias Christian Churberg, who was the hospital and garrison physician. Churberg withheld the man’s secret until 1865, when the doctor himself fell ill with typhoid. Shortly before his death, Churberg passed the story on to one August Lassell. The tale of Ohls’s confession remained alive in oral form, but it was not committed to paper until early in the 20th century.”
The story goes that Ohls had travelled by horse and cart the 50 kilometres from Vöyri to (Old) Vaasa, and research suggests that he arrived in Vaasa at around 5 a.m. Ohls then went to sleep in an outhouse full of dried hay and turf belonging to a merchant (some sources name him as district court judge J.F. Aurén). Possibly somewhat hung-over, he slept until 10 a.m., lit his pipe with a revolutionary new friction match, and somehow set fire to the hay in the process.
It being late summer, the wells were dry, most of the common people were out in the fields working and the more well-off citizens were away at their villas. Many of the houses had roofs of birchbark or straw, held in place with poles and stones. As any woodsman knows, both birchbark and straw make very good tinder, especially the birch bark, which contains oils which will catch even if the bark is a little damp. Only narrow alleys separated the buildings, allowing the flames to jump with ease from house to house. By the evening the town was in ruins, very few of the buildings surviving the blaze. The Court of Appeal found new work as Mustasaari Church. Unable to fight the fire alone, he then ran off.
“The researchers started with the Vaasa Magistrate’s records, which noted that two of the maids in the Aurén household had initially been under suspicion, and then some people from Vöyri, because a cart typical of that area had been found in the yard of the burned-out Aurén house. It was not possible to put an owner’s name to the buggy, however, since nobody had been seen driving it.
“The keys to the mystery eventually emerged from the church register in Vöyri. According to the ledgers, the date of Ohls’s demise fitted perfectly with Churberg’s story. There was no mention whatsoever of Ohls in the hospital records, since he was barely there more than a day, and only a few hours in the land of the living. The origins of the Vaasa Fire were determined by a small group that included a senior fire offcier and an investigator of major fires, in addition to a clutch of historians and history enthusiasts.
“Marianne Koskimies-Envall, Director of the Ostrobothnian Museum in Vaasa, says she doesn’t believe any more thorough research is possible.
“This latest investigation also produced new information that filled in some gaps in the earlier historical research into an event that very much shaped what Vaasa looks like today.