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Richmond Theater Fire

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Richmond Theater Fire

December 26, 1811


compiled by Gynger Cook 2002

 

For days Richmond, Virginia was in a state of excitement, a new play and a special attraction, a Pantomime, to be presented right after the play, had the citizens of the city making plans to attend the last opening of the season.

The Pantomime, “The Bleeding Nun”, or “ Agnes and Raymond” began right after the play was finished. The scene of Baptist the Robber was in the first act, a chandelier hanging from the ceiling illuminated it. After the curtain fell following the first act, the chandelier was lifted toward the ceiling, but the lamp had not been extinguished. When it was noticed, the stage manager attempted to lower the lamp and extinguish the flame. The lamp became entangled in the cords used to lift it and began to oscillate, it came into contact with the lower part of one of the front scenes, which caught fire. As the flames rose to the top of the scenery it formed a pointed peak then reaching the roof, only 6 or 7 feet above the scenery.

 There were 35 scenes hanging, not counting the borders used to outline building and the skies, ect. One by one each began burning and spreading to the next. The roof was not plastered and sealed, there was pine plank nailed over the rafters and over these the shingles. There was nothing to stop the spread of the flames. Pine rosin most likely helped feed the flames, lapping everything in its path, until it reached the hollows of the theater and consumed the panels and pillars of the boxes, the dome of the pit, and the canvas ceilings of the lower boxes.

 That night there were 518, one-dollar tickets and 80 children tickets sold, not counting the 50 people that were in the galleries. Of these 598, all had to pass through one common avenue. Those in the upper and lower boxes had to pass through a narrow angular staircase, or leap through the windows.

 Once the flames were noticed, panic overcame the crowd. Everyone began pushing and running toward the one exit, the smaller and weaker were down trodden, some of the men stopping long enough to try to pick up the lifeless body of a woman or child, other men trying to pull or carry women that had been in their charge. Mothers were pushed or pulled from their children. Someone had broken out a window in the narrow hallway, as people came to the window they began jumping, or gathering enough breath to continue the frantic race to the door to reach the street.

 This tragedy changed the joy and lighthearted ways of the people of Richmond and Virginia, for many years to come.

The theaters were all closed, all reasons imaginable were suggested to be the reason this tragedy happened. Slavery, music, politics, everything was rationalized to be the reason God allowed this to happen. The local churches overflowed for many weeks after.

 Mr. Twaits, a manager of the theater attributed the quick spread of the fire to the construction of the theater, lacking the separate entryways to the boxes, gallery and pit. The theater lacked the plaster ceilings or walls most common with other theaters. This theater was in most opinions in many stages of construction and hastily thrown together.

 December 26, 1811, Virginia lost about 68 people, about 10% of the attending audience, most who were the cream of Richmond’s society. The newly appointed Governor, George W. Smith, Abraham B. Venable, President of the Bank of Virginia, who had also been in the house of Representatives and in the Senate. There was an author, and artist, the wife of the owner of the theater, members of the Houses, the publisher of one of the Richmond Newspapers, the who’s who of Richmond were all present.

 Among the young that lost their lives was Miss Mary Clay, daughter of M. Clay, member of Congress. Following is a copy of a letter written to Matthew Clay by a Mr. Copeland, who had accompanied Miss Clay, 2 of his daughters, one, Margaret, who also was killed, and Miss Gwathmey (or Gwaltney) who was at first placed on the dead list, but is not listed on the final list, so may have survived.

 As narrated in a letter to M. Clay, Esq., a Representative from Virginia, dated December 27, 1811.

 “I have a tale of horror to tell: prepare to hear the most awful calamity that ever plunged a whole city into affliction. Yes, all Richmond is in tears: children have lost their parents, parents have lost their children. Yesterday a beloved daughter gladdened my heart with her innocent smiles; today she is in Heaven! God gave her to me, and God—yes, it has pleased Almighty God to take her from me. O! Sir, feel for me, and not for me only; arm yourself with fortitude, whilst I discharge the mournful duty of telling you that you have to feel also for yourself. Yes, for it must be told, you also were the father of an amiable daughter, now, like my beloved child, gone to join her mother in heaven.

 How can words represent what one night, one hour of unutterable horror, has done to overwhelm a hundred families with grief and despair. No, Sir, impossible. My eyes beheld last night what no tongue, no pen can describe—horrors that language has no terms to represent.

 Last night we were all at the theater; every family in Richmond, or at least a very large proportion of them, was there—the house was uncommonly full—when, dreadful to relate the scenery took fire, spread rapidly above, ascending in volumes of flame and smoke into the upper part of the building, whence a moment after it descended to force a passage through the pit and boxes. In two minutes the whole audience were enveloped in hot, scorching smoke and flame. The lights were all extinguished by the black and smothering vapor; cries, shrieks, confusion, and despair, succeeded.

moment of inexpressible horror! Nothing I can say, can paint the awful, shocking, maddening scene. The images of both my dear children were before me, but I was removed by an impassable crowd from the dear sufferers. The youngest (with gratitude to Heaven I write it), sprand towards the voice of her papa, reached my assisting hand, and was extricated from the overwhelming mass that soon chocked the passage by the stairs; but no efforts could avail me to reach, or even gain sight of the other; and my dear, dear Margaret, and your sweet Mary, with her companions, Miss Gwathmey and Miss Gatewood, passed together and at once, into a happier world. Judge my feeling by your own, when I found neither they nor my beloved sister appeared upon the stairs. First one, and then another, and another, I helped down; hoping every moment to seize the hand of my dear child, but no, no, I was not destined to have that happiness. O to see so, so many amiable helpless females trying to stretch to me their imploring hands, crying, “save me, save me!” Oh God, eternity cannot banish that spectacle of horror from my recollection. Some friendly unknown hand dragged me from the scene of flames and death, and on gaining the open air, to my infinite consolation, I found my sister had thrown herself from the upper window and was saved—yes, thanks be to God, saved where fifty others in a similar attempt, broke their necks, or were crushed to death  by those who fell on them from the same height. Oh, sir, you can have no idea of the general consternation—the universal grief that pervades this city—but why do I speak of that? I scarcely know what I write to you. Farewell. In Haste and deep affliction.

A List of the Deceased

On the 26th

Margaret Anderson, Adeline Bausman, daughter of Mrs. Bausman, Mrs. Tayloe Braxton, Benjamin Botts and Mrs. Botts, Mary Clay, Sally Convers, Mrs Convert and child, William Cook and daughter, Margaret Copland, C. Coutts, Elvira Coutts, Anne Craig, daughter of Mrs. Adam Craig, Mrs Mary Davis, George Dixon, a youth, Miss Elliott, from N. Kent, Thomas Frazer, a youth, Mrs. Gallego, Gibson, Girardin and son, Robert Greenhow, Gerard, Sally Gatewood, Anne Green, Patsy Griffin, Lieut. James Gibbon, Mrs. He?ron, Ariana Hunter, Mrs. Jerrod, Elizabeth Jacobs, daughter of Joseph Jacobs, Barrach Judah’s child, Mrs. Laforest, Lesslie, Miss Littlepage, Thomas Lecroix, Mrs. Moss, Caprian Marks, wife of Mordecai Marks, Louisa Maye, ?aria Nelson, Mr. Nac?ai, Mrs. Elizabeth Page, Pickit, Charlotte Raphael, Jean Babtiste Rozier, George W. Smith, Governor, William Southgate, Elizabeth Stevenson, Cecelia Trouin, Sophia Trouin, Abraham B. Venable, President of the Bank, Mrs. Thomas Whi?look, Jane Wade, James Waldon, John Welch, a stranger lately from England and Nephew to Sir A., Edward Wanton.

Crushed to Death

Mr. Wm. Brown, Mr. A. Marshal of Wythe, Mrs. Patterson

On the 27th

Miss Juliana Harvie,

On the 28th

Mrs. John Bosher

On the 29th

Mrs. E. J.. Harvie

Jan. 3rd, 1812

Mr. John Shaub

Jan. 18, 1812

Mrs. Scott

John B. Allcock, a youth

 

Sources:

Richmond Enquirer Dec. 27, 1811-Jan 30th, 1812

The American Standard Dec. 27-1811-Jan. 30, 1812

Library of Congress- American Memories

Narratives of Washington and Chesapeake Bay Region

Report of the Committee of Investigation Dec. 30, 1812

A Collection of Fact and Statements, relative to the Fatal Event Which Occurred at the Theater, In Richmond, on the 26th of December 1811

 

 

 

Contact Gynger Cook at oxqzeme688@aol.com or June Shaputis at june@webpanda.com for submissions.
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