Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Richmond Theater Fire America's first major loss of life fire

The Richmond Theater Fire
America's first major loss of life fire
Dec 26th, 1811

Building fires were not exactly uncommon back in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and when the church bells started ringing at any time other than Sunday morning it usually meant that a building...or sometimes two or more...were, in firefighting terminology, ‘goin’ good’. Every major city and most small towns in the thirteen colonies burned at least once during our nation's first two hundred or so years of history and any given urban structure fire was very likely to take a few more buildings, or blocks for that matter, with it. Building construction was primarily of wood and open fires were used for heat, light, and cooking, so ignition sources and combustible material was literally everywhere, making it real easy to get a fire started without any even vaguely effective way of stopping it once it got going.

Firefighting apparatus consisted primarily of buckets and even when pumpers were available, they were operated by muscle power and not equal to the task of knocking down a well involved structure fire before it extended to exposures.  Early fire fighters were well aware of their limitations, so early fire scene operations were almost always defensive operations with the on scene crews writing the original fire building off and concentrating on protecting exposures and keeping the fire contained to the building of origin.  The problem with that was that the battle to hold it to the building of origin was often lost before the first cry of fire and toll of the church bell shattered the night's peace and quiet. Then as now, fires that occurred at, say, two AM had a tendency to really get rolling before they were discovered so these early firefighters regularly rolled up on a big, fully involved frame building with fire severely threatening if not extending to exposures on all sides. With nothing but a bunch of buckets and maybe a couple of 60 or so Gallon Per Minute hand pumpers to fight it with they were pretty much screwed from the Git-Go.

But with all of the working fires and major conflagrations that these early firefighters had to contend with there was one thing they’d never had to face...a catastrophic loss of life. From the time John Smith and Company landed on a peninsula on the James River and decided that this'd be a good place to start a new country, there had never been more than a couple of fatalities in any one single building fire, this on the rare occasions that fatalities occurred at all.  There were reasons for this, of course. Back in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries there were only a few venues where large numbers of people would regularly gather in a single building. Theaters and churches were the big two, and through sheer luck none of either had burned when they were packed with people during either a performance or a church service. This long, long stretch of astonishingly good luck came to a sliding, screeching stop on the evening of December 26th, 1811 just about nine miles north of where I'm writing this, at the Richmond Theater on 'H' known as East Broad Richmond, Va.

One of the things that really amazes me about the Richmond Theater fire is the number of people who live in the Richmond area, many of whom who grew up in the Richmond area. who have no clue that it happened. They drive by Monumental Church, built on the site of the theater, and don't know why it was built or about the crypt in the basement. They've never heard the tragic story of Sarah 'Sallie' Conyers and James Gibbon. They don't know about the 72 known fire victims or that they included the sitting Governor of Virginia, Benedict Arnold's lawyer, a former senator who was now president of the city's premiere bank, and members of almost every prominent family in Richmond.

I didn't want this to be just a 'This is when it happened and what happened-the end' type deal (In fact I don't want any of my articles on any of my blogs to be that dry and drab) but I didn't want it to be book length either. That's already been taken care of very ably by Meredith Henne Baker in 'The Richmond Theater Fire-Early America's First Great Disaster' her excellent book on the subject...a book, I might add, that in it's Google Books form provided the bulk of the research for this post. But I had to pick and choose what stories to tell and how to tell them...that's the most difficult yet most enjoyable part of writing about any historic event.

The cover of Meredith Henne Baker's book. This is an excellent book, and the Google Books version provided the bulk of the research for this post. Be warned though...don't start reading unless you have several hours you can dedicate to not putting it down.

First off, the fire was all but inevitable. Richmond had their very own brand new firetrap...The Richmond Theater wasn't but five years old when it burned, and the citizens of Richmond knew it was a fire trap from the first time they took a look inside and gazed at the rough, unfinished looking interior. The Theater was located at 12th Street and 'H' Street,  at the top of the long grade, called Shockoe Hill, that 'H' street climbed as it left Shockoe Bottom and headed for The Capitol. Today Monumental Church, built on the same site in 1814 to memorialize the victims of the fire, is all but surrounded by the Medical College of Va campus of VCU and sits smack dab in the middle of Downtown Richmond. In 1811, however, The Richmond Theater was on the edge of the business district, surrounded by houses, and not all that far from the Richmond-Henrico County line, which I believe was in about the same area as present day Belvidere Street back in those days. The theater was built to replace another structure...a huge converted former private school...that burned in 1802. Ironically one of the features desired in the new theater when it was in the planning stages was for it to be less combustible then the building that it was to replace.

A modern day Google Maps satellite view of Monumental Church...on the site once occupied by The Richmond Theater showing how close the theater was to the capitol. The capitol's left center in the pic, Monumental Church is circled in red in the upper right. Broad Street drops down Shockoe Hill to the right...east. In 1811 the area surrounding the theater would have been primarily residential.  The red dashed line is where I think 12th street ran back in 1811...of course  the streets have been reconfigured quite a few times in 200 years, but if you look the the way 12th street curves and meets up with my line,  you actually get a general idea of how 12th Street possibly used to run. Broad Street, of course, has remained pretty constant over the centuries, pretty much sitting on the same strip of land it's occupied since it was first laid out and cleared. Interesting little factoid about Broad's one of the longest continuous named streets in the U.S.

The new theater opened in 1806 and was what I'll term an 'Open' three story building ninety feet long by fifty feet wide, fronting on 'H' Street. The first floor contained offices, the ticket office, dressing rooms and a green room as well as the auditorium,. There were three exits...the main front door, a side entrance for the cheap seats, which were known as the 'Gallery', and a rear stage door. People weren't entirely clueless about fire safety in 1811, and this lack of exits made the staff and patrons seriously nervous from the git-go, but about the only thing they could do about their concerns was pray that the place never lit off during a performance. Building codes as we know them didn’t exist, and fire safety was not high on the list of considerations when the place was built. Profitability, however, was. The theater was thrown up quick and cheap to get it open quickly and to maximize profits when shows were booked and tickets were sold.

The building's construction was basic...let's make that borderline primitive. Remember, building construction was actually pretty refined by the early 19th century.  The church that would replace the theater was finished only three years later in 1814 and was and still is a beautiful and magnificent building. The Richmond Theater, however, was little more than an oversized brick shed. All four exterior walls were brick but the roof and it's structure, and the entire interior were all wood. The entrance foyer, what we'd call the lobby, was about 12 feet deep with the ticket window and the entrance to the auditorium opposite the main entrance. The foyer had a wooden floor but once you stepped down through an inner door into the auditorium you were standing on a dirt floor. The roof and ceiling...oh wait, there was no ceiling. If you looked up from your seat in the 'pit', in front of the stage and orchestra pit you were looking at the rafters and the unplastered underside of the pine boards that formed the roof...hence my term 'open' three story building. The second and third stories consisted of the box seats which were the most expensive seats in the house. They were arranged in two tiers on either side of the pit and the upper level had painted cloth ceilings suspended above them while the lower level had the same painted cloth tacked or nailed to their wooden ceilings, which were actually the undersides of the level above.

Sadly there are no known period drawings, sketches, paintings, or views of any kind of the interior of the theater, so I'm winging it a bit here. When you stepped down from the foyer onto that dirt floor you were on a semicircular passage that hugged the unplastered brick walls, giving access to the seats in the 'Pit',which were long backless benches rather than separate seats such as we're used to today. The benches ringed the orchestra pit and apparently there was no center aisle. The boxes lined either side of the auditorium and were arranged in two tiers, giving three levels of seating. A narrow single stairway...probably just inside the door from the foyer into the auditorium...wound upward through several landings, emptying into narrow hallways called lobbies on each level. From the sounds of things, and again I'm kind of guessing here, these lobbies paralleled the front wall and emptied into the hallways accessing the boxes through extremely narrow doorways.

 So if you had a box seat on the top level, you stepped down into the auditorium, immediately turned (I'll say left) and started climbing the narrow unenclosed stairway with probably one landing between each level for a total of four flights of stairs. At the landing for the boxes you turned, went through a narrow opening in the half wall that likely separated the long narrow 'lobby', as the corridors were known, from the auditorium and turned either right or left depending on which side of the theater your box was on. Then at the end of that lobby, you turned 90 degrees and went through yet another extremely narrow doorway into another equally narrow 'lobby' that had the doorways to the boxes, which were separated from the lobbies by a half wall, off of it. The seating in the boxes still consisted of backless benches, but the boxes were a bit more plush than the pit and the gallery, with wooden floors, velvet and velor upholstery, and possibly even carpeting. As events would prove, this made them more comfortable and plush but no less dangerous.

Then there was also the gallery, which was probably a low balcony that was very likely situated below the first tier of boxes on one side of the auditorium or the other. This section was reserved for the 'Less Than Reputable' citizens of the time. Free blacks, slaves, prostitutes, the poor, anyone considered to be on the lowest social level sat in the gallery. The gallery had its own outside exit and apparently an outside stairway...or maybe just a high 'stoop'...but what ever form the exit took, it was a feature that would be a lifesaver for its occupants.

The stage was on the opposite end of the theater from the main entrance and  (Guessing again here) along with the dressing rooms, the green room, and the back stage areas the stage probably took up 40 or so of the theater's 90 foot length and it's entire 50 foot width. Scenery was painted in oil on hemp or canvas and scenery flats were stored in the flies above the stage. Lighting was provided by oil lamps, and no mention of a heating system of any kind was made.

Patrons regularly engaged in 'My God, what if this place ever catches on fire' type discussion and on top of that the theater was not thought highly of at all by the actors and companies that performed in the place, many of whom called it 'The absolute worst theater we've ever had to perform in'.  The theater's faults and discussion of its firetrap-like qualities didn't, however, keep the citizens of Richmond and surrounding locales from attending plays there...far from it in fact. Shows were regularly packed and attended by the high end of society and government, as well as the middle and lower class. As long as you could afford the one dollar to three or four dollar Pit or Box tickets...Sixteen to forty-eight or sixty four dollars in today’s money...or the twenty five cents for the gallery…four dollars today… you were welcome to attend.

Richmond had been the capitol of Virginia for about 30 years by 1811, and its population had grown almost 100 percent since 1800, swelling to just under 9800 people. The River City was a busy and bustling little city at any time of the year...being an inland port that allowed merchants and farmers far from the Atlantic Ocean to engage in coastal and international trade as well as a center of Government made Richmond one of the nation’s most important cities in thee late 18th and early 19th centuries...but December of 1811 was a particularly hectic month. The State Legislature was in session and a month or so earlier William Smith had been elected governor to replace James Monroe, who President James Madison had appointed as his new Secretary of State. The opening of the Virginia State Legislature was considered The political event of the year back then, overshadowing even the convening of the U.S. Congress , which was apparently considered all but a non-event back in the day.

The convening of the State Legislature also kicked off the Fall Social Season and on top of that, it was also The Christmas Season…Christmas has always been a big deal in Richmond, and back then Christmas was the highlight of the Fall 'Social Season. Given Richmond's stature and importance in the early 19th Century, The Social Season was a huge deal and was the talk of the country, and definitely of The South. Prominent citizens from all over the State and the South found their way to The River City to politic, make business deals, schmooze, and socialize. The Richmond Theater, with all of it's faults, was a big part of that social scene and was as much a place for the wealthy and powerful to see and be seen as it was a place to watch a play.

They would only have a couple of chances to see or be seen there over Christmas 1811 though, because even as The Social Season got cranked up the theater season was coming to a close as winter kicked in. (Remember this was essentially an unheated building). To end it in grand style, a two bill performance by the well known and popular troupe of Placide and Green was scheduled to be performed. I've read in different sources that it was either a benefit for Alexander Placide...the proceeds of the season's last show going to the owner of the troupe was a common occurrence back then... or as a benefit to assist in the medical bills (Then as now, a major expense) and needs of one of the troupe's own members, the young, lovely, very talented and extremely popular Eliza Poe. She had become very ill a couple of months earlier and sadly she didn't recover from what was probably tuberculosis, passing away on December 8. Equally sadly, this made orphans out of her three young children, all of whom were adopted by prominent families in Richmond. If Mrs Poe's last name sounds familiar, by the way, there's probably a reason. One of her children was a little guy called Eddie whose full name was Edgar Poe. The middle name 'Allen' would be added when he was adopted by the prominent Allen family after his mom's death.

The performance had originally been scheduled for Dec 23rd but Placide and Green was having some personnel problems that forced them to reschedule and the reason for this rescheduling would actually sound pretty familiar today...a popular actor's substance abuse and out of control ego. One of the principle actors in the Troupe, a very famous and much revered British actor named George Frederic Cooke, intentionally missed his carriage from New York to Richmond because he didn't want to interrupt the drinking binge he was in the middle of at the time. This, by the way, was apparently Mr. Cooke’s Standard Operating Procedure. His antics caused Palcide and Green to push the date back to the day after Christmas, hopefully giving him time to ultimately arrive sober enough to actually perform.

Cooke's issues didn't seem to hurt ticket sales any in the least. In New York and Philadelphia, fans waited for hours in the freezing cold, bundled in blankets and heavy coats, waiting for ticket offices to open in order to grab tickets so they could see Cooke perform. Much the same thing happened in Richmond, where 648 tickets were sold...598 Pit and Box tickets, 80 of which were children's tickets and 50 gallery tickets. The house was packed and the double bill was to be kicked off by a performance of the play 'The Father, or Family Feuds', followed by a the premiere performance of a pantomime called 'Raymond and Agnes, or The Bleeding Nun', with an exhibition of music and dance that likely served as the intermission in between the two feature performances. Both plays were highly anticipated. Governor Smith and his family showed up as did Abraham Venable...former congressman and then-current President of The Bank of Virginia...and attorney Benjamin Botts who had been the lead defense council in Benedict Arnold's treason trial. Prominent Richmond physician Dr James McCaw was there with his sister. He and his sister would both play a part in the events to follow.

The young people of Richmond saw it as a reason to socialize with their peer group and showed up in groups. The very lovely and popular Sallie Conyers and her Beau, Navy Lt. James Gibbon were there, but not together as they were in the middle of a minor tiff that evening. Sallie's BFF/cousin Caroline Homassel was also there at the request, urging, and good natured near coercion of her cousin and friends. Caroline had been in a deep funk for over a year due to the death of her fiance, Alfred Madison, the nephew of  then sitting President James Madison, and Sallie and several of her friends had urged her to go with them in an effort to cheer her up.. The group occupied Box 8, near the stage and I believe on the west side of the building. Also among Box 8's spirited group of young people were Lucy Madison...James Madison's niece and the late Alfred Madison's brother...and another young lady named Maria Mayo. They were accompanied by, among several others, Sallie's adoptive parents and Caroline's adoptive uncle and aunt...Joseph and Mary Gallego, owners of the internationally renowned Gallego Mills. Joseph Gallego's business partner John Richard...who had adopted Caroline, who was his niece when she was orphaned was there as well along with his wife, Mary Richard.
Pretty, sweet, popular and beloved by all of her friends and family

U.S. Navy Lieutenant James Gibbon...Sallie Conyer's fiancee'

I can only imagine that a couple of things haven't changed in a bit over two hundred years. The girls were all giggling and scoping out the young men who had attended, referring to them, I'm sure, using whatever the 1811 term for 'Cute Guys' was. They were probably also cracking jokes and cutting up cutely in a attempt to get a smile out of Caroline. Sallie Conyers pointedly ignored Jim Gibbon as only a ticked off teenage girl can as he attempted to talk to her from an adjacent box. The Gallegos  and the Richards gamely and bravely waded head on into the task of keeping a bunch of teenagers in line. Ben Botts and Abe Venable likely discussed current events and such with the Gallegos and Dr Phillip Thornton, who was deeply in love with Caroline Homassel who in turn regularly ignored his professions of that love.

The first play went off without a hitch...the managers of the troupe apparently managed to keep Cooke sober...and the crowd loved it. Then came the musical interlude between plays...then the theater goers regained their seats for the pantomime. All went well until the beginning of the pantomime's second act. A change of scene was made and part of the change was the hoisting of a chandelier, used to illuminate a scene in the first act but unneeded in the second, up into the flies above the stage. This chandelier utilized a pair of oil lamps and was hoisted up into the flies with a rope and pulley system that probably used a pair of pulleys, one behind and several feet from the other so those hoisting and lowering it could remain out of sight, back stage. There had been complaints about the pulleys jamming up during rehearsals but either the carpenters couldn't get it to jam when they looked at it or nothing at all was done about the complaints in the first place. Whichever the case, the performance began with the pulleys unrepaired.

Scene changes during a play have been a breed of controlled chaos dating back to the time of Shakespeare and this scene change was no different. In their haste to get the scenery switched out without delaying the performance, the stage hands only extinguished one of the chandelier's lamps. The young stagehand who hoisted it up into the flies...a sixteen year old boy...didn't notice that the lamp was still burning as he hoisted it and tied it off, leaving it hanging about 15 feet below the roof. Several minutes later as the curtain was about to raise on the pantomime's second act, the property manager gazed up into the flies, spotted the still flickering lamp hanging among all that flammable scenery, and went wide eyed. He grabbed the chief carpenter, pointed at the still burning lamp, likely very colorfully commented on same, and told him to get the damn thing back down and extinguish it. The Chief carpenter grabbed an assistant; they untied the rope and started lowering the chandelier. The property manager, probably seeing the chandelier being lowered and assuming it was being taken care of, went to see that the rest of the scenery change was progressing smoothly.

At some point while the chandelier  was being lowered the rope did the exact same thing it had done during very likely jumped one of the pulleys, became tangled, and jammed. A variety of people tried to get it to move, yanking and tugging and probably cursing it, in the process only managing to get the chandelier to start a circular oscillation that became wider with every frustrated tug on the rope. There were thirty four scenes stored up in the flies, all of them made of oil painted hemp and canvas. Every swing of the chandelier brought it a little closer to the scenes until finally the inevitable happened...the chandelier managed to swing up against one of the scenes with the still burning lamp turned towards the stored scenery flats when it did so.

The fire wasn't big at first, just a small flickering at the bottom edge of the scenery flat. But the flats were highly flammable and hung vertically and it didn't take but a couple of seconds for the small flame to start rolling upward along the painted canvas scene as the stage crew watched in horror-struck fascination. Back then in-building fire protection equipment consisted, at best, of sand or water buckets if it existed at all. The presence or absence of either in The Richmond Theater that night was a moot point because there was absolutely no way to get an effective amount of water up to the burning scene.

A few seconds into the fire someone bolted  up the steps to the carpenter's gallery back stage, probably taking them two at a time, and started yanking ropes loose and dropping scenes to the floor backstage hoping to drop the burning scene, but it was beyond too late. The flames shot up the burning flat, lancing upwards towards the unprotected, resin coated pine boards that formed the roof while quickly spreading to the flats on either side of the burning scene, then in domino fashion to the other stored scenery boards as well. Flames rolled up against the unprotected underside of the roof, just six feet above the stored flats, and began funneling along the inverted 'V' formed by the peak. The crew in the carpenter’s gallery had dropped several of the flats, but it was too little too late and they then did the only thing they could do as smoke and heat banked down around them…fled back down the steps, and out through the stage door.

The curtains separating the backstage area and the stage hid the fire from the audience for the first few…very few…minutes as the second act started and the actors took their places, hit their marks, and began reciting lines. The audience assumed that the sparks and bits of lazily burning cloth falling from above was part of the very action packed and, for that time, special effect filled performance. The actors, of course, knew the burning cloth had nothing to do with the play and looked up. Eyes widened as they spotted the flames rolling through the stored scenes and along the underside of the roof, and one of them, Hopkins Robinson, blurted ‘Fire!' (Some sources have him saying 'The house is on fire!')

The audience realized this wasn't a line in the play and a general murmuring and jostling began, then quickly became the early stages of panic as much of the crowd bolted for the single exit. Robinson tried to assure them that it was a minor problem in an effort to prevent a panic even as he heard the scurrying back stage and felt the radiant heat from above, but it was already too late. He probably hadn’t even needed to blurt ‘Fire!’… If the falling sparks and swatches of burning scenery cloth didn’t clue the audience in, the smoke starting to hug the roof, then flames rolling up and along the underside of the roof over the stage and backstage area did, and everyone in the theater made a mad rush for the exit. Within a minute or so after Robinson spotted the fire there was already a crush in the lobbies and a glance back stage told him all he needed to know...several of the flaming scenery flats had fallen and the entire backstage area was rolling, hissing, and crackling with fire. The 648 people in the theater suddenly became one panicked, screaming, terrified moving mass with nothing but survival on their minds.

The people in the gallery had the easiest time of it...they had their own private entrance/exit (Ironically, something that would be reserved for only the wealthiest theater-goers only a few decades in the future.) All fifty of the gallery's occupants made it out with no problem at all.

The theater's construction actually gave the patrons in the pit an advantage for the first couple of minutes of the fire...the building's open interior with no ceiling and the roof boards probably between thirty and forty feet above their heads kept most of the heat and smoke high above them for the first several minutes of the fire and the great majority of those in the pit made their way around the semicircular dirt passage to the front doors and made it out, even though the two fleeing throngs coming from either side of the theater had to merge and make it through the doorway to the foyer before they made it outside.  This mass exodus wasn’t orderly by any means. The building was filling with smoke, and the radiant heat from the flames rolling across the underside of the roof made it seem like they were in an oven set on 'broil'…The crowd was shoving and cursing and screaming, as embers fell from the blazing roof like tiny meteors and bounced among them, singing hair and setting clothing on fire, and several of them escaped with burns but the majority of them escaped.

The boxes, however, became an earthbound embodiment of hell. Hopkins Robinson begged some of the people in at least the lower tier of boxes to jump into the pit…it was probably about a fifteen foot drop, definitely a better alternative than being jammed up in the nearly immovable clot of humanity trying to exit the boxes and dying of asphyxiation or burning to death. No one took him up on it though…everyone was focused on getting out the same way they came in. Robinson pleaded with the crowd to at least lower some of the women and kids down to him, doing so until he was almost trapped himself.

This engraving of the fire is the best known and  is the one that is almost always used to illustrate any work or article about it. Interestingly, according to the illustration the theater also included dormers along its roof.

Self preservation kicked in as larger pieces of burning roof streaked floorward and slammed into the dirt floor or clattered off of the now burning stage...he headed for the stage door, then stopped short. Someone had lowered the curtain, as if that would be any barrier at all to the flames, and fire had cooked through the curtain, making it drop in a flaming jumble on the stage…All of the scenery flats had fallen by then, and the back stage was a roiling mass of flame. Fire was beginning to eat it’s way across the wooden stage like a brush fire. The radiant heat had popped sweat beads the size of bullets out on his forehead and every breath was like breathing the air from ten summer days all in one.  No way he was going to make it through the stage door…he turned and made tracks for the front door but found an impenetrable crush of panic had already clotted that exit, so he managed to pull himself to the lower level of boxes and worked his way to a window, which he opened and passed at least a dozen women and children out before jumping himself. He would not be the last to do so.

…As Robinson made his rescues, then escape things were quickly getting desperate in the lobbies. The crowd on both sides had to negotiate the narrow lobby accessing the boxes, turn through a narrow doorway into the front lobby, then the two groups had to meet up and make the turn onto the narrow, winding stairway, then navigate the three landings between them and the floor of the pit. On top of this there were two levels of boxes, so the group from the second level jammed the crowd from the third level up as they tried to enter the stairway, and vice-versa. The fashions of the times even hindered escape. Women’s dresses were voluminous, and men wore long great coats, and several theater goers were brought up short when people behind them stepped on the bottom of their clothing, then kept on coming in a panic-fueled wave. Nasty, choking black smoke that felt like heated acid when it was inhaled banked down and made visibility just this side of nil as families were separated, kids pulled from their mothers, husbands and wives were pulled apart. People who fell…whether from being tripped or overcome by smoke…added to the log jam, and were trampled as the panicked mass surged forward and over anything and anyone unlucky enough to be in their way.

One industrious and extremely lucky group of young boys, all around 12 or so, took advantage of their size and, slaloming through the crowd, scrambled down the steps, and out…but that was definitely in the very early stages of the fire, and definitely the exception rather than the rule. Once the crowd got into the lobbies they moved at about 10 feet per minute, if that fast. From Box 8, right at the stage, that would be about five minutes to just get to the front lobby, another minute or so to the stairway…then they had to get down the stairs and out. They didn’t have half that amount of time.

 Less than five minutes after the fire was first noticed, a rolling mass of flame was roiling and surging along the underside of over half of the roof, advancing towards he semicircular bulls-eye window in the gable end of the building and the radiant heat was literally broiling the trapped occupants. The fire had probably cooked through the roof and vented itself over the stage, but it wasn’t enough of a vent to empty the theater of smoke or heat, and the smoke from burning paints, turpentine, cloth and wood banked down hot and black  and nasty…and when it did so, according to several accounts, it did so instantly. One second visibility was fairly good, the next the temperature skyrocketed as it became black as night. (Note...this was likely when the entire underside of the roof flashed over). Taking in a lungful of it meant instant spasmodic coughing and asphyxiation, trying to peer through it resulted in a painful acidic burning as tears mixed with the smoke and produced a caustic eye-bath.

Some of the occupants tried to find fresh air coming through chinks in the brick wall while someone else noticed…or likely felt…one of the windows next to them , found the latch, and shoved the bottom sash of the double hung window up. It could well have been Hopkins Robinson, or he and one or more people could have gotten the same idea withing a few seconds of each other. The management, trying to keep cold air from rushing in through the shoddily installed windows, had nailed the shutters closed over several of them, so the crowd had to open the window, then force the shutters open before jumping...but window after window was opened, the shutters splintered and forced open, and though each a welcome gush of cold, fresh air poured in as smoke boiled out. Very probably whoever got that first window open yelled something to the effect ‘Hey…go out the windows!!!' People started jumping. And they didn't have much time to jump at the boxes themselves lit off, airflow through the now open windows started drawing the flames straight across the lobbies...and the terrified theater-goers trapped in them.

The stairway got jammed up quickly as smoke and heat banked down from the roof...more and more of the crowd tried to force their way onto and down the steps until the landings were jammed with possibly two or three times as many people as the stairway was designed to support. The inevitable happened early into the fire...the stairway sagged and ripped from its supports, dumping its occupants to the dirt floor of the theater with a resounding crash and rising cloud of dust, accompanied by the terror stricken screams of the people it took with it. A few lucky ones jumped up, uninjured, and made it through the inner and outer doors to the outside. The rest lay injured or dead in a heap. And the people still in the lobbies now only had one way to get out....the windows that people were already cramming through to tumble twenty or thirty feet to the ground.

The church bells started ringing somewhere around 11 pm…First Baptist Church was just east of the theater and its bells were likely the first ones, answered by the other churches in Richmond, bonging out the number for the ward the theater was located in, then a steady clanging. All over Richmond volunteer firefighters did what volunteer firefighters have done for centuries, whether it’s a bell, a house siren, or a pager they’re hearing. First they pricked their ears as those initial clangs sounded, to confirm that’s what they were hearing, then bolted up, grabbed their coats and wraps, kissed spouses and kids goodbye then bolted out the door as their wives told them…probably yelling behind them from the open front door…to be careful as they headed for the fire house.

This picture of an antique 'Hand Tub', as hand pumped engines were called, is from a  muster in Worcester, Mass. and gives a good idea of what volunteer firefighters in Richmond may have had to work with on December 26th, 1811. Photo courtesy of

WorcesterDiversions’s Blog

There’s probably been a fire station in the vicinity of St John’s Church since Richmond’s had fire engines of any description. That’s where RFD Station 1 is now, at 24th and East Broad Streets, catty-corner across from St John’s and I’d be willing to bet that there was one somewhere within sight of the church back then as well. And on that frigid night after Christmas the crew ran up to the station in twos and threes, the bay doors were swung open and the age old question ‘What’ve we got?! was asked as the bells at St John’s bonged urgently in the back ground. The first guys at the station grabbed the drag-ropes for the hand pumper, the later arriving members grabbing the tow ropes for the hose cart…probably a two wheel ‘jumper’ hose reel…and dragged the rigs out and onto H Street, swinging west, their collective breath a fog in the cold night as they headed towards the orange-bottomed column of smoke surging skyward near the top of Shockoe Hill.


The reason Sallie Conyers and James Gibbon were in the middle of a lover's tiff was the dream that Jim Gibbon had the night of those truly weird nightmares that tend to snap you wide awake all sweaty-damp with a severe case of the shakes. Actually she was ticked off at him because of the request that the dream caused him to make. He was restless and uneasy the morning of the 26th and had told Sallie that he couldn't accompany her to dinner at the Mayo's that night. He was asked what was wrong by his mom at breakfast and answered. 'Ok...You will all laugh at me I know, but I have had such a horrible dream that it has depressed me. I dreamt I was standing before a closed door about to enter, but conscious of some nameless horror something told me to keep back. The door slowly opened and I went in and found myself in a large hall dark and empty. After a few steps I saw a man's face standing out of the darkness, illumined by a lurid light.

All else was dark, the man's eyes were fixed on me and I was seized with a horror and a depression I could not shake off."

As the day progressed he probably related this same dream to Sallie. He definitely asked her not to go to the theater a couple of times...once while they were all gathering flowers from the Gallego greenhouse, and again when he showed up at the Mayo's and begged Sallie not to go. He'd also received orders to return to his ship and this would be his last night at home for quite awhile. Sallie likely replied, one eyebrow equally likely inclining in a sarcastically suspicious manner, something to the effect of. 'So let me get this straight...basically you don't want to go to a play...” To which James Gibbon possibly replied “No sweet heart, you see this dream was about a lurid light in a great dark hall...”  Which Sallie could well have effortless returned with “Can it, Navy-Boy. If ya don't want to go to the play, just say so...and besides Some people have taste...the British guy at dinner that kept making eyes at me?? He want's me to go with I will!” and then she tilted her pert turned up nose skyward, twirled as only a girl who's ticked at her beau can, and walked off...leaving Jim Gibbons very likely standing in the Mayos' sitting room and thinking something along the lines of 'OhhhKAAAAAY... what just happened????

Okay, that probably wasn't the exact conversation...but it wouldn't surprise me if it was something to that effect. The intricacies of relationships haven't changed that much over the centuries. James Gibbon at first decided he'd stay home...,after all his fiance' had decided she was going to the play with someone else...then he decided he was going to the theater...after all his fiance' had decided she was going to the play with someone else. Unbeknown to him, of course, Sallie had second thoughts about going. The Gibbons and the Gallegos lived across from each other and Sallie had said as much to his sister when she went across the street to see Sallie as she was getting ready to go. During this same conversation Mrs Gallego took one look at the necklace Sallie had chosen, said 'Sweetheart that does NOT go with that dress', and suggested she switch necklaces with Bessie Gibbon. The one she ended up wearing was a gold and jet necklace

James Gibbon got to the play late and went to his parent's box, adjacent to Box 8, and he and Sallie engaged in the aforementioned and age-old game of 'she's ignoring him while not really ignoring him'. At some point the two of them exchanged coy smiles, then he left the theater. Some say it's because he recognized the face he saw in his dream among the actors on stage. It could have also been sheer frustration and aggravation at himself, and the desire not to make a scene by decking the Brit who was at the play with his girlfriend. Whatever the reason, he left, probably during the intermission, and walked towards capitol hill, probably kicking stones and wondering just how he managed to get into this fix...And then the church bells pounded out that first heart stopping 'BONG!!!' that could only mean one thing at almost 11PM on a Thursday night, and he heard cries of 'Fire!' from the direction of the theater...and turned to see the already orange-tinted column of smoke pushing skyward.

When Hopkins Robinson blurted 'fire!', and smoke started pushing from over the curtain, Sallie Conyers immediately jumped up and looked around...not for a way out at first, but for James Gibbon. Her British escort from all accounts apparently bailed out of the building early on, leaving Sallie, Caroline and the rest of the girls with the group of guys and parents who also occupied box 8. Sallie Conyers was already terrified, eyes darting between her friends, the rapidly forming jam-up in the lobby and the flames rolling across the underside of the roof from the stage area, then she inhaled a lungful of smoke and collapsed to the floor, spasmodic coughing racking her small frame. James Gibbon ran hard from capitol Hill and one knows how to this day...fought his way through the panicked mass surging outward through the front door and made it up to the boxes by, I have a feeling, climbing from the pit and jumping over the half-walls between boxes until he reached box 8, then across the half-wall between box and lobby. He found himself either in the narrow lobby near Box 8 or in Box 8 right next to the half-wall with a friend of his, John Lynch. Speculating here, he probably asked Lunch if he'd seen Sallie about the same time they both spotted her on the floor.

Sallie Conyers had just collapsed and the two of them reached over the half-wall separating lobby and box, grasped her and pulled her across, supporting her between them. Near-by Phillip Thornton and Charles Hay were arguing about who would get the also unconscious Caroline Homassel out, and it wouldn't surprise me if someone didn't yell something to the effect of 'For God's sake, quit arguing about it and get the kid outa here!'. Phillip Thornton ended the argument by picking Caroline...who, at only 89 pounds was tiny...up, throwing her over his shoulder, and bulling his way towards the exit only to be brought up short by the jammed up and immobile crowd. Thinking quickly, he side-stepped through the crowd to a window, opened it if it wasn't already open, and lowered her out, holding her by her arms and then hanging as far over as he dared before calling to Richard Hay, who'd made it out on his own, and another man to catch her. After seeing that she was safe, he then made the jump himself. He and Caroline both survived the fire but his coat was burned, showing just how close a call he'd had.

James Gibbon and John Lynch forced their way as far forward as they could, a semi-conscious Sallie Conyers lolling between them. Gibbon took one look at the situation, took Sallie and turned towards John Lynch, saying “Lynch, leave Sally to me, I am strong enough to carry her: She is light and you can save somebody else.” . Lynch nodded towards his friend, and said “God bless you Gibbon, there is the stair,” and then made his way back to Box 8 to see if anyone else was trapped or unconscious. Gibbon tossed Sallie over his shoulder and started working his way towards the stairs. It was the last anyone ever saw of them.

No more than six or seven minutes after the fire was first spotted, the entire underside of the roof was a mass of roiling, rolling flame. It reached the bulls-eye widow set high in the gable end at the front of the theater, licked against it, then blew the window and boiled out and over the crowd like a dragon's tongue, exploding outward for at least a third of the 40 foot distance between the theater and H Street before curving upward from the window and lancing skyward.

The roof over the stage was probably gone by the time the bulls-eye window blew, and the building was well vented, but this actually added another problem or two. The fire rolling beneath the remaining portion of the roof (Probably about from the stage to the front of the building) was free burning with plenty of oxygen and had become even more of a surging, roiling, swelling all but living being. The fire had by now extended to the boxes and their furnishings and started rolling into the lobbies. The second problem was the building's stability...the roof structure was a major portion of the building structure, actually tying the walls together. The theater would become a large pile of burning rubble very soon.

Lynch found Box 8 empty, littered with the items left behind by it's escaping occupants. The boxes were burning now, and the painted canvas ceiling flashed into flames that banked down and rolled just over his head...he made it to a window and bailed out, his hair and coat on fire. He would be assisted by other lucky escapees when he hit the ground...the last to make it out of that window, he'd manage to survive.

Governor Smith made it outside in one piece, then realized to his horror that his family wasn't with him. He probably made a quick circuit of the building, or at least looked around the immediate area, to see if they had made it out, then turned and, like Lt. Gibbon, he bulled his way back inside to look for them. Also like Gibbon, it was the last anyone ever saw of him.


Gilbert Hunt had decided he wasn't going to attend the play...he was an enslaved blacksmith, but he still possibly had the 25 cents that would admit him to the gallery. Instead he decided to make an early night of it. He was always up early-early, laboring in his blacksmith shop, so he really wanted to give himself some more sleep time. It wasn't gonna happen though, and the night would give him his own personal tragedy as well as his own bit of legend. He had just left a church service at the Baptist Church a block or so from the theater, and he glanced at the brightly lit theater before heading for the home of The Mayos', where his wife was kept as a slave. Hunt lived over his owner's blacksmith shop at Franklin Street and Locust Ally but he he was at The Mayos' as much as he was at home, often eating there with his wife as well as being taught to read by Louisa, one of the Mayo girls, who he reportedly loved as if she was one of his own kids.

Photo of Gilbert Hunt, taken in the latter years of his life.

He had gotten to the Mayos' and sat down to dinner when the church bells started their bonging, and almost simultaneously Mrs Mayo was told, probably by someone on the street, that the theater was on fire,. Mrs Mayo ran back into the house screaming that the theater was on fire and that Louisa was inside. This would have been several minutes into the fire, and the church bells now blonging out their alarm in the background, both confirmed and added urgency to the news. She asked him to go see if he could find Louisa, but she probably didn't even have to...Gilbert Hunt literally adored the kid. He was heading back toward H and 12th streets like a shot.

He stopped at the home of a neighbor to ask for a mattress, but the guy wouldn't let him have it. He did spot a ladder though and grabbed it, then beat feet towards the theater. He had no idea where Louisa was as he arrived at the theater, which was all but fully involved by now with most of the windows glowing orange and fire blowing through the opening where the roof had been. One of the shutters on a third floor window was closed, as Gilbert watched it bowed out, then did so again, then splintered open. A head emerged from the window, and Gilbert instantly recognized Dr James McCaw, who was a large, muscular, very husky fellow, as an ominous orange glow appeared behind him.

Dr McCaw likely yelled to Hunt, who laddered the wall and found the ladder too short by a dozen or so feet. Gilbert Hunt wasn't a small man himself and I get the impression that he and Dr McCaw were both pushing the same class of big as the late, awesome actor Michael Clarke Duncan. The two of them quickly came up with a game plan. McCaw straddled the window sill and started passing girls and women out, holding them by their hands, and leaning down to lower them as far as possible before dropping them into Gilbert Hunt's arms. Hunt would catch, then lower each gently to the ground and then turn to catch the next...the two of them worked like an well oiled machine for a good two minutes or so, rescuing at least a dozen women. The last was Dr. McCaw's sister, described as 'A female epitome of the Doctor himself' other words a sizable lady. Even with the doctor holding his sister's hands and stretching as far as he could and Hunt standing right under him she probably still dropped somewhere between 12 and fifteen feet before Hunt caught her, Hunt probably backstep-danced a couple of feet with the impact before falling backwards and to the ground but both he and Miss McCaw jumped back up, uninjured
The fire was breathing down Dr McCaw's neck by now and he turned and made ready to jump, then pushed off from the sill...but his leather 'Sportsman's Gaiter' snagged on a metal projection as he jumped...he turned and hung upside down for heart-topping seconds before the gaiter tore loose and he dropped, likely twisting as he fell so he wouldn't hit head first.

He hit the ground with a thud and lay still, so still that Hunt thought he was dead. Hunt looked up at the wall...with the roof gone it was free standing and swaying drunkenly as flames lit the windows and surged skyward behind it. The doctor, in agonizing pain from what was first thought to be a femur fracture, called to Hunt to get him out of there...Hunt rushed forward and grabbed him under the arms then dragged him clear. probably pulling him towards the Baptist Church he'd left himself not all that long ago. Dr McCaw was the last person known to have made it out of that window and probably one of the last to make it out of the boxes. After making sure McCaw was safe Gilbert Hunt made a lap of the building searching desperately for Louisa Mayo. He'd helped to rescue a dozen women from the fire...sadly Louisa wouldn't be one of them.


Attorney Charles Copland lived less than a block from the theater. He had accompanied four of his brood of nine kids …daughters Margaret and Elizabeth and his eleven and thirteen year old sons William and the theater, but by the time the first play was over, he realized he was beat and wanted nothing more than to be in bed, snoring loudly. He likely asked Margaret...the oldest of the four... if she’d mind watching the other three, then headed for home. He was probably asleep in something under ten minutes…

and awoke what felt like only seconds later to the bonging of every bell in the city, a garish orange light filling his room, and younger daughter Elizabeth pounding up the steps, screaming in horror. His wife…Elizabeth’s step-mom…comforted the girl as he bailed out of the bed, and went pale as he glanced out of the window to see flames roaring through the roof of the theater. Copland yanked on clothes and boots, asked a sobbing Elizabeth about the other three kids to be told she didn’t know where they were, then pounded down the steps and headed for the theater a a dead run. He ran up on throngs coming away from the building, many of them dragging injured theater goers and he checked each group to see if his kids were among them but found no sign of them.

When he got to the blazing structure he saw that the crowd, because of both the radiant heat and the teeter-tottering walls, had backed away from the building, all the way across the 40 or so foot lawn and out into the middle of both 'H' street and 12th street. Copland made the same quick lap of the building that several people had made, probably calling out his kids' names, and still saw no sign of them, so he ran across the lawn, and despite the radiant heat, into the front door, across the as of yet unburned foyer, and into the theater.

As he stepped down onto the auditorium's dirt floor he stepped into a scene straight out of Dante's Inferno. Almost all of the roof was gone by now...either collapsed into the building or burned the smoke and heat was able to vent straight up and out of the theater. The remains of the stage, portions of the collapsed roof structure, and both levels of boxes were burning like torches, lighting up the auditorium floor with an eerie, surreal orange glare. There was little heat or was all venting straight up and out…but there was a very distraught woman wandering towards him. Copland quickly helped her into the foyer and out of the front door, then returned to the interior of the theater. He looked towards the stairs…or where the stairs had been…as he walked back in and saw one of the most horrid sights he had ever or would ever see. A pile of bodies…mostly girls and women and most apparently dead…was intermingled with the splintered and collapsed staircase. Copland quickly kneeled and began searching the pile of humanity for his daughter Margaret…one of the women on the pile held her arms out and moaned…he looked at her hopefully, but it wasn’t his daughter, but it was someone alive.  He quickly lifted her, and carried her out to the front of the building as well, probably lowering her to the ground near the crowd, before returning to the interior of the burning theater a third time. He continued his search of the victims, looking desperately for Margaret. A section of the burning boxes…or maybe part of the wall…fell in with a spark-throwing, fire brand-bouncing crash. Copland likely stood and stared wide-eyed at the area of the collapse for a couple of seconds, realizing that the theater was in it’s final death throes. He looked down at the pile of victims one last time. He hadn’t found Margaret or his 11 and 13 year old sons William and Robert, and the building was beginning to come apart around him. He turned, heart heavy in his chest and darted back out into the night, running back towards his house in the hope that his children had escaped and made it home. The two boys ended up being safe…Nineteen year old Margaret, however, didn’t make it out.

At least three other men, and possibly more took Copland’s lead and ran into the burning building as well, quickly finding the injured and dying women and dragging several to safety. One of the them… Louis Girardin…had already carried one woman out as he himself escaped and was, like Copland, searching for missing family members. Between the three of them they rescued possibly as many as another half dozen injured victims, and they also witnessed a spectacle that very few others have seen and lived to tell about it…the collapse of a burning building from the inside. As they were getting ready to head out with the last group of women to be rescued the rear wall of the theater folded in on itself and collapsed onto the burning remains of the stage with a  crashing, crumbling thud, likely bringing some of the east and west walls down with it. The collapse shoved a hot billow of heat, smoke, and dust towards the men, chasing them back out through the foyer.  It was a near thing…as they made it to the lobby, the sidewalls folded and followed the rear wall into the ruins. The women they rescued were the last to make it out of the building alive…it was at the absolute most, twenty or so minutes into the fire.


The volunteer firefighters arrived late into the fire, possibly soon enough to assist with the rescues before the building collapsed. At last one engine and possible more were on scene but it's reported that they had little or no effect on the fire at source even noted that they didn't even apply water to it. In my mind they did arrive as the staircase rescues were taking place and went into what would today be known as Rescue's reported by some sources that all of the women at the bottom of the collapsed stairway who were showing any sign of life were removed from the building and several of them ultimately recovered from their injuries. So it's quite possible that as many as six or eight men were shuttling the injured and unconscious women from the inside of the burning building. If this is indeed the case, it could count as the first time a a fairly large number of people were rescued from the interior of a burning building by firefighters who went inside to make the rescues....because I have no doubt that a couple of the guys who went in were members of one of Richmond's volunteer fire companies. Whoever they may have been their efforts, along with those of Hopkins Robinson, Gilbert Hunt, and Dr McCaw prevented this from being an even worse disaster that it was. Were it not for their efforts as well as the efforts of people like Phillip Thornton and  Louis Girardin, who only rescued one other person besides themselves, The Richmond Theater could well have been not only the first mass-fatality fire in America, it could have also been the first with a death toll that hit three figures.

There wasn't anyone left to rescue after the building collapsed, and thanks to the large lot the building was on and the wide streets on two sides, it wasn't threatening any exposures. Its quite possible that the firefighters who were on scene realized that their small engines...I'm guessing the absolute best they could get out of them would have been 60-100 GPM, and that not for an extended period of time...would have absolutely no effect on the fire. Much of the fire was buried under the collapsed walls, and the truck company tools and large capacity engine-powered pumps and master stream devices that could put a dent in such a fire were, even in their most primitive form, several decades in the future. The fire burned itself out.

That well known adrenalin rush had gotten everyone through the first half hour or so of the fire, but once the walls fell in and there was no hope left for those still in the building, there was nothing that could be done until the fire was either extinguished or (As ended up being the case) burned itself out. The fire had killed nearly one full percent of Richmond’s population of about 10,000, so everyone in town knew someone who had either died or been affected by the fire. The psychological toll on those at the scene is unimaginable, especially the families who'd lost loved ones. Unless you've been through something similar...and I never want to go through anything like it, and wouldn't wish it on my worst can only try to imagine what their state of mind was as they stood at the intersection of 12th and H and watched the ruins burn.

The task of investigation and body recovery began as soon as the building stopped smoldering and cooled down enough to allow the investigative teams to enter.. The building was on the ground, and I can only try to imagine having to search the collapsed remains of a masonry walled building without the heavy equipment that we enjoy would have been a back breaking and arduous as well as heartbreaking task. The bodies were almost all burned beyond recognition, and the over-cooked pork odor of burnt flesh was everywhere. Also, the technology to identify bodies in that condition was many decades away. Any such bodies that were positively identified were identified using pieces of jewelry or scraps of clothing that may have survived. Almost all of the dead were from the boxes, which also meant almost all of the dead were from the upper echelon of Richmond Society. This was confirmmed as investigators combed the ruins and found that all of the bodies were on the perimeter of the theater...the majority of them in the area of the stair case, with quite a few more intermingled with the collapsed remains of the boxes and lobbies. Also, the majority of the dead were women, a fact that, even with the number of rescues that were actually made, didn't reflect particularly well on the menfolk of Richmond. The final tally would be 54 women...most of them either teens or mothers of young children...and 18 men. The majority of the men who died did so did trying to rescue loved ones.

One of the most heartbreaking finds was one couple found curled up and embracing. There was a gold and jet necklace found beneath one of the them and a coat button or two intact enough to identify it as U.S.Navy issue was with the other. Sallie Conyers and her beau James Gibbon had been found.

Rumors about the fire's origin started quickly and inevitably, the most prevalent one being that a group of slaves had planned it and burned the theater in an attempt to get rid of as many slave-holders in one fell swoop as possible. A slave uprising had been nipped in the bud in Henrico County only a year or so earlier and such uprisings were definitely not unknown, so the notion was not that far-fetched at all. Except for one thing. With so many eyewitnesses to the fire's start, determining the cause was actually easier for the Richmond Theater Fire investigators than it often is for fire investigators today. The cause was determined almost as soon as the investigation began,. Despite the rumors and fears of a slave uprising, carelessness had been the actual cause of the fire...a theme to be repeated over and over right up to the present day.

Of course one big questioned being posed by both state and city officials and citizens was why so many people became trapped and died. And this question was an easy one fact every one who worked at, performed at and attended plays at the theater had all but predicted such an incident because of the limited number of exits. This was the very factor that the investigative team blamed for the high fatality count. They also noted the theater's narrow passageways, single stairway that choked the panicked crowd up at multiple points, shoddy construction, and lack of any vague nod toward anything even resembling fire safety, as well as panic as factors in the death toll. Sadly all of these factors would rear their ugly heads time and time again at major loss of life fires over the next two centuries.

The group we'd call The Religious Right today went into overdrive...remember the culture was far different in 1811 than it is today and religion played a far, far greater role in the everyday life of the average American citizen than it does now. Generally theater, as well as dance and basically anything that wasn't attending church was considered a sinful activity...the fire was quickly and widely said to be punishment for the sinful ways of both Richmond, (which was pretty much considered the major party town back then), and the nation as a whole.

The citizens of Richmond...and indeed of the nation...believed this theory. In Richmond any type of performance was banned for four months after the fire and it would be 1819 before another theater was built in the city. Of course the biggest bit of proof that Richmonders embraced the theory that the fire was punishment from God Himself still exists today...sitting on the very site of The Richmond Theater.
The two large coffins containing the remains of those who died in the fire were placed in a large brick crypt that sits on the exact spot once occupied by the orchestra pit. I'm assuming that during the period of time between the burial of the victims, and the construction of Memorial Church the crypt acted in and of itself as a memorial of sorts. During that same time period, it was decided by the citizens of Richmond and the city and state governments that a more imposing monument to the victims of the fire was needed.

It quickly became obvious that body recovery was going to be a problem. Again, the majority of the bodies were burned beyond any hope of recognition, and some of them had fallen on top of each other and fused together in the fire, making their removal and identification all but impossible. In fact a good number of the dead were never positively identified and were only identified as fatalities when they didn't return home after the fire. Once as many bodies had been identified as possible, the decision was made to bury all of the bodies on the site. A pair of large mahogany coffins were built and transported to the site, then the bodies were divided into two groups, placed inside the coffins and interred in a large brick crypt that been built at the exact location of the Orchestra pit. I don't think there was any symbolism to that by the way...The orchestra pit,was likely the most open, debris free area in the remains of the theater. From all accounts it's pretty obvious the deceased were buried before the ruins of the theater were entirely cleared.

The original game plan had been to remove the remains from the site and bury them in the city's public cemetery, and that's when the difficulty of removing the remains was realized. The decision to inter the victims at the site of the theater wasn’t actually made until December 28, two days after the fire. The aforementioned brick crypt was constructed to receive the two coffins, the bodies were interred with appropriate dignity, ceremony, and the solemn attendance of a large percentage of the city's population and plans for a fitting monument were being made almost before the funeral attendees made it home. Anyone who has ever worked with any municipal government on anything knows this was not a fast-moving process...again, some things really haven't changed over the last couple of centuries. Quite a few meetings were held over the course of the next several months before the decision to build a church to memorialize the fire victims was made. There was an association actively trying to raise funds to build an Episcopal Church on Shockoe Hill, and the city government joined forces with this group in order to get the church built. This was not just a thrown-together committee by any means by the was chaired by none other than Chief Justice...and long time Richmond resident...John Marshall.

As the Old fella says, committees were formed and meetings were held, and two architects...Benjamin Latrobe and Robert Mills...were commissioned to draft and submit plans. (This, by the way, created it's own bit of controversy that's worthy of it's own, separate story). Robert Mills was the only student taught by a guy named Thomas Jefferson who, among his many other talents, was an excellent architect in his own right. Mills' plans were the ones ultimately selected.

Photo of Monumental Church, taken in the 19th or early 20th Century. Note that Broad Street was cobblestone

Ultimately plans were finalized for the church, the lot cleared, and construction started in the mid or latter part of 1812. Memorial Church was completed in 1814 and consecrated on November 10th 1814. The church was, of course, built around the brick crypt containing the remains of the victims and a large memorial urn, with the victims' names inscribed on the sides of it's pedestal, was commissioned and placed prominently on the South Portico (Facing the street).

Memorial Church was an Episcopal church until 1965 when it was deconsecrated due to declining enrollment and given to the Medical College of Virginia, who in turn passed it on to the Historic Richmond foundation. The church is registered as a Historic Landmark and an extensive restoration was undertaken in 2004. The memorial urn, which was fashioned from marble, and was being damaged severely by modern pollution, was recreated as part of the restoration, with the new monument placed on the South Portico in 2005.

The remains of James Gibbon, Sallie Conyers, Governor Smith, and sixty nine other victims of the fire remain in the brick crypt, beneath the sanctuary of the church, where they were laid to rest just a shade over 200 years ago.


As with any event that occurred a bit over two hundred years ago, the stories of the people involved in The Richmond Theater Fire...and there are many...get muddled with time. There are, for example, at least two versions of where James Gibbon was when the fire started, and several versions of the sequence of events that caused the fire. Some of the differences are minor but significant. So I've poured ever all the versions I could find and, over multiple cups of tea or bottles of Pepsi, tons of munchies, and a tanker load of midnight oil, tried to figure out which is the most logical, and/or how to combine the versions of events so they make sense. Hopefully I've done just that, and done it in a way that's informative and entertaining. Hope everyone enjoyed. And now...for some more bits and pieces.


There was actually a precursor of sorts to the Richmond Theater Fire, in 1727 in Burwell, Cambridgeshire, England. On September 8th of that year, a puppet show arrived in town and performed at a frame barn in the center of the village. As soon as all of the tickets were sold and the barn was filled, the door was closed...and nailed shut to prevent non-paying attendants from entering.
One enterprising individual, using a candle lamp, found a space between boards in the wall, and sat down outside of the building to watch. Unfortunately he also managed to knock the lamp over and into the hay-filled barn. With the doors nailed shut the audience had no means of escape. While there is no mention of the total number in the barn that night it is known that 78 people...fifty one of them children...died in the fire.
As in the Richmond Theater Fire, all of the dead were buried in a mass grave, these in the cemetery at St Mary's Church, on High street. The gravestone is engraved with a broken heart flying on angels' wings and a plaque at the theater site on what's now known as Cuckold's Row, memorializes the tragedy.
From all appearances this was the first large loss of life single-structure fire in history. Locked doors, they locked to deny entrance or exit...are yet another recurring theme in large loss of life structure fires.


Richmond’s population in year before the fire...was 9,735. That would be 2,260 seats shy of a capacity crowd at The Richmond Coliseum today.


While doing research for possible topics for this blog I was amazed as well as saddened at the number of major loss of life incidents that took place in December, a month that should be full of joy  and merrymaking and fellowship. 

All three of the nation's worst theater fires (The Richmond, Brooklyn, and Iroquois theaters in Richmond,Va, Brooklyn, NY, and Chicago, Illinois) occurred during December, in the years 1811, 1876, and 1903 respectively. I counted nineteen major loss of life incidents between 1811 and 2000 in just the US, Canada, and the UK. This is just major loss of life structure fires, by the way....such incidents as major transportation accidents, building collapses, etc aren't counted in that total, though there are a bunch of 'em. 

Granted I didn't go through and count those in the other months...I just went down a couple of pretty inclusive 'Lists of major building fires' and marked all of the December incidents. To be realistic, the total number of incidents is probably fairly evenly distributed among the 12 months, but December is, in my mind, the the most tragic month for any death, much less a catastrophic incident that takes dozens or hundreds of lives.


Another recurring theme that first reared it's ugly head at the Richmond Theater was inward-opening exit doors. Not only was there only one main exit for nearly 600 people (remember, the fifty in the Gallery had their own exit), but that exit door opened inward, as was the norm for all exit doors at that time and for many decades after. This meant when that the panicked crowd got to doors, they tended to hold the doors closed by pressing against them until they either backed away from them or (Most likely) someone outside took them off their hinges. Interestingly this issue wasn't addressed for nearly a century when building codes and fire codes for safe occupancy were finally developed, so hundreds of buildings that were places of public assembly were built with inward opening doors right on up to the beginning of the twentieth century.


If the people trapped in the first tier of boxes had jumped into the pit and made their way out...just as Hopkins Robinson begged them to do...they very likely could have easily made their way out of the building. On top of that, this action would have cut the number of people trying to make it down the stairway in half, giving those in the top level more of a fighting chance. It's even fairly possible that this would have allowed most, if not all of the theater's occupants to escape. Sadly of course, this didn't happen, and seventy-two people lost their lives.


It's amazing how much difference little things can make...plaster for example. Plaster is actually a fairly good fire-stop. It will hold a fire in one area of a building...say one room...for long enough to give the building's occupants some extra breathing room assuming the fire's discovered early enough. It'll also make it more difficult for a fire to extend upwards into the attic. There were some fairly large theaters in the country, several much larger then The Richmond Theater, and one or two of them them had suffered back stage fires that did not destroy the building simply because the walls, and ceilings were plastered. Interestingly, nearly every theater fire of any consequence started in or extended to the same area...the flies above the stage. In the above noted one or two successful attempts at stopping the fire, the plastered ceiling probably kept the fire out of the attic long enough for the stage crew to drop a burning scenery flat ...or flats...onto the floor backstage where it could hopefully be handled by the stage crew wielding water buckets. Had the Richmond Theater had a plastered ceiling this alone would have bought the audience some time. It's even possible that the stage crew would have had time to drop the burning flat and extinguish it as noted above. If not, the fire still wouldn't have extended to and involved the attic and roof anywhere nearly as quickly as it did, and it would have been confined to the back stage area for a bit longer. A plastered ceiling and plastered wall between the auditorium and stage area that extended all of the way up to the ceiling could have bought them as much as another five or so minutes before the flames started running the ceiling over the auditorium. That five minutes could have been literally a life line for quite a few people.


On that same note. if the building had been built with plastered walls and a plastered ceiling, the entire building probably wouldn't have been fully involved in ten or so minutes but the audience still wouldn't have had a huge hunk of time to escape, especially those in the boxes...remember, almost all of the fatalities in the fire occurred in the boxes, in the upper portion of the building where heat and smoke collected first. Then as now, smoke was directly responsible for far more fatalities than fire and there's no guarantee that a properly finished interior would have entirely prevented fatalities or even a high fatality count by a long shot. It definitely would have given them a fighting chance, and would have very likely saved more than a few of the lives that were lost. More exits and stairways...even just separate stairways for the boxes on the east and west side of the building...would have made a tremendous difference. If the stairways had dumped into the foyer with exits directly to the outside...but wait. I'm getting way ahead of myself here...that type of exit technology wouldn't exist for more than a century and a half. And it would exist because of other multiple fatality fires. Even in far better constructed theaters of that era that featured multiple exits it's not only highly possible but highly probable that panic and smoke would cause fatalities should a fire start during a packed performance. This, in fact, would be proven time and time again over the years in far newer, far better constructed and supposedly far safer buildings than the Richmond Theater.


While my description of the events that occurred during the fire is written as if they occurred sequentially, they didn't...many things were going on at the same time. It's hard for anyone to get their mind around just how fast this fire moved, but from all reports it took under ten minuted for the building to become fully involved. The building was probably on the ground about twenty or so minutes after that first scenery flat lit off. Any escapes or rescues that were made from the boxes had to have been made in that first ten minutes, before the fire extended into and fully involved the lobbies. The women who were rescued from inside the building were rescued in the last few minutes before the building collapsed. So it's not only possible but quite probable that Gilbert Hunt and Dr McCaw were finishing up...or even in the middle of...their rescues on the east side of the building while Charles Copland was making his first entry through the front door and James Lynch was bailing out of a window on the west side of the building. Phillip Thornton probably didn't lower Caroline Homassel from the window more than a minute or two before John Lynch bailed out of a window. Hopkins Robinson was probably lowering women and children from a window as James Gibbon ran across H Street and into the theater, and had probably jumped himself before Lt Gibbon made to Box 8. This was a very active, very chaotic, and very fluid fire scene.


Though seventy-two is the officially accepted death toll, the actual death toll was likely even higher. That number only includes the bodies actually found in the ruins of the theater. Several people who made it out with severe burns or other injuries very possibly died from those injuries but weren't counted in the official death toll.


As noted, The City of Richmond immediately banned any and all theater, performing arts performances, dances...any event other than church services...for a period of four months, and it had nothing to do with places of public assembly. Rather, it had to do with the theory that the fire was punishment from God for their sinful ways. Even the fine for violating this order bore this out. Any persons guilty of putting on or attending such an event would be fined $6.66 for each hour that the offending event took place. Me thinks that that figure was not a coincidence.


The option of private burial was given to families who had managed to identify deceased family members but for the most part it was declined, and often for much the same reason. One father identified his young daughter, a child of about twelve or thirteen who attended the play with several of her friends, by some trinkets or jewelry that she had been wearing. When asked if he'd like a private burial for her he declined, noting that she was found huddled and embracing her young friends, and that burying her with them would allow them to be together for eternity. The other parents apparently agreed. That's the kind of story that puts your heart in a shop vise and tightens it down about ten turns.


Ok, if anyone is as confused as I was for a bit about whether Sallie Conyers and Caroline Homassel were actually cousins, and who was whose adoptive parents...both girls were orphaned at a young age, and went to live with their uncles...Sallie Conyers was adopted by her uncle, Joseph Gallego, and Caroline Homassel was adopted by her uncle John Richard. As Joseph Gallego and John Richard were both close friends and business partners, the girls became not only close friends but best friends at an early age. While they considered themselves first cousins (And considered each others adoptive parents their aunt and uncle) they weren't actually blood relatives. My source on this was Meredith Henne Baker's book on the subject, which I consider the definitive work on the fire, those involved, and Richmond as it was in 1811.


Not only did Joseph Gallego loose his niece/adopted daughter Sallie Conyers in the fire, his wife Mary also perished in the blaze, They had made it to the stairwell and she had just gotten on the top landing when the staircase collapsed, taking her with it. Joseph Gallego made it out of a window with a broken leg, wrenched ankle and a shattered heart.


Caroline's adoptive dad John Richard also had to jump for it, and also broke his leg in the fact he suffered a compound femur fracture. Both he and Joseph Gallego were rendered lame for life by their injuries. The Richards' home became sort of it's own little hospital with, counting John Richard, four people on the mend in that one house. John Richard suffered the worst injuries by far. His wife Mary dislocated an ankle when she jumped, Lucy Madison dislocated her wrist, and another Richard niece, Rosanna Dixon, made it out with numerous cuts and bruises. Sadly Rosanna's brother George didn't make it out.


After the fire, Dr Phillip Thornton was a very busy man, attending to multiple patients who had been injured in the fire...It's said that he kept three horses at the ready to handle the number of house calls he had to make on a weekly, and even daily basis. One of his patients was Caroline Homassel's adoptive dad John Richard, who suffered a femur fracture when he jumped. Caroline's heart warmed to him during Richard's much so that she finally accepted his marriage proposal and married him on April 25th, 1812, just a day shy of four months after the fire. Several of her bridesmaids were either fellow Box 8 survivors, or related to a fire victim. They included Betsy Gibbon (James Gibbon's sister) Maria Mayo, and Lucy Madison (Her late fiances' sister). Dearly and deeply missed...both then and throughout their lives...was this crew's popular, pretty, and much loved 'Queen Bee'...Sally Conyers. Many years later Caroline wrote a letter to her grandchildren about the fire and her escape from it, as well as her life afterward. This letter is considered one of the best first hand accounts of the blaze in existence. She would live to the age of 80, passing away in 1876. Ironically The Brooklyn Theater Fire...the country's next, and even worse, major theater fire...occurred that same year.


As noted above, one of the better first hand accounts of the fire came form Caroline Homassel, years after the fire. One thing she did not include is a story that got circulated about her rescue and was included...with appropriate Ripley's Believe It or Not. In fact her account, if you read it carefully, discounts the more fanciful story very handily. As the Ripley's story goes, Caroline had long hair and Phil Thornton lowered her from the window by her hair rather than by her arms. First, it would have actually taken longer to get set up to lower her by her hair than by her arms and they didn't have time to get fancy. Second...Caroline's first person account sinks that story for once and for all. She relates looking down as her soon to be husband lowered her out the window and seeing people who had jumped lying injured and possibly dead on the ground. If you have long hair try something. Stand in front of someone taller than you and just have them lightly grab a knot of hair at the top of your head as if they're lowering you. NOW. Try to look down. Can't do it. Phil Thornton lowered his beloved by her hands, with her back towards the theater wall.


Gilbert Hunt was very much considered a hero after the fire, and he was very much revered by the citizens of Richmond. Hunt, who was born a slave in King William in 1780, bought his freedom in 1829 and died well respected, well educated, and free in 1863, at the age of 83. In his last years of his life he had fallen on hard times financially. Phillip Barrett wrote a book about him in 1859, entitled 'The City Blacksmith' with the profits from it's sale going to him to assist him financially. Following is a link to the full text of the book:


The Richmond Theater wasn't the only major fire Gilbert Hunt made rescues at, by the way. He also pulled several inmates out when the State Penitentiary burned in 1823. According the the above referenced book as well as other references, Gilbert Hunt was also a volunteer firefighter, and active member of one of the city's fire companies at the time of the penitentiary fire. Another interesting fact about him...he was a member of the church where he attended services the night of the theater fire...First Baptist Church...for fifty years.


Gilbert Hunt was from all reports not only a volunteer fire fighter, but a very active volunteer who was also very good at it, given the technology and tools the guys had to work with at the time. He lived long enough to see Richmond get a fully paid fire department, and to see horse drawn steamers replace volunteer staffed hand pumpers. I believe he also lived long enough to see the city put a telegraphic alarm system in...the corner street boxes that were so common just a few decades ago. Trust me on this next statement...once you become a firefighter, or get involved in the fire service in any way it gets in your blood and stays there. I can't help but think that he looked at the alarm boxes, (Yes, for many decades there was a box at 12th and Broad), new steamers that could deliver six or so hundred gallons a minute through multiple hose lines, and fast response times (Those horse drawn steamers, hose wagons and aerial ladders were often out of the house thirty seconds after the bell hit) and thought back to a December night in 1811, thinking 'If only...'


Monumental Church was originally designed with a bell tower and steeple, but these features were never built. Also, originally the interior was to include a mural of Richmond rising from the ashes...another feature that never happened.

Monumental Church as it would have appeared with the steeple that was originally part of the building's design In fact., looking at this artists rendition of the chgurch, and the church as it was actually built, numerous changes were nmade to the original design.

The crypt containing the remains of the theater fire victims is brick, and was probably built when the victims were interred and likely before the site was completely cleared of debris....that debris including the bricks from the collapsed walls. While there is no way to confirm it, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the bricks used to build the crypt were recycled from what was available on site...the bricks from the collapsed walls of the theater. 

*While the church was deconsecrated in 1965 and no longer hosts a congregation, it's still available for use  for weddings and other similar events. While researching this post I ran up on some pics of a wedding that took place in the building, and it's truly beautiful inside.


While The Richmond Theater Fire and the May 27th, 1875 Fire at Precious Blood Church , in Holyoke Ma, were separated by sixty-three years and involved two buildings built for entirely different purposes using completely different construction methods, the two fires have so many parallels that it's almost eerie.

Lets look at the two buildings first.

Ok, admittedly, there were lots of differences. The theater was brick with wood framing and roof structure, and had fewer exits, while the church was all frame, had, for that era, a decent number of exits, and was far better built than the theater. Despite being slightly smaller than the the theater, Precious Blood also had a larger seating capacity because more of it's square footage was dedicated to seating, both in the main portion of the sanctuary and in the gallery.  The Richmond Theater had a dirt floor, where the church had a conventional wooden floor.

There were, however lots of similarities.

* Both were almost exactly the same size...The Richmond Theater was 90 feet x 50 feet, while Precious Blood Church was 96x46., or 4500 square feet Vs 4416 square feet, making the theater larger by 84 square feet...about the size of a very small bedroom.

*Neither building had a ceiling,  leaving the underside of the roof decking and the rafters exposed.

*Both featured additional seating in a three sided gallery above the main floor that was accessed by a single stairway. There were differences in the how the galleries were configured...The theater had two levels of box seating on two sides with the third side, at the front, dedicated to the stairway and 'lobbies' leading to the boxes, while the church featured conventional pews on all three sides of it's single level gallery, with seating sharing space with the stairway and access paths on the third side. Having conventional pews on three sides is what gave Precious Blood more seating capacity than the theater despite having only a single level of gallery seating.

*Both buildings required occupants of the gallery seating to navigate a narrow winding pathway in order to access the stairway. In fact, bad as the Richmond Theater was, the church may have been even worse in this respect. Take a look at the church floor plan again...around 400 people had to make those multiple turns to get to the stairway, then had to make that hard right inside the mini-vestibule at the top of the steps. Of course, that became a mute point when the group coming off of the stairs and the group coming out of the main sanctuary met in the east exit vestibule, because once the jam-up became gridlocked there, no one could move. Horrible as the death toll was, it's actually a bit of a miracle that it wasn't even higher.

Now lets look at the fires. There were even more similarities there.

*The death tolls in the two fires were almost identical...Seventy-two died in the Richmond Theater Fire, seventy-four at Precious Blood Church

* Both first started high up on the left rear portion of the building among a heavy concentration of combustibles.

*Both fires accessed the roof structure quickly due to the lack of a ceiling. In the theater the fire got going in scenery storage that was in the flies just beneath the roof, in the church, the fire got going in the vestry alcove, which as at about gallery level and was loaded down with combustibles, then quickly climbed a painted wooden wall up into the roof structure.

*The lack of a ceiling actually gave the occupants of the first levels of both buildings a very little extra breathing room in both fires because the heat and smoke stayed high for an extra couple of minutes...long enough for most of the people in the first levels of both theater and church to exit the building unharmed.

*In both fires the fire ran the inverted 'V' of the roof ridge like it was an inverted gutter, heating the roof structure to flash-over with-in a very few minutes...this in turn heated the gallery to flash over with-in the first ten minutes (Or possibly even less) of the fire. Once this happened, anyone still inside the building was doomed.

*The gallery levels of both buildings became untenable, filling with heat, smoke, and fire very quickly in both fires.

*Windows played a huge part in the survival of those who made it out of the gallery in both fires. But there were a couple of differences here also. The theater's windows were usable for escape and rescue on both sides of the building, but the occupants had to force shutters open before they could use them. The church's windows were immediately accessible..already open, in fact...but were useless on the east side because of the long drop to the ground.

*Rescues were actually made from inside both buildings, and in both cases those rescued were found just inside the front door at the foot of the stairway.

*Both buildings burned fast and were on the ground in well under a half hour. I believe the theater stayed standing...more or less...for a bit longer than the church simply because it had masonry walls, which stood, unsupported for a bit while the church, being all frame, just, well...burned.

*In both fires almost all of the bodies were found at the foot of the stairway and near the exterior walls...the areas where the balconies/galleries collapsed.

***LINKS*** The all but inevitable Wikipedia page on the fire. Home page of the Historic Richmond Society...A society whose goal, mission, and love is preserving historic sites in The River City, and the stories behind them. A truly awesome bunch of people. Website dedicated to Meredith Henne Baker's book 'The Richmond Theater Fire. Early America's First Great Disaster Google Books page and preview on the excellent book by Meredith Henne Baker about the fire, and about Virginia and Richmond society, politics, and religion as it pertained to the fire. Definitely well worth looking at, and the book is a must for any one interested in Richmond history, Virginia History,the Antebellum era, or fire fighting history. Video of a lecture given on the theater fire and some of it's effects on Richmond and Virginia society by Meredith Henne Baker at the Virginia Historical Society in December 2012. About an hour long, but definitely worth the time to listen to it. Link to The Burning, a short but excellent documentary about the fire. A 'Warp Blog' article about the fire from '19th Century Now...a blog with articles about significant events, written as if they were present day news articles. A really interesting read. A Richmond Magazine article about the theater fire and particularly about Caroline Homassel Thornton's first person account of her escape from the blaze. Very thorough site about Monumental church and it's first rector Richard Channing Moore Photo's of the interior of Monumental Church from The site also has loads of info about All Things Richmond.

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