Walkabout: The Brooklyn Theatre Fire, part 2

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Read Part 1 of this story.

On December 5, 1876, around 11pm, the curtain was rising on the fifth act of the melodrama, The Two Orphans, at the Brooklyn Theatre, located near City Hall, at Johnson and Washington Streets.

Some of the actors and stagehands noticed a small fire, which seemed to have been started by a piece of canvas staging coming in contact with the gas flame of a sidelight, which projected light to the wings and backstage.

The stage manager sent some carpenters to put it out, which they attempted to do by beating the canvas with sticks, and while they were doing that, the curtain went up. (For more on the theatre itself, see Part One.)

Many of the actors were aware of the fire, which they could see from backstage, but didn’t want to panic the audience, so they stayed in character, and proceeded with the play. Meanwhile, the stagehands were still beating the flames, which then started to spread to the rigging lofts above the stage.

Brooklyn Theatre Fire -- Brooklyn History

By this time, smoke, flame, and burning canvas were starting to fall onto the stage, and both actors and audience began to move. Some of the actors tried to calm the audience, and get them to sit down until an orderly exit could be made, and just as it looked as if that would happen, burning wood crashed down on the stage, and everyone panicked and headed for the exits.

Kate Claxton, the actress playing one of the orphans, and her fellow actors, Maude Harrison, H.S. Murdoch, Claude Burroughs and J.B. Studley were trapped on stage, and quickly reasoned that they would not be able to get out by running through the house to the rear exits.

Claxton and Harrison got out through one of the dressing rooms, but Murdoch and Burroughs went back to their dressing rooms to get their street clothes, and were never seen again. Most of the other actors and crew made it out through the back doors before the fire cut that exit off, as the back of the theater was soon a raging inferno.

The head usher ran to the special exit doors designed into the building for this very use, but found the locks rusted shut, as no one ever used the doors. He was finally able to break the locks and open the doors, which led out onto Washington Street, allowing people to escape. It also allowed a new rush of air into the fire, and it grew, fast and strong.

The least crowded section of the theater, the parquet seats, had the easiest access to the exits, and those people were able to exit rather quickly. Unfortunately, the people in the dress circle, on the floor above, had to come down stairs. People crowded the doorways, fell to the ground, or tripped on the stairs.

Brooklyn Theatre Fire -- Brooklyn History

When the police and fire department arrived, they found a mass of humanity struggling to get out with no forward momentum, and they had to extricate people from the pile in order to get them moving out of the building.

As bad as it was for those people in the dress circle, the greatest fatalities took place in the family circle section, far up above in the rafters. As happens in these horrific fires, more people are killed by being crushed, or from smoke inhalation than actually burning to death.

The only exit for the entire area was one stairway that was wider than normal, but long, with severe right angle turns and long passageways before more sets of stairs. As the fire progressed, this section almost immediately filled with smoke, heat, and fire.

In addition to the smoke, the gas lights were going out, making it impossible to see. As people rushed to exit, they fell down stairs, got lost in corridors filled with toxic smoke, or were crushed by people behind them trying to escape the heat and flames.

Many took their chances and jumped from the balconies, trying to get out. The firemen and police did their best to clear the theater, calling for people in the building, and were met by silence. The fire continued to rage, and they withdrew, thinking that most of the people had gotten out.

In the space of half an hour, the fire had gone from a small flame on a piece of canvas to a raging inferno that collapsed the Johnson St side of the building, an event that pulled even more fresh air into the building to feed the fire. By 1AM, the back of the building had collapsed, and the fire started to go out.

The fire chief had long before decided that the building was lost, and concentrated on saving the neighboring structures, including a hotel next door and a police precinct and the post office.

Because the authorities had made a very superficial inquiry as to whether or not most people got out, including in their reasoning, calling out to people, and interviews of survivors, most of whom were too traumatized or injured to provide accurate testimony, there was no immediate list of casualties.

The papers the next day didn’t even mention any. But as they started to go through the rubble and cinders, the bodies and body parts started to appear, and it soon became apparent that this was a disaster of the first magnitude.

The press of the day was much more graphic than we are now, and the descriptions of the dead were horrific. The building had mostly collapsed into the cellar, and as investigators began poking around, the masses of what they thought was rubbish turned out to be hundreds of bodies, broken and burned beyond recognition.

They had been the people trapped in the stairwells when they collapsed, mostly from the family circle. Other bodies were found elsewhere, and some were never found at all. It took days for bodies to be removed, and a warehouse on Adams street was opened to serve as a morgue, although identification of the bodies had to be done by personal belongings, as there was little else left.

In the end, the official death toll was put at 278, but most were sure it actually had risen above 300. Many of the dead were members of the same families, and there were a lot of fatalites who were only teenagers.

The coroner’s investigation came down hard on the theater’s managers, Palmer and Shook. Their overall management of the theater was judged to be shoddy, especially in terms of fire prevention and training of backstage personnel to deal with fires.

The theater itself was taken to task for not having any firewalls between the stage and the audience, or adequate exits for emergencies. The causes of death were determined to be from smoke inhalation, which was determined to have taken place long before the stair collapsed. The people in the stairways never had a chance.

Many of the dead were buried in a mass grave, with a tall monument, in a prominent place in Green-Wood Cemetery.

Brooklyn Theatre Fire -- Brooklyn History

Photo via Wikipedia

On the positive side, the fire finally stirred lawmakers to enact new rules of fire safety in theaters and public places. By the 1880’s, the city fire codes prohibited the use of the backstage area as a workshop storing flammable materials such as paint, wood and canvas. It also advocated wider exits.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the code mandated brick proscenium walls and arches to prevent a fire from spreading to the audience. It also called for fire resistant curtains and self closing fireproof doors.

Most importantly, the new laws made it necessary for each theater to have a fire marshal, whose job it is to check the exits, firewall doors and fire curtains before each performance, and to be on hand to make sure aisles and passageways are kept clear during a performance, both backstage and in the audience.

In 1879, another theater, called Haverly’s Theatre occupied this site, and that was torn down eleven years later for the new Brooklyn Eagle Building, which stood until the entire block was was torn down for Cadman Plaza.

The Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1879 is mostly forgotten, but the laws that protect us in public places are a direct result of that tragedy and the massive loss of life there, and have made us much safer. Next time you are in Cadman Plaza, remember.

Sources: Wikipedia, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, NY TImes, Brooklyn Geneology Report

Brooklyn Theatre Fire -- Brooklyn History

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