December 26, 1811
compiled by Gynger Cook 2002
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
narrated in a letter to M. Clay, Esq., a Representative from Virginia,
dated December 27, 1811.
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.
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.
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.
O 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.
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
John B. Allcock, a youth
Richmond Enquirer Dec. 27,
1811-Jan 30th, 1812
The American Standard Dec.
27-1811-Jan. 30, 1812
Library of Congress- American
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