Monday, July 24, 2017

The Brooklyn Theater Fire. Brooklyn, N.Y. Dec 5, 1876...America's Fourth Worst Loss Of Life In A Building Fire.

The Brooklyn Theater Fire
December 5th, 1876
 Brooklyn, New York

The Entertainment Industry is not a new invention...not by a long shot. By the late 19th century entertainment was very much a part of the urban life-style and, while no one who attended a play in 1876 could have even dreamed of the technology we take for granted today, many of 'The Industry's' best-loved quirks and features were still already in place by that time, and had been for a century or three. You just had to substitute the word 'play' for the word 'movie'.

Actors and actresses who were worshiped as celebrities? Check.

 Large corporations that owned several theaters, each competing for business? Check.

Plays advertised for months in advance as absolute-mega-hits that you didn't even want to think about missing? Check.

Theater owners, writers, actors, and theater patrons checking out reviews to see how their play's doing/if the play's worth buying tickets to? Check.

Crowds camping out for hours before the box office opened to snag a ticket to the first performance of the latest potential mega-hit? Oh hell yes...that's probably been going on since Shakespeare's time.

Of course, the shows that these crowds camped out to get tickets for 140 or so years ago were the cloth from which all entertainment has been cut and sewn...the stage play. Stage plays have been around for centuries, and many of them were (And indeed, are ) pretty elaborate productions, with logistics that can rival those of an Army battalion on the move. In order to facilitate these productions (And ensure that they can be attended by large enough crowds to be profitable) large, elaborate theaters were built in every major city as well as in many smaller burgs.

Most larger cities could even brag of having a theater district, with several large and well known theaters there-in, and The City of New York was unique in this 1876, New York had two theater districts. Everyone probably already knows where one of those theater districts was. While the name 'Broadway' hadn't been coined yet in 1876, that legendary street was still the main drag of New York's theater district and that area was where most of New York's better known theaters were located...but what about that second theater district?

Ever heard of the City of Brooklyn? 

Back in 1876 the City of New York consisted only of what we know as Manhattan today, and it's cross-river neighbor of Brooklyn was not only an independent city, it was the nation's third largest city.  Among it's other accomplishments, Brooklyn was also making a bit of a name for itself as an alternate destination for the NYC theater crowd. While Brooklyn's first theater didn't open until 1864, by the mid 1870s there were several well known theaters in Brooklyn, most of them clustered around the area of Brooklyn's City Hall and Fulton Street which, conveniently, led to the ferry that crossed the East River River between Brooklyn and New York.

Unfortunately though, when New Yorkers crossed the East River to attend a play in Brooklyn, in their minds they were slumming it. They weren't completely wrong, either, and their opinion had a lot to do with the size and quality of Brooklyn's theaters. 

One of these theaters was the Park theater, located on Adams Street at Fulton Street and managed by the well known husband and wife team of Sarah and Frederick Conway. The Conways had been around the New York and Brooklyn theater scene for a couple of decades, both as managers and performers, and they well knew that theater-goers across the river, in NYC, had a tendency to turn their noses up at the Brooklyn theater scene. The theaters in Brooklyn weren't as large or upscale as their counterparts in NYC, and the performances were reputed to be lower quality as well. The sad thing was, the Conways well knew,  the theaters in Brooklyn...the buildings themselves, at any rate...weren't as nice as those in NYC, and their own Park Theater was a good example.

Brooklyn was actually late in on the 'theater' game...The Park, which opened in 1864, was actually Brooklyn's first theater and was located on the second and third floors of a building that wasn't even originally built as a theater. The biggest problem with the building was that it was way too small.  The first floor was occupied by a couple of retail shops, with the main entrance, lobby, and box-office shoe-horned in between them, and the auditorium, dressing rooms, and stage/backstage areas were all somehow stuffed onto the two remaining floors. 

This not only made any performance there a very cramped affair, it also gave the Park a seating capacity of well fewer than one thousand. This small seating capacity became a major problem if a particularly popular play was being performed, because everyone who wanted to see the play, well, couldn't. This, in turn, had a tendency to eat into potential profits, something, then as now, to be avoided at all costs.

The Conways desperately needed a new theater, and they already had a game-plan under development with that exact goal in mind. In 1869 they approached a group of affluent Brooklyn business owners with the idea of building a truly grand new theater in Brooklyn. The Conways, being veterans of the theater business, knew exactly whet they needed, and apparently had no trouble convincing the men...who had formed a consortium called The Brooklyn Building go along with them, because within a year they were breaking ground for a theater that was intended to out-shine anything on the other side of the East River.

They bought an 'L' shaped lot at Washington and Johnson Streets, only a block from the Park and formerly owned by St John's Episcopal Church, and built a state of the art, 'L' shaped 1600 seat theater building, wrapping it around the already extant Dieter hotel when they did so. Interestingly enough, 'L' shaped theaters such as the Brooklyn Theater were pretty common back then, and like pretty much all of them, the Brooklyn Theater's main entrance, box office, and lobby were in a smaller wing that sat at right angles to the much larger wing containing the auditorium.

An excerpt from a Brooklyn, New York plot map from the mid 1800s, showing the area where the Brooklyn Theater was located...I drew in the approximate footprint of the theater, at Washington and Johnson, and cross-hatched it. Though a couple of the street names have changed and a couple of others have disappeared, the basic street pattern has remained pretty true to this map over the past century and a half or so.

There was a reason that most of Brooklyn's theaters were built in close proximity to Fulton Street, BTW...that thoroughfare was the direct access to the ferries that crossed the East River between New York and Brooklyn before 1883, then to the Brooklyn Bridge after 1883. Using traffic patterns to determine the best location for businesses is not a new thing.

Satellite view of the same area today, with the theater's footprint added in red. You can still easily see the old street pattern, though there have been changes over the last century and a half or so, Washington Street is now Cadman Plaza East, and Fulton Street is now Cadman Plaza West. Floods Alley is long gone, and was probably covered over for most of it's length when the Brooklyn Eagle building was built in 1893. 

In 1957, The Brooklyn Eagle Building, along with the rest of the block, was torn down, and Cadman Plaza, Columbus Park, and the new Kings County Courthouse were built in it's place. The Courthouse and Columbus Park were built over the west end of Myrtle Street, but...look to the right of the Kings County Courthouse...directly east of the Christopher Columbus Statue...and you'll see Myrtle Promenade. If you could look another block or so east, it becomes Myrtle Avenue, on the same footprint Myrtle Street's occupied for a century and a half or more.

 Cadman Plaza West, meanwhile, becomes Old Fulton Street a few blocks north, and still leads to the area where the old ferry landing was located, now part of East River Park.

 The old plot map matches up perfectly with the satellite view, BTW. How perfectly?, You may ask. Scroll down about halfway through the post to find out.

An illustration of the theater's main entrance, on Washington Street, that was included in a period article on an anniversary of the fire. Note that the death toll they list is higher than the historically quoted toll of 278.

 This gives a decent idea of 'The Lay of The Land', so to speak...but it still isn't isn't entirely accurate either. The box office was inside the theater, and the artist (Probably to simplify the process) didn't give the BPD 1st Precinct door to the theater... an entrance. He also compressed the post office...the brick building on the near side of the 1st about a quarter of it's actual size.

Be nice if there was a bit more accurate pic...a photo maybe...

↓Take a look below↓

A period photo of The Brooklyn Theater's' Washington Street entrance from just about the exact same P.O.V as the illustration above.  One of the most prominent features of the theater was it's distinctive mansard roof. This wing contained the main entrance, box office, and lobby and was the shorter and narrower of the  the 'L' shaped theater's two wings. The theater actually wrapped around two sides of the Dieter Hotel, which is the building that's partially obscured by trees on the far side of the theater. The light colored building next door to the theater is the 1st Precinct Police station, while the building on this side of the 1st Precinct is Brooklyn's main post office.

The two tall, narrow sign boards on either side of the main entrance were probably advertisements of coming attractions. The entrance to the ill-fated Family Circle would have been just beyond the signboard furthest from the camera. The second floor of this wing contained the theater's offices, while the third floor contained an apartment for the manager.
The much larger wing that housed the auditorium was behind the Dieter, and fronted on Johnson Street.

The 27' X 40', 3 story lobby wing. with it's distinctive mansard roof, fronted on Washington Street. between the Dieter Hotel and Brooklyn P.D.'s 1st Precinct station. It not only housed the main entrance, lobby and the box office on the first floor, but also housed 
offices on the second floor and an apartment for the manager on the third. There was also a separate entrance for The Family Circle...the highest and least expensive level of well as a private entrance for the offices and apartment off of Washington Street,

The auditorium wing measured 127 'X 70' and fronted on Johnson Street, with the stage door and twenty foot wide scenery doors opening onto Johnson. A narrow street called Flood's Alley bisected the block back then, running between Johnson Street and the no-longer extant Myrtle Street, along the east wall of the theater and behind the 1st Precinct station and Brooklyn's post office, which was two doors down from the theater. A trio of double-doored emergency exits opened onto Flood's from the rear of the lobby, one from the middle of the auditorium, and one from the area of the stage. Keep these emergency exits in mind...they're going to play a pretty big part in what's about to happen.

The theater's 1600 or so seats were situated on three levels, with the ticket prices dropping as you climbed. The ground floor seating...known as the Parquet circle...was the most expensive and seated 600 while the mid-priced Dress Circle...the first balcony...seated 550. The lowest priced seats were located in the Family Circle gallery, which seated 450 and was tucked way up almost into the rafters.

Access to...and, more importantly for our purposes, egress from...the Parquet and Dress Circles was pretty straight-forward, but access to/egress from the Family Circle was  far, far more convoluted.

You could enter or leave the Parquet Circle through any of three doors directly off of the lobby, plus you had all three emergency exits opening out to Flood's Ally...two directly off of the auditorium and the third at the rear of the lobby, beneath the stairway leading up to the Dress circle.

That stairway was at the right rear of the lobby and was seven feet wide with a single landing, featuring a 90 degree turn. (Keep that landing in mind, was about to become an issue). Once you got to the bottom of the steps you had either a straight shot to the main entrance, about 110 feet away, or the exit directly beneath the stairs, maybe fifteen feet away.

 Dress Circle ticket holders also had another alternate exit...a second stairway that descended from the north-east corner of the Dress Circle down to the second... middle...Flood's Alley emergency exit. At least they had that exit available to them as long as it was unlocked. 

So the Parquet and Dress Circles had plenty of exits available to them, all of them pretty direct and easy to navigate.

Access to and egress from the Family Circle, on the other hand, involved a whole series of twists, turns, and stairways. First, The Family Circle had it's own private entrance, a few yards north of the theater's main entrance, as well as it's own box office.

To get to The Family Circle you walked through the Family Circle entrance and down a short hallway, then up a flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs you reached the box office, then turned right into a short corridor that ran above and across the lobby, probably hard by the rear wall of the second floor offices. At the end of this corridor, you turned left, onto another flight of steps, set against the south wall of the theater (Next to the 1st Precinct police station). At the top of this flight of steps you reached a landing, where you turned left, climbed another short flight of steps, then entered a small vestibule and walked through a curtained doorway and into the Family Circle gallery.

 To leave, of course, you simply reversed this process...not that big a deal under normal conditions. If, however, you were trying to keep your family together in rapidly increasing darkness while trying to breathe as the building filled with smoke and heat and everyone around you was panicking, it quickly became a whole 'other ballgame.

A floor plan of the theater's first floor, included with one of the many newspaper articles published after the fire...I added the south stairway, leading to the family circle, as well as the short corridor...above the lobby...that connected the Family Circle's entrance stairway and box office with the south stairway. Almost all of the fatalities were from the Family Circle, and a huge number of them were trapped in that corridor and on the south stairway, and were carried into the basement when the auditorium collapsed, which is why the majority of the bodies were found in a huge pile at the location indicated.

The doors leading from the lobby to the auditorium, as well as the three emergency exits leading out to Flood's Ally are also shown.The private stairway indicated on the plan had an entrance off of Washington Street and led up to the offices and apartment in the lobby wing, and I believe a hallway to theses stairs also opened off of the passage to the dressing rooms Also, note that the passage from the dressing rooms to the box office is noted as an underground passage here, I've also read that it was simply a corridor separated from the auditorium by a conventional plaster wall

For a more detailed look at the lobby, take a look below.

A floor plan of the lobby, again indicating where the majority of the bodies were found, in the basement, after the fire was extinguished. Needless to say, this isn't to scale, but it gives a pretty good illustration of the basic layout. The corridor above the lobby and south (Family Circle) stairway, where hundreds of Family Circle occupants were trapped, were both about the same or so the dress circle stairway. From what I gathered,  The South Stairway had a landing and turn directly above the dress circle stairway.

The one emergency exit that got opened was directly beneath the Dress Circle stairway, which created a problem when many of the occupants of the Parquette Circle (The theater's first level) turned as they entered the lobby and headed for that exit rather then the main exit to Washington Street. This created a massive flow of cross traffic just as the Dress Circle occupants came down the stairs. This prevented the the Dress Circle occupants from getting off of the stairway, stopping movement on the stairs and causing a huge jam and pile up on the stairway landing. This stopped all movement on the stairway, and trapped about half of the Dress Circle occupants on the stairs and in the Dress Circle itself.

Only the fact that  Brooklyn PD's first precinct officers got there very early in the fire and broke this pile up, restoring movement and allowing the Dress Circle evacuation to continue, kept the death toll from being even higher than it already was.

Being state of the 1870s art, the Brooklyn Theater used gas for lighting, both for the building's interior lighting and the stage lighting, such as border lights and foot lights. Each individual foot/border light was surrounded by a wire screen to prevent any combustibles (and indeed, actors) from coming in contact with the gas light's open flame.  The stage lighting was electrically ignited and controlled from a gas table, and could be brightened/dimmed and focused just as electrical lighting could, though not as efficiently, effectively, or, indeed, safely.

Now lets talk about the backstage area. Back then, backdrops and scenes were painted on canvas stretched across light wooden frames, with the scenes for any one given play stored overhead in a huge open attic called the rigging loft and accessed using a system of pulleys and ropes known as a 'Fly system' that allowed each individual scene to be lowered and raised as needed. The entire backstage area was also spanned by a wooden painters bridge, used to paint back drops, and also mounted on a rope-and-pulley system that allowed it to be raised and lowered as needed.

The stage/backstage area was separated from the auditorium by a proscenium arch that wasn't integrated with the structure of the theater but was instead built of plaster over a light-weight wooden frame, The arch also housed a 35 by 50 foot drop curtain...please note that the words 'fireproof' or 'Fire retardant' do not appear anywhere in that description.

Back in the day, back stage areas of theaters were multi-purpose, and not necessarily in a good way. They were used for storage of and construction of backdrops, scenery flats and other scenery, and could and often were used to store and build the scenes for multiple shows. This meant that the area was also loaded down with paints, turpentine, and oils. There's a reason, gang, that almost every theater fire started back stage.

The Conways...who were picked to manage the new theater early on in the planning phase, and who oversaw it's construction...were well aware of just how quickly that backstage area could become an inferno, so they insisted on having a standpipe with fire hose backstage. I don't know if it was a true standpipe with a fire department connection that would allow a pumper to supply the hose line...but there was indeed a dedicated 2 1/2 inch standpipe with several lengths of 2 1/2 inch hose connected to it, and the Conways decreed that it would be properly maintained, remain clear and unobstructed, and that their backstage crew would know how to use it. Once the theater was opened and running, they also required water-filled fire buckets to be located backstage, positioned so that a stage hand never had to go more than ten feet or so to grab one.

While we're at it they also required that the emergency exits remain unlocked, with clear access paths, during a performance, and they absolutely forbade anyone to use a match to light any of the gas-lights. On top of all of this, they lived on site, in the theater's third floor apartment, so they could very literally stay on top of things while drinking their morning coffee.

The Conways were, in fact, a little ahead of their time when it came to fire safety. So, you may ask, with that being the case, how did the Brooklyn Theater become the scene of one of the worst fires in U.S.history?  Read on.

The theater opened on October 2nd, 1871 with a performance of a Lloyd Lytton penned play called Money. Some things haven't changed in 140 years...the new theater was advertised as 'The New Crown Jewel Of Brooklyn Theaters' for months before it opened, and a capacity crowd showed up to check the new venue out. The theater itself got rave reviews...

...But the performances, not so much, and the Conways had a hard time keeping the theater profitable. Much of the reason why may have been Sarah Conway's refusal to book big stars in her productions. She much preferred a cast of stock players who worked with each other all of the time rather than having to change things up every couple of weeks to accommodate the next star performer...and having to pay said big star appropriately big bucks...and this may well have have been both more efficient and less expensive, but it didn't fill seats.

Then as now. people wanted to see stars...and keep in mind that, back then, there were no photo-crammed tabloids, no paparazzi, and the only way people got to actually see the stars they were fans of was to actually see them perform in a play. Also, the use of stock players had a less than stellar effect on both the quality of the performances and, fairly or unfairly, the reviews that The Brooklyn Theater's shows received.

All of this cut into attendance, which had a pretty nasty effect on revenue, so bad that the Conways weren't able to meet the first $18000 annual rent payment (That'd be about $340,000 in today's money.). The theater's owners forgave several thousand dollars of the debt (The Conways, after all, were running the place for them) but that forgiven debt would ultimately come back to bite their kids in the butt, and would, very indirectly, set up the events leading to the fire.

Also, Frederick Conway, who was nearly twice his wife's age, suffered a variety of health problems which took away from Sarah Conway's time to manage the theater. Frederick Conway left New York a couple of years after the theater opened, moving to Manchester Massachusetts, where he passed away on September 6th, 1874, and I have a sneaking suspicion that stress related to The Brooklyn Theater's financial ups and downs had more than a little to do with his failing health.

Sarah Conway continued as manager after he left, and made some changes after his death  She had apparently learned one very important lesson over the last couple of years...One of the first things she did was to hire a new business manager, and give him authority to hire well-known stars to headline plays performed at the theater.  She also gave him authority to contract use of more popular plays and scripts.

One genre of play that was enjoying near-runaway popularity at the time were French plays that had been adapted to the America stage, and two of the masters of this type of adaptation were a pair of gentlemen named Albert Palmer and Sheridan Shook. In what would be one of the more subtle twists of irony in history, one of the first plays to be performed in The Brooklyn Theater after the new business manager was hired was one of Palmer and Shook's more popular plays, named The Two Orphans.

With the new policies and a hit play onstage, The Brooklyn Theater finally began to show a profit, but Sarah Conway didn't get to enjoy it for long at all...she fell ill in April 1875, and died in her apartment at the theater on April 28th.

Oldest Daughter Minnie Conway took over management of the theater (And, apparently, promptly fired the business manager, which turned out to be a really bad decision.). Her goals were to keep the family legacy alive, as well to keep a roof over hers, her sixteen year old sister Lillian's, and her eleven year old brother Frederick Jr's heads, as all still lived in the apartment on the theater's third floor.

Minnie reopened the theater after a short break for her mom's funeral and some business dealings, continuing the performances of The Two Orphans, with her and and Lillian assuming the roles of the titular orphans. They apparently did a pretty decent job with the roles, because the theater remained profitable. There was, however, one major problem...Sarah Conway's creditors rescinded the loan forgiveness and demanded the payment of all back rent.

From what I could gather, when Minnie closed the theater for the season in May of 1875 and announced that they were reopening in the fall, her mom's creditors showed up out of a clear blue sky, saying 'That's absolutely wonderful, and sorry for you loss, but speaking of your mom, we need every red cent she owed us or we're changing the locks on the building...'

Things got for more complicated...not to mention nasty...real quick. Possible shady dealings on the part of the creditors and the holding of scenery for ransom by the Conway kids was involved, with Minnie loosing big at the end of the dealings. The kids also lost their home, but events would prove this to very probably be a blessing in disguise.

Albert Palmer and Sheridan Shook immediately bid on and won a new lease on the theater at a pretty hefty discount. Shook and Palmer were also the owners and proprietors of New York's well known and popular Union Square Theater, and they had their hands in the operation of a couple of other New York houses, so they were basically adding to their chain...and a chain of businesses is always more profitable than a single stand alone business. (That being said, does anyone not think this was their game plan from the second Minnie Conway took over as manager?)

I can just about bet that the Brooklyn Theater's reopening was advertised as that of  'The new and improved  Brooklyn Theater (Or the 1870s version of that much-used claim) and when it did reopen, Shook and Palmer continued the performance of The Two Orphans, this time casting a bonafide star...popular actress Kate the role of the blind orphan Louise. 

This play would run until the close of the 1875/76 season in May of 1876, and it's run would continue when the Theater opened back up in the Fall for the 1876/77 season, though the decision had been made that it's run at the Brooklyn Theater would end midway through the season, in December of 1876.

Kate Claxton

Kate Claxton in her signature role as Louise The Blind Orphan

Of course, when the theater reopened in October of 1875, things started going down-hill. Oh, the theater remained successful and profitable, but Palmer and Shook did something that sadly, still happens to this day. They, very literally, pushed safety into a closet somewhere, and let profit take the forefront. Remember all those fire buckets that were kept filled and spotted around the back stage areas? They were removed...probably after one of them was tripped over and be very likely banished either to the afore-mentioned closet, or possibly the basement. Then the Flood's Alley emergency exits were locked, to prevent freeloaders from getting inside after the show started. The fire hose? It may have still been connected to the standpipe...or it may not have been. And if it was  still connected it may heave still been usable...or it may not have been... 

...And this brings us to the cold Tuesday evening, over a year later, of December 5th, 1876. 

Christmas was fast approaching, and though it wasn't the uber-commercialized holiday we know and love today...that particular beast is very much a 20th century was still very much recognizable as Christmas.  Carols...the beautiful old standards such as 'Silent Night' and 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', and 'Oh Come All Ye Faithful'...drifted out of churches as choirs warmed up. Christmas was already renowned for featuring good food by the ton, and a certain Jolly Old Elf, renowned for his utilization of flying reindeer while filling chimney-hung stockings with treats, was already a much-beloved tradition among the kids.

I have a feeling that, at least in the big theater towns such as New York and Brooklyn, taking the kids to a play was another beloved tradition...especially for the kids, and, in New York and Brooklyn, especially if they were going from one side of the East River to the other. Going out to eat, a moonlight ferry ride, and getting to stay up until the unheard of hour of midnight! What wasn't  to love if you were a kid, especially on a week-night!

This is probably why the Family Circle...the highest and cheapest seats in the theater...ended up being the most crowded part of the theater that evening, with about 400 people queuing at the Family Circle entrance on Washington Street to climb to the second floor box office, pay fifty cents a head, and make their way through the long, winding passage to their seats. Meanwhile, around 250 people bought tickets for a buck and a half, and made their way through the trio of entrances to the Parquet circle while around 360 people ponied up a dollar apiece and climbed the stairs to the Dress Circle.

The Two Orphans was still playing, and was near the end of a long and very successful run. Curtain time was around 7 PM, and everything went just fine up until around 11:15, as preparations were under way for the play's fifth...and final...act. If you've ever been a part of even a high school play you know that scene changes between acts are basically tightly controlled chaos. Multiply that exponentially for a professional stage production. You've got costume changes going on as stage hands hoist old backdrops and lower new ones, and push set pieces into place using long, 'T'-shaped scenery poles.

It's hectic enough when only one play's scenes and backdrops are back stage, but on that particular Tuesday night, there was scenery and stage settings for as many as five different productions stuffed in the theater's backstage area. This made for some very crowded, hectic, and as it turned out, dangerous conditions.

Stage hands were readying a box set...a set with walls and ceiling so it resembles a be pushed on-stage while another group strained at the ropes raising the back-drop for the previous scene into the flies...and that's where things suddenly started going south.

The top right corner of the backdrop probably snagged on something...we'll never know just what...and as it was raised the canvas started tearing, pulling the backdrop crooked as it tore.  More importantly and completely unnoticed, the canvas kept tearing as the backdrop was raised. By the time the backdrop was almost all of the way up into the flies, a strip of painted canvas several inches wide and as long as the backdrop was tall had torn loose to hang downward, it's end still stuck on whatever had snagged it.  Then finally, the stage hands manning the ropes raised the backdrop far enough to yank the end of that strip of canvas free of the snag. And when it yanked loose, it started swinging, describing an airborne arc with each pull of the ropes.

Remember those gas-fired border lights? The ones with the wire cage surrounding them to keep flammable objects away from the flame? That strip of canvas managed to swing right into one of those border lights. On top of that, when it swung into the border light, it also managed to slip through the tiny space between protective cage and wall...right into the flame.

As this was going on, the actors were taking their positions in the box set, which was set up to represent an old boathouse. Kate Claxton, in her signature role as the blind orphan Louise, lay upon a pile of hay as J.B. Studley and H.S. Murdoch found their marks and took their places.  Just out of sight, Mary Ann Farron  and Claude Barrow awaited their cues. Then they glimpsed Stage Manager J.B Thorpe, moving fast...

As you read these next few paragraphs, keep one thing in mid...all of the next several events  happened in the space of a few short minutes. Thorpe spotted the fire at about 11:15, and the final act went for, at the most, five minutes before the panic started at around 11:20. By 11:35, everyone who would make it out alive, had....

A schematic of the theater (Not to scale) that both shows the layout of the building and highlights some key events during the fire. 

 (1) The fire started when a scenery flat snagged on something while being raised into the flies, tearing loose a strip of painted canvas that came into contact with a gas border light. Attempts to extinguish the fire were unsuccessful, as were the actors' attempts to prevent a panic. 

(2) As the fire grew, most of the stage crew escaped through the stage and scenery doors ...these doors are left open, further setting up the disaster. 

(3) The parquet level, with plenty of exits, evacuates in under four minutes, helped along by Thomas Rocheford opening the emergency exit beneath the Dress Circle stairway...the only one of the three emergency exits that would be opened.

 (4) Getting that door open, though, nearly doomed the occupants of the Dress Circle, as cross traffic jammed them up as they came down the steps (Shown in Orange), creating an human log-jam on the stairway landing, and trapping everyone behind it. Only the timely arrival of Brooklyn P.D and B.F.D to break the jam saved them. One group in the Dress Circle tries to use the emergency stairway (Also in orange) and middle emergency exit, but find it locked...they have to climb back into the now smoke filled Dress Circle, and exit down the main stairway. Thankfully the jam-up's been broken by then.

(5) Opening the emergency exit probably sealed the fate of the Family Circle occupants when a cross draft, entering the 20 foot wide scenery doors, shoves the fire, smoke, and heated gasses into the auditorium, where they rise and boil into the Family Circle. Hundreds are trapped in the circuitous stairways and corridors leading form the Family Circle to the exit (Shown in red) where they die.

The canvas probably smoked for a couple of seconds before it lit up, and when it did light off it flared brightly...but it wasn't an inferno just yet. It was just a flickering glimmer, about the size of a man's hand, when stage manager Thorpe spotted it at about 11:15, while in the middle of getting things set for the play's climactic boathouse scene. He probably went saucer eyed as he spotted the small, flickering flame, and hot-footed it across the backstage area, dodging props and soundly cursing whoever decided to remove the fire buckets, which would have made quick work of the still tiny fire. But it wouldn't stay was already grabbing hold of the narrow vertical strip of painted canvas, vertical being the key point. Heat rises, and fire loves to climb.

He yelled for a stage hand and headed for the fire hose, (If it was even actually connected to the standpipe and in serviceable condition in the first place...more on that in 'Notes') probably thinking he'd make quick work of the fire yet until he saw the stack of scenery flats, or possibly a stack of crates, that they'd have to either move or climb over to get to the hose line. That's when he made what just may have been one of the biggest mistakes of the entire night...he abandoned even trying to get the hose in operation, or even trying to get to it...

Instead he spotted stage hands Hamilton Weaver and William Van Sicken, both of whom were holding scenery poles, pointed to the fire, and and told them to 'Try to pull it down!'. By then, the fire was out of the border light's protective cage and going up the hanging strip of canvas with a vengeance, heading for the rigging loft and flies, both packed with vertically-hung scenery flats and both only a dozen or so feet above.

Weaver and Van Sicken started beating at the flames with the scenery poles, only managing to spread it faster as they did so, while Thorpe likely told them to 'Pull it down...pull it down!...

But the poles were meant for pushing rather than snagging and tearing, and in under a minute the fire had reached the scenery flat that the strip had been torn from. Flames hit that vertical slab of painted canvas like a runaway train, tearing across it and attacking the flats on either side. There were literally dozens more canvas scenery flats up there as well...Thorpe knew, when he saw the first flat light off, that the theater was doomed.

Even as Thorpe extorted the two stage hands to 'Pull it down!!..', he signaled for the final act to begin, and the curtain rose on Kate Claxton, Studly, and Murdoch, all of whom had heard the commotion back stage. As they tried to figure out what was going on, Actress Lillian Cleaves, who was standing behind the box set, soto-voiced something to the effect of  'We've got a fire back here, you guys may want to think about getting out of there.....'

But the actors were scared of starting a panic, which they were pretty sure would result if they broke character and announced the fire right then, and which they well knew could be just as deadly as the fire itself, so they tried their best to preserve calm...

All of the actors rolled right into the scene as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on, even though it was becoming more and more obvious to the audience that something was going on, and not something good. The cast, of course, already knew exactly what what was going on, figured it was bad, and had this confirmed for them when Mary Ann Farren made her entrance, recited her lines, then turned and whispered 'It's getting away from them'. Kate, in fact, had already figured that one out...the canvas ceiling of the box set was thin enough to see through, and she could see the burning scenery flats and watch as falling bits of flaming canvas landed on the box set to be swept aside by one of the scenery poles.

When a puff-ball of smoke rolled out from beneath the proscenium arch to hang over the audience like a malicious storm-cloud, the already restive crowd began leaving their seats, some in the rear of the auditorium bailing out of one of the three doors to the lobby. Kate Claxton and the rest of the cast broke character at that point and rushed to the edge of the stage, Kate calling to everyone to keep their seats, that the fire would be under control in a few minutes (There's no way she actually believed this of course...she was just trying to calm the crowd down).

And that's when a burning piece of scenery flat, complete with a piece of flaming wooden frame, fell from the rigging loft, bounced off of the top of the box set, and slid across the stage, straight for Kate, who did a frantic two-step away from the burning debris as it careened into the orchestra pit...and that was all it took.

Even as the actors begged them to stay calm, telling them that they had plenty of time to get out if they remained calm, the audience members on all three levels pretty much bolted, becoming one many legged, many headed creature fighting for survival. The aisles were suddenly and all but instantaneously packed with people, and several patrons...some of them mothers holding their kids...bypassed the jammed-up aisles and climbed from seat to seat to get to one of the three exits out to the lobby. Smoke was now rolling out and up from beneath the proscenium arch to gather at the ceiling, then piling downward as it mushroomed. The building was filling up with smoke fast, and the price of your ticket had a very direct correlation to your likelihood of making it out of the theater alive...

One of two artists renditions, from two different angles, that I found of the actors trying to prevent a panic.

That attempt, though both noble and brave, was less than successful, and the artist absolutely nailed the sense of terrified panic that erupted in the theater, though he may have exaggerated the level of  panic in the parquet circle, if only slightly. The Parquet level, being on the ground floor and having the most exits, actually emptied pretty quickly, in less than four minutes.

The artist also included the burning debris that Kate Claxton had to quick-step away from, though his time-line's off by a few seconds...the panic started in earnest immediately after that happened. Here, the panic is in full-swing as it's falling. I understand why he took this liberty, both adds drama to the pic and explains what did indeed actually happen. This drawing, BTW, is likely the more accurate of the two in illustrating what the interior of the theater looked like.

The second artists rendition, from, I believe, a book on famous disasters from that era. This artist took a lot of liberties here. The decor wasn't quite that grandiose, the building wasn't this heavily involved yet when the cast was trying to calm the crowd, and the balconies were nowhere near this large. The Dress Circle had a capacity of 550, and the Family Circle 450, far smaller than the balcony in this drawing, which looks more like the home-side stands at a college football stadium.

One thing the artist did get right, though, was the fact that the parquet level emptied quickly, while the balconies became scenes of desperate bedlam. 

The actors took one look at the human logjam at the exits and absolutely knew...wrongly in this case...that going out with the crowd would just get them trapped. Of course, they were scary-close to being trapped anyway. The rigging loft and flies were fully involved by then, fire had extended to the stage, the box set was likely burning briskly, and every couple of seconds the stage would shudder as another burning scenery flat slammed down to the floor backstage. The stage crew had already evacuated through both the stage door, and the twenty foot wide scenery doors (Its quite possible, in fact that they tried to save some of the scenery or props stored back stage while they were at it) but it only took one look to convince the four actors that there was no way they'd make it to the stage door.

"Passage between the dressing rooms and the box office!"  Kate Claxton exclaimed, but they had another problem that would lead to the demise of one of their number...their costumes were not designed to be worn outside on a cold late fall evening. Their dressing rooms were in their own passageway on the left side of the backstage area as you faced the stage, and to reach them, according to a couple of sources, they had to go up at least one flights of stairs. All four of them bailed up the already smoke choked stairway, and Murdoch ran towards his dressing room to grab a heavy would be the last any of them saw of him. 

Kate Claxton feared that several of her cast mates were still in their dressing rooms, so she started knocking on dressing room doors, yelling that the theater was on fire and they had to get out now!.  Fellow actress Maude Harrison opened her dressing room door, going wide-eyed when she saw the fog-bank of smoke, and hurried out...she, Mary Farren, and Kate Claxton hauled ass back down the steps, and nearly got lost in the thickening smoke as they searched for the door to the private passage between dressing room hallway and box office. All but blinded and coughing their lungs out, they finally found it, racing down the narrow passageway towards the front of the theater. There was very likely a side passage that led to the private stairway to the offices and apartment, which would have led to an exit out to Washington Street, but it was useless to them because it was probably guarded by a locked door, with only those authorized to use it having a key. 

They didn't even try the door to the stairway passage, knowing it would be locked, but they still had yet another maybe-problem, a big one at that. The door by the box office, Kate knew, was on a spring lock (Probably a dead bolt that needed a key on both sides) and if it was closed, they were trapped...but as they approached the door, Kate was almost gleefully relieved to see it sitting ajar by a couple of inches. The three women hit the door like Notre Dame's Four Horsemen hitting the opposing line, and burst into the throng coming from the parquet circle. They weren't at all bothered by the cold as they stumbled out of the theater's main entrance...

As the cast was struggling to escape, chief usher Thomas Rocheford was hustling. He first tried to calm the panicked throng trying to force their way into the lobby, but only managed to come scary-close to getting trampled to death for his efforts. Then he remembered the emergency exits out to Flood's Alley, the closest of which was diagonally across the lobby, beneath the stairs up to the Dress Circle. Rocheford forced his way out of the panicked mob tumbling through the parquet circle's exits and scrambling towards the main entrance, also managing to avoid the leading edge of the mob tumbling down the Dress Circle stairs as he ducked under the staircase, yelling 'I've got another door!!' as he tugged on the latch...

...Only to find it frozen. Not just locked...frozen by corrosion because the thing had been closed and locked since Palmer and Shook took over the theater well over a year ago. And now a new crush of people, all of them all but insane with panic, was slamming him against the door as he tugged frantically at the latch. They'd be saved by one of those chance occurrences that almost had to have been fate.

A couple of hours earlier, Rocheford had found what sounded, from the description I read, like a mini-prybar, about four or so inches long and sturdy, in the box office as he talked to the ticket-taker. Without even thinking about it, he shoved it into a pocket. He instantly remembered his mini jimmy-bar, yanked it out of his pocket, shoved the chisel end in between the latch and the jam, and heaved on it for all he was worth, face contorted with effort. There was a metallic 'SNLINK! as the latch broke free, but then Roche had to force the inward-swinging doors open against the frantic crowd of people pressing against it and him. 

Somehow he managed to force it open, then did some seriously frantic footwork to avoid being either trampled to death or carried outside as the crowd surged through the door like soda spurting from a just shaken, just opened bottle.

His next thought was the middle of the three emergency exits, about halfway between the lobby and the stage, and serving as a secondary exit for both the Parquet Circle and the Dress Circle. He turned and tried to force his way through the on-rushing crowd and back across the lobby to the nearest Parquet Circle entrance, but probably didn't even make it out from under the stairway before the panicked, rolling human avalanche rolled over him, carrying him with them.  This time they did drag him him through the emergence exit and out to Flood's Ally, where the though 'try to open it from the outside' apparently never occurred to him. The third emergency exit...hard by the stage...was already surrounded by fire and totally inaccessible at that point. If Rocheford had looked towards Johnson Street as he tumbled out of the emergency exit, he would have probably seen an ominous orange glow reflecting off of the fronts of the buildings on the other side of that was already rolling out of the stage door.

The crush of people boiling through the three exits from the Parquet Circle to the lobby thinned out to a trickle, then petered out entirely in something under four minutes from the time Kate Claxton danced away from that falling piece of scenery.  Thanks to it's being the least crowded section of the theater, with plenty of exits into the lobby and two available exits from the building, everyone made out out of the Parquet Circle quickly, and alive.

While Rocheford opening the emergency exit likely saved many of the Parquet Circle's occupants, it  also caused two more problems. First, the crowd coming down from the Dress Circle would, for a critical couple of minutes, run head on into a cross-current of humanity surging across the lobby from the Parquet Circle exits to the Flood's Alley exit, causing a jam on the stairs. And second, that same open door would help set up the event that would ultimately doom almost everyone in the Family Circle.

The 350 or so Dress Circle occupants were further away from the stage than the people in the Parquet Circle, but they were also up close and personal with the heavy smoke that was rolling out from the backstage area, piling up at the ceiling level of the theater, and mushrooming downward to roll into the Family and Dress Circles like a malignant fog-bank. This was some nasty smoke, too...loaded with byproducts of burning turpentine and paint as well as wood and canvas, it was dark, putrid, caustic, and entirely unbreathable, and the Dress Circle crowd nearly trampled each other to death in the balcony as they tried to get away from it, crowding aisles and climbing across seat backs...and each all 350 or so of them tried desperately to get down the stairway at the same time,  panicking just as hard and desperately as the Parquet Circle patrons below them.

This avalanche of humanity tumbled down the seven foot wide Dress Circle stairway like a flood down a spill-way, the leading edge of the crowd somehow making it around around the ninety degree turn at the landing and slamming into and merging with the crowd coming out of the Parquet Circle and heading towards Washington Street. Then Rocheford got the emergency exit opened, and a good half of the Parquet Circle crowd wheeled around and headed for that exit...straight into the panicked mob tumbling down from the Dress Circle.

Movement on the Dress Circle stairway first slowed, then stopped as it pressed against the crush heading for the emergency exit. but those not yet on the stairs were desperate to escape the thickening smoke boiling into the Dress Circle itself, and kept pushing onto the stairway, pushing those on that 90 degree landing either against the wall, or around the turn and down the steps. It was inevitable that a couple of people would fall. Problem was, after these first couple of people fell, more people kept coming, clamoring and climbing over those ahead of them, and while a very few made it through, most just tripped and fell over those already on the floor, then became inextricably stuck as more people climbed over or fell on them  until there was a human log-jam as high as the railing and almost as large as the landing on that stair way.

And then movement in the dress circle just...stopped, and no amount of shoving, pushing, or screaming and cursing could get the crowd moving again. Screams of terror and despair from above them...the Family Circle...just made their situation even more desperate and horrible.  Even as the people still trapped in the Dress Circle just stopped moving, the smoke kept banking down relentlessly, rapidly filling the balcony. A coupe of people remembered the second emergency exit, and the emergency stairway, and they, along with a dozen or so others, rushed through the arched doorway onto the emergency stairs...probably a straight shot down, possibly with a  small 'straight-thru' landing midway...and fell up against the middle emergency exit. And, when they tugged desperately at the latch, they found the exact same thing that Rocheford found at the first emergency exit...the latch was not only locked, but also corroded and frozen tight, and, unlike Rocheford, they didn't have a mini-prybar or any other tool to break it free.

A wall separated the stairway and emergency exit from the Parquet Circle, probably with an archway allowing access from the Parquet circle to the exit, and the very next thought this crew likely had was 'Everyone made it out of the Parquet Circle, we'll just go out of those exits', which seemed like a good plan until the wheeled through the arch, and stopped short, staring at a scene straight out of hell. The stage crew had bailed out of the stage door early in the fire, leaving it wide open and possibly trying to save some of the scenery while they were at it, and the twenty foot wide scenery door was not only open, it was blocked open, by either a crate or a scenery flat.

That big scenery door hanging wide open was bad enough by itself, but it quickly got worse. See, when Rocheford popped that emergency exit open, he also gave the fire just what it needed most.

Fire loves oxygen the way a kid loves candy, and with both doors opened, a brisk cross-draft shoved the fire bodily across the stage and into the auditorium, so when the crew at the middle emergency exit looked out of the arch between the exit and auditorium, they saw what looked like a horizontal volcano. A seething mass of flame had rolled over both the box set and the proscenium arch leaving only burning frames. The fire roared out of the backstage area and boiled upward into the smoke filling the auditorium, lighting the free-space between the bottom of the fast-lowering smoke cloud and the seats in an unholy orange glare straight from hell.  Flames were taking off across the first several rows of seats like a forest fire. The heat was like ten thousand summer days rolled into one...there was absolutely no way they could make it through the auditorium and to the lobby.

They only had one choice...go back up the steps and try to fight their way down the Dress Circle stairway. Their timing, I have a sneaking suspicion, was very possibly the luckiest of the entire night.

Kate Claxton possibly headed directly to the BPD's First Precinct station, next door to the theater, when she made it out of the main entrance, and I have a feeling several of the first people who made it out were right behind her, so it's a toss up as to who was the first to frantically yell...

 'The theater's on fire and there are still people inside!!!!' they rushed through the front doors of the police station.  BPD Sgt John Cain was on duty and in charge of the First Precinct's evening shift, and as soon as he heard 'Fire' and 'People Inside' he grabbed several men, sent one to pull a street box (Or possibly pulled what would be called a 'Building Box' or 'Local Box' today, inside the police station), then hit the front doors of the station at a dead run, hanging a right and bailing down the sidewalk towards the theater's main entrance.

There were several dozen people milling around on the street, but otherwise Sgt Cain was wondering if he and his crew had just gotten pranked. There was absolutely nothing showing from the Washington Street side of the building. But stragglers were still coming out of the open front doors, there was a nasty smell of smoke in the air (Structure fire smoke has a distinctive aroma that you never ever forget once you smell it) and there was yelling and screaming coming from inside the building.  He and his men ran inside (Noticing the haze hanging in the gas lights, which were still on....for now...) and then saw the stairway landing.

People were stacked to the height of the stairway railings and packed tight between railing and wall, covering every square inch of the landing. Building janitor Mike Sweeney was desperately pulling people from the pile, but the panicked crowd kept coming down the stars, and it seemed that three more people would would pile on for every one he pulled off.  Cain and several cops ran up the steps to the landing...glancing in one of the exits from auditorium to lobby to see the mass of flames that used to be the stage while they were at it...and started roughly and quickly yanking people off of the top of the pile and sending them down the steps and towards the main entrance. 

That glance in the auditorium told them they didn't have much time. so, working fast, they untangled the pile from top down, threatening anyone who tried to rush forward with a pummeling-by-nightstick and, probably within a minute or so at the most, got the crowd on the stairway moving again. By the time they heard the thundering hooves and clanging bells announcing the arrival of first due BFD Engine 5 and second due Engine 6, twin floods of frantic people were again pouring from the main and emergency entrances, this time from the Dress Circle. (Sgt Cain strikes me as having a pretty good grasp of what he was doing...I'm willing to bet he and his crew split the crowd, sending them to both exits so as not to create another jam-up).

Smoke and heat were rolling into the Dress Circle balcony as the group who'd gone down to the emergency exit, only to find it locked, hustled back up the steps to the balcony. Smoke was probably banked down almost to the tops of the seat backs, so they probably had to crouch to see where they were going and, more importantly, breath air that wouldn't kill them. as they made their way up the side aisle, between the seats and the east (Flood's Alley) wall, to the main Dress Circle stairway. As they crab walked under the smoke, they noticed two things...first, the gas lights were getting dimmer...far more light was coming from the burning stage than from the lights, and second, and far more importantly at that moment, they weren't running into the back end of the crush of people. In fact, they didn't see anyone else until they got almost to the stairway, and when they ran into the back end of what had been a crush, they were moving, and moving pretty quickly, assisted by both BPD and BFD's guys..

I have a feeling the lights went out for good about the time they got on the stairs, but this ended up being all but a non-issue for them because smoke hadn't mushroomed all the way down to the first floor yet (And fire may have cooked through the roof over the stage by then, venting the building, and actually pulling some of the smoke out of the theater) and the eerie, flaring orange glow issuing from the three exits from the parquet circle was lighting the lobby up all the way to the box office. Thanks to Brooklyn PD's First Precinct officers, Brooklyn FD, and more than a little luck, everyone in the Dress Circle made it out. Our intrepid crew who had to fight their way back into and through the smoke-filled hell that was the Dress Circle were very possibly the luckiest ones of the bunch.

BFD started arriving in force at about 11:22PM...about the same time the crush broke and people started moving again and soon enough for some of the first arriving firefighters to assist with the final bit of the Dress Circle evacuation. Brooklyn's fire department had been a  paid department since 1869 and I have a feeling, just from things I read while researching this one, that as of Dec 5th, 1878, they didn't yet have gongs in the stations. They probably had citywide bells in several locations...possibly even at the stations...with the street boxes kicking in mechanical bell ringers that sounded the box number on bells that could be heard city-wide.

However the guys were alerted, everyone other than the firefighters on 'House Watch'  were probably in bed when the bells started banging out a box number right around 11:20 PM. In a tradition that lasted in one form or the other for a century or more in Brooklyn and the FDNY, the house-watch man at, say, Engine 5, counted the bell strokes, determined that they were due on the box, quick-walked to the side of the foot of the stairs and shouted the box number, followed by something like:

   'First Precinct, Building Box, First Due on da box!!!

He was at the side of the stairs because the guys were already pounding down the steps to the apparatus floor...most if not all firefighters knew the boxes they were due on by heart...and the iconic fireman's pole wouldn't be introduced for nearly another decade, so a night time run meant a scramble down the stairs to the rigs.

This was taking place in probably four stations...Engines 5, 6, and 8 and ladder 3. As the bells bonged into the night firefighters dropped harnesses on well-trained horses who had already trotted into position by the time the crews got down stairs.  Burning tapers were tossed into oily waste in a trio of fire boxes as the horses, as eager to go as the firefighters, pawed cobblestone floors while
drivers and officers mounted seats and firefighters mounted hose wagons and back steps, A quick flick of the reins as the officer called 'GO!, and they were rolling.

First due Engine 5 had a short run...the theater was only about a third of a mile from their station on Pierrepont St, less than a five minute run even in the horse-drawn era... so all they had to do was hang a right coming out of the station, go a couple of hundred feet, hang a left on Fulton Street (Cadman Plaza West today), go north for less than a block, and swing right on Johnson just a half block or so shy of Washington Street. 

The satellite image of Cadman Plaza (Washington Street) and Johnson Street today, with the 19th Century plot map overlaid...the crosshatched area indicated the theater's former footprint. As I noted earlier in the posts, the street grid still matches up perfectly, save for Myrtle Street, which no longer exists in the area of Cadman Plaza. Look directly to the east of Myrtle Street on the overlay, though, and you'l see Myrtle Promenade, which becomes Myrtle Ave.

I've also indicated the locations and distances from the theater of the Brooklyn Fire department stations that existed at the time. Brooklyn Engine 5 was literally just around the corner from the theater, on Pierrepont Street...Only about a third of a mile away. Even in the horse drawn era, they had only about a two or three minute response time. Engines 6 and 8 were almost as close, located 4/10s and 6/10s of a mile away respectively.

In that era, the entire block containing the theater was packed with three and four story buildings, while frame houses were both hard by and directly across both Johnson Street and Floods Ally from the theater. The theater in fact, surrounded the Dieter Hotel...BFD's guys did an awesome job holding the fire to the building of origin. Keep in mind that, for the first several hours of the operation, they though just about everyone had gotten out of the theater. Finding out that in reality, hundreds of lives had been lost had to have been a brutal and horrible shock the next morning

First due BFD Engine 5 in their original quarters on Pierrepont Street, right around the corner from the theater. 

Second due BFD Engine 6, in front of their original quarters on High Street, 4/10s of a mile from the theater. 

Third due BFD Engine 8 in front of their original quarters on Front Street, just over half a mile from the theater. Stations were much closer together back in that era.  These pics were taken some time after the theater fire, but it's still possible that some of the same guys who responded to the theater were still assigned to these companies. Paid firefighters very literally lived at the stations back then, but they were still transferred between stations fairly regularly.  

It's also very possible that the three steamers pictured in these three photos are the very same rigs that responded to the theater fire. Then as now fire apparatus was highly specialized and crazy-expensive, and when a municipality bought new rigs they generally meant for them to be in service for a decade or so, at least.

There's something interesting about Engine 8's original house.BTW...but we'll hit that in 'Notes'

All three of the above photos courtesy, originally sourced, I believe, from the FDNY's Fire Museum.

A high, wide column of smoke, darker than the night sky and orange-tinged by the flames roiling out of the stage doors, was already surging skyward as Engine 5 made the turn onto Fulton, and, as the guys spotted it and shouted 'We got us one!' or similar words they were also speculating as to just which of the several buildings near that box they had going. That question was answered in dramatic fashion when Engine 5's two-wheeled hose wagon and big Amoskeag steamer wheeled to the right onto Johnson, and the crew spotted flames boiling out of both the stage door and the 20 foot wide scenery doors, rolling halfway across Johnson Street, then curling upward, lighting the narrow street up like daylight. Even from a block away they could hear the crackle and rumble of fire over the clatter of wheels, pounding of hooves, and clanging of the apparatus bells. Something...maybe a scenery flat or a crate...was protruding from the scenery door like a burning tongue sticking out of a fire-breathing demon's mouth, and several men were backing away from the door, facts that Engine 5's veteran foreman (Lieutenant today) Fred Manning made note of even as he spotted a couple of hundred people milling around on Washington Street.

Second Due Engine 6 was only about a tenth of a mile further away, coming from the east, off of Jay Street, and just may have been coming down Johnson Street from the other end as Engine 5 pounded towards the burning theater from Fulton Street...Manning probably had his crew hold up at Johnson and Washington...they could start hitting it from two sides and hopefully keep it confined to the theater...

"Fred!!!' Manning looked around to see a BPD 1st Precinct officer standing next to the pumper, pointing and gesturing towards the theater's main entrance. "'We still got people inside on the stairs!!!" 

And that changed the game plan in a big way...Life has always come before property. Engine 6 could start setting up the fire attack...Manning probably took his crew and headed for the main entrance of the theater. I have a feeling that, even as the crew headed for the main entrance, the sky suddenly lit up as flames cooked through the roof above the stage and boiled upward into the smoke column, lighting it from within.

The Crown Jewel of Brooklyn's Theaters wasn't long for the world, nor were nearly 300 of it's occupants.

Smoke rolled across the theater's high ceiling and into the Family Circle early on in the incident, and it's very possible the Family Circle's occupants realized just how bad the situation was a minute or so earlier than everyone else, They didn't believe Kate Claxton's declaration that it was a minor incident for even a second, panicking and bolting as acrid, eye and lung burning smoke began banking down and filling the gallery. Four hundred people were all trying to get through the curtained exit and down that first short stairway, around the turn, and down the second stairway, against the theater's 
south wall at the same time.  

The curtain in the archway at the Family Circle entrance probably got ripped down early on as parents tried to shield their kids, only to be separated from them, and people literally climbed over each other to get out.  Charles Straub and Joe Kreamer had seats in the back of the gallery, very near the exit, and they both decided that the time to un-ass the building was 'now' when smoke boiled into the gallery, so they were on the leading edge of the seething mob pouring out of the Family Circle. They made it down the first short stairway, around that first ninety degree turn at the landing,  and rode the crest of the panicked human wave down the south stairway's steps, stumbling and catching themselves a couple of times until they hit the bottom of the stairs and had to hang a right into the corridor that crossed over the lobby.

A panicked mob moves through a passage very much like a flood-swollen river crashing through a street, bouncing off of obstacles or rolling over them rather than going around. Charles Straub somehow made it around the turn to ride the crowd down that corridor, but I have a feeling that his friend Joe Kreamer got slammed into the wall, and trapped there by the crowd.  

Straub actually fell once, and felt the soles of his fellow theater-goers' shoes slamming across him for a second or two until he somehow managed to drag himself up and regain his footing. Smoke had followed them into the corridor, and he noticed the gas lights getting dimmer as he pounded towards the final turn and last flight of steps, thinking that the lights were dimming due to the smoke, but actually the gas lines had been breached, and gas pressure was dropping (Even as the escaping gas helped feed the fire).

 Somehow Straub managed to keep his footing and ride the crest of the human wave down the corridor past the Family circle box office and around the turn onto the stairway down to the entrance (Managing also to avoid Joe Kreamer's likely fate), then down the stairway itself, likely stumble-tumbling the whole way, finally emerging into the chilly chaos of Washington Street about the same time the first of the Dress Circle survivors emerged from the main entrance. He'd later tell investigators and reporters that he thought that around 25 people got out before he did and a similar number after him...he waited for about 45 minutes, but his friend Joe Kreamer never came out, nor did Straub ever see him again. 

Charles Vine had been sitting in one of the Family Circle's front rows when Kate Claxton claimed that the fire was minor, and while Vine applauded her nerve and bravery he knew she was lying, because he could see the smoke already wafting across the ceiling as well as the flicker of flames backstage. When the Family Circle occupants all but stampeded the exit, Vine was right behind them, at least for a second or so, until he saw men literally running over women and pushing kids to the floor.  He quickly realized that the stairways and corridors leading to the street were becoming death traps, so he stopped and looked for another way out. He first made his way across the gallery, to a window on the Flood's Alley side of the building, thinking he could jump. He shoved the window up, looked out...and realized that he'd have a 40 or so foot drop onto a cobblestone street if he jumped. Most likely instant death when he slammed into the pavement, horrible, debilitating injury at the best. He quickly scrapped that idea, and looked around for a plan 'B', knowing he 'd have to work fast to have any chance of making out of the building alive.

The din had become unimaginable in the few seconds since he'd left his seat, with mothers calling for children and husbands, men cursing and calling for their wives, and children scream-crying high-pitched wails of terror. Smoke was really beginning to roll into the balcony, finding it's way into lungs and adding seizure-like coughing to the shouts and screams.  He had to get out of here now, Vine knew...he quick-walked to the half-wall at the front of the balcony and looked down. The Dress Circle extended several rows farther out than the Family Circle, so he was actually looking down at the third or so row of the Dress Circle's seats, and that would only be a 15 or so foot drop . He climbed over, then hung on to the edge of the half wall, hanging for a second or two before letting go.

When he landed he managed to straddle a seat back, and the decorative iron filigree on the seat ripped his trousers and tore into his thigh before he flipped over backwards and folded into a heap between two seats, smacking his head on something while he was at it. He pulled himself upright and found himself bleeding but alive. And wonder of wonders, he found the Dress Circle all but empty.  He turned towards the exit, jumping as someone with the same idea but far less luck than him bounced off of the Dress Circle's half wall and plummeted into the parquet circle.  Vine limped to the exit and down the steps just as Sweeney, Cain, and Engine 5's guys were getting the last of the Dress Circle occupants off of the stairway.  He looked down to see a woman who had been trampled by the crush, picked her up, and carried her to the Washington Street exit. He was probably the last Family Circle occupant to make it out alive.

As Charles Straub all but tumbled down the steps leading to the Family Circle's street exit in a controlled fall, one of the panic-crazed patrons in the deadly passageway behind him also fell, and as he or she fell, everyone else kept stampeding over them, trampling them, until finally another person tripped over them, and that person's fall brought down a third person, then a fourth and fifth tripped over them...  

...And suddenly it was a deadly game of dominoes as more people fell while everyone behind the fast-growing pile up kept coming and trying to pile, climb, or jump over the fallen mass of people, only succeeding in adding to the pile as everyone behind them piled on, fell, and trapped them. This in turn trapped the people who were still on the south stairway, who still tried to push their way into the corridor. With-in seconds there was a pile of intertwined, tangled, terrified people stacked 4 feet deep for nearly the entire length of the corridor...and it only got worse.

First, the lights finally dimmed to inconspicuous glimmers, then died completely as the gas lines burned through, and gas pressure dropped to zilch, leaving them in pitch black darkness, sending wails of pure animal terror echoing through the corridor. Then, when Rocheford opened the emergency exit and that cross draft from the stage doors turned the burning stage into a raging inferno, shoving the smoke and fire out into the auditorium, all that smoke and fire rolled across the theater's ceiling and directly into the Family Circle. 

 There was enough pressure behind the smoke to slam a solid horizontal column of heat and smoke bodily down the stairs and into the corridor at tremendous speed, One second the panicked mob fighting their way through the twisting passageway were in clear, breathable air, the next second an avalanche of thick, caustic smoke boiled through the passage, engulfing them, and the next breath they took was a lung full of caustic acid, their eyes burning as smoke mingled with tears. And it was at that second that many of those who died breathed their last.

When the fire popped through the roof over the stage it ventilated the building, actually drawing smoke out of the structure and clearing the Dress Circle of smoke  (This may have even happened as the group who tried to use the center emergency door made their way back up to the Dress Circle, facilitating their escape)...but not the Family Circle or the twisting passageway to the Family Circle exit. After they cleared the stairway, BFD District Chief Engineer (Equivalent to a Battalion Chief today) Farley took a crew up and into the Dress Circle to make a quick search, Crouching through that doorway was like walking into a scene form Dante's Inferno, with crazy shadows, swirling smoke, and a boiling, rolling smoke ceiling flaring orange at them as it reflected the flames from the burning stage and parquet circle. The balcony itself was orange hued from the flames and even with the building vented, they felt like they were touring the inside of an operating furnace.

Farley and his firefighters called 'Anybody in here!' several times to be answered only by the rumble of flames and ominous crashing sounds from back stage...the building was beginning to come apart on them. Another crew made it maybe a quarter way to the burning stage in the Parquet circle, watching flames leapfrog across seats as they also called out to anyone still inside the theater...neither crew found anyone, and Chief Farley, knowing exactly what those ominous crashes meant, told everyone to back out.

Out on Washington Street, a third crew made it into the Family Circle entrance and up the steps, but no further, probably meeting a wall of smoke and definitely meeting a wall of darkness as soon as they hit the corridor...they never got within yards of the pile-up of bodies, and even if they had, it wouldn't have made a difference.. Needless to say, they got no response when they called out. 

Brooklyn Chief of Department Tom Nevins probably recognized the box number when the bells banged it out, knew it was in the high value district near City Hall, and decided to respond from home, or he may have been responding from a station, but which ever it was, he arrived on scene at about 11:26  PM, probably as the Dress Circle evacuation was finishing up and just before the searches took place. He knew the building was lost as soon as he rolled up, and on top of that he had an evil list of exposure problems facing him.

 The Dieter Hotel was severely exposed, butting up to the burning theater on two sides, while the First Precinct station, which butted up against the burning theater's south wall, was only slightly less severely exposed.  There was a row of frame houses across Flood's Alley from the fire, and the wind was threatening to take the fire across Johnson Street. The very first thing he did is send an aid to the nearest box, telling him, basically, 'Hell with a second, strike the third alarm', and and told him to, after he struck the third, make a lap around the building to report on conditions. (In these long ago, pre-radio days and right on up to the mid or late 1950s or so, the OIC of a fire would stay pretty much rooted, where he could be found, and have an aid come to him to report on conditions. While the Incident Commander still stays at the Command Post today, modern communication technology makes it far easier for he or she to keep themselves aware of conditions on a fire scene, especially a large, complicated scene such as the theater fire.).

I'm guessing here, but Chief Nevins probably set his command post up at Washington and Johnson, or maybe at the First Precinct...both were centrally located and away from the main body of fire. The roof was in over the stage and possibly over part of the auditorium by then, and fire was probably blowing thirty or more feet straight up, rolling into the smoke column that it was punching skyward, and the entire area was lit up like noon-time. The aid ran down Johnson Street, past Engine 5, (whose engineer was setting up a water supply as other firefighters pulled line off of the hose wagon), and the hotel, trotting towards the orange-lit rectangles that had been the stage and scenery doors (With the roof gone, the fire was rolling straight up and no longer rolling out of the doors.) He stopped short when he cleared the hotel, and looked over at the Johnson Street side of the building. The doors were not the only openings showing fire...

"Holeeee Sh..."  The aide spun and hauled ass back down Johnson the background he could hear the citywide bells banging out '3-3-3' and the box number as the second and third alarms were dispatched together. 'Were' gonna need em' he thought as he yelled 'Chief...Chief!'  Chief Nevins turned to look at him; "If we've got anyone in the building we need 'em out, Johnson Street wall's getting ready to go!' 

District Eng. Farley had already pulled his people out of the building (And probably also reported to Chief Nevins that they found no one inside) so Chief Nevins began setting up for a long, long defensive operation, and even as he made sure everyone was out of the theater, then sent crews into the Dieter Hotel to make sure it had been evacuated, and deployed the incoming second and third alarm companies, they heard a crunching crash...the upper portion of the Johnson Street side of the theater had folded in on itself and collapsed inward, kicking the lintels over the stage and scenery doors and the wall between the two doors outward as it did so. When the wall fell in, it probably took most of the back stage and stage into the basement along with it, as well as a hunk of the parquet circle and some of the Dress and Family Circles. 

The collapse opened the auditorium wing up wide, allowing a humongous influx of air to pour into the building, shoving the fire all the way through the wing and out into the lobby. As the auditorium wing became fully involved, Chief Nevins made a decision. This was decades before there were any master stream devices or aerial ladders/water towers capable of delivering 'Big Water'...500 GPM plus in a single stream...and their only option was 2 1/2 inch hand lines capable of flowing around 250 GPM apiece. Most of Brooklyn's engines were probably 2nd size steamers, capable of pumping 600 GPM, and Brooklyn had 13 engine companies at the time. With 3 alarms in, Nevin probably had 9 of them on scene.

The theater, he well knew, was lost, Let it burn out and use his resources to keep the fire from taking the entire block. OF course, fire was lighting up the night sky and punching an orange-bottomed smoke column skyward that was visible for miles, and people were showing up in groups to watch the fire, even catching the ferry over from New York. At one point as many as 5000 people were watching the theater burn as firefighters fought...pretty successfully, I might contain the fire to the building of origin. 

The fight to save the rest of the block turned into an all-night battle, and Chief Nevins' exact tactics and just how he deployed his resources have been lost to history, unless there's a nearly century and a half old fire report hiding out in some New York City basement somewhere.  I can just about bet, though, that put lines on the roof of the First Precinct, possibly put lines inside  and possibly on the roof of the hotel, and had engines on hydrants on all four corners of the block, with firefighters pouring water onto the exposures, and possibly into the fire.  They not only kept the fire from taking the block, thanks to the fact that the theater's smaller entrance wing was separated from the auditorium by a solid wall,  they actually kept it out of the theater's second and third floor offices and apartment.

Brand control would have been a huge part of the job as the burning theater spit sparks and firebrands the size of dinner plates skyward, and firefighters kept a Niagara of water on the exposures to keep the brands from lighting them off. Pumpers chugged loudly, punching smoke columns skyward that rivaled the smoke from the fire itself . Then, sometime around 1:00 AM there was a drawn out, clattering crash as the Flood's Alley wall kicked out and collapsed into the narrow passageway, exposing the houses across the alley to massive radiant heat, and likely causing the quick redeployment of lines to protect them.  At least, Chief Nevins likely thought to himself as the cold, fiery night dragged on and on, it looks like everyone got out...

OF course, the Chief didn't know that, as the balconies and that convoluted set of stairways and passages that provided access to the family circle collapsed into the basement, they took the bodies of nearly three hundred people with them. They wouldn't realize this grisly fact for hours.

Kate Claxton, if she did indeed go to the 1st Precinct station immediately after she got out of the theater, slipped out sometime later, and silently freaked out. A reporter found her wandering on Washington Street an hour or more after the fire started, still dressed only in her costume and shivering with cold. and assisted her back to the police station, where she was placed in the Captain's office under the care of a police officer. She was sobbing softly, wondering where H.S.Murdoch (Who had perished in his dressing room, unbeknownst to anyone at that point) and asking them to search for him. Ultimately a coat was found for her and she was driven to the Pierrepoint House, at Hicks and Montague Streets, where the cast was staying.

As Kate Claxton was taken care of and driven to her hotel, the fire slowly burned out. The south wall above the 1st Precinct station, which wasn't subjected to as intense a fire as the North and East (Johnson Street and Flood's Alley) walls held and fire never extended to the hotel. By 4 AM or so, there was nothing left but soggy, smoking remains and lots of overhaul. The crowds had gone back home, and reporters with deadlines to make had left the scene to file their stories so reports of the fire could appear in the early editions of the morning papers...

...Which reported that the theater had been destroyed, and that there had been injuries, but no deaths.


The papers needed to get the story into the early editions of the morning papers...they had a major fire that a majority of people in two cities were aware of. That fire that had destroyed a well known and well regarded entertainment venue while a play was in progress, chasing hundreds of people into the December cold and imperiling a beloved actress who had risked her life to try and calm the fleeing theater-goers. To not get a story about the fire into the early editions would be a major journalistic fail on any number of levels. So the papers went with what they knew as of about 3 AM. And that was that there were no reported deaths.

The thing is, by the time the fire burned almost out, the cops and firefighters seriously suspected otherwise. People were showing up at the 1st Precinct in droves, asking about relatives who hadn't returned home. And at about 3 AM, Chief Nevins tried to get into the Lobby from the Washington Street entrance.  The three story section of the  Lobby wing containing the offices, apartments, box office, and Family Circle street stairs was almost a separate structure, separated from the auditorium and rear portion of the lobby by brick walls that were only pierced on the 1st floor by the archway into the rear portion of the lobby, where the Dress Circle stairs were, and the entrance to the passageway that Kate Claxton and her group used to make their escape. While the Auditorium and rear portion of the lobby had completely collapsed, the small three story wing facing Washington Street was still standing, even though the lobby itself had been pretty well involved at one point.

The main entrance on Washington Street the morning after the fire...note the large group of people at the entrance to the 1st Precinct's station, all of whom are very likely seeking information about loved ones who didn't return home after attending the performance the night before. The entrance to the Family Circle stairway is visible immediately to the left of signboard nearest the camera. 

This was hours after the bodies had been discovered, most likely, and if you Look at the upper left of the frame you can also see a couple of men on the roof, apparently surveying both the the damage to the auditorium wing and the body recovery operation from above.

This section of the theater was basically a separate building, and very little fire entered the second and third floors...the windows aren't even broken. From this side of the building it's difficult to imagine that almost 300 people had lost their lives only hours earlier.

There was still a good bit of fire in the lobby when Chief Nevins tried to make it inside the first time, so I have a feeling that on his next try he had a crew bring a line in, or possibly more likely, play a stream through the main entrance to knock the remaining fire down.. By then the theater had been burning for nearly 4 hours...there wasn't that much left in the lobby to burn, and a 2 1/2 inch line with a 3/4 inch or so straight tip on it probably made quick work of any fire left. When the line pushed the fire back, Chief Nevins made it all the way to the far end of the vestibule, as the Washington Street end of the lobby was known, and got an eyeful of a grisly sight...a badly burned body. It appeared to be the body of a woman with her legs burned away and her face burned beyond recognition, just inside the vestibule, back to the south wall of the building, probably huddled in the corner formed by the south wall and the back wall of the vestibule,

He backed out of the building, and called a quick meeting of the rest of the district engineers (Battalion Chiefs) and higher ranking members of the command staff who were at the scene (One thing that likely hasn't changed in 150 or so years...a major fire brings the high-ranking members of the department command staff out of the woodwork, no matter what department it is.) He told them of his discovery, opining that there were more...likely way more...bodies to be found, and told them to keep that information away from the press and public for now.

Chief Nevins probably started cutting units loose a short time later...they had succeeded in holding it to the theater at its height, the fire had just about burned out by 4AM, and was no longer a threat to the rest of the block, and he really needed to get some units back in service to cover the rest of the city.. Other fires wouldn't take a hiatus just because they had a major incident going.

As the sun rose, allowing them to see what they were doing, Nevins took another crew in through the main entrance, and found one thing he was definitely expecting...complete and utter devastation once you reached the arch separating the smaller Washington Street wing from the Auditorium wing. The entire Auditorium...balconies, stairways, and well as the far end end of the lobby, had collapsed into the basement, leaving a smoking pit choc full of charred wood, broken bricks, and burned rubble. 

They immediately spotted a number of charred bodies...eight to ten of them...hard by the south wall and Chief Nevins immediately had a crew start removing them. The interior partition pierced by the three exits leading from auditorium to lobby, had survived the fire and Nevins and the rest of the command staff, as well as the firefighters removing that first ten or so bodies, looked into the debris-filled pit at a huge pile of burned rubble, extending from the interior partition to the south wall, and probably twenty or so feet out from the vestibule...and then all of them gave a shudder as separate pieces of rubble took on form and substance and they realized just exactly what they were looking at...a huge mass of burned bodies.

A very accurate pen and ink, drawing of the devastated Johnson Street side of the theater, looking straight in from Johnson Street.  You can see the Washington Street wing's mansard roof on the upper right of the frame. The three story white building to the right of the theater ruins is the Johnson Street side of the Dieter Hotel. The far wall is the south wall...hard by the 1st Precinct station..and the diagonal scar is the scar left by the south stairway as it collapsed. The corridor where so many were trapped would have run a short distance along the west wall, at the bottom of the scar, towards Johnson Street, and then made a 90 degree turn onto the stairway leading to the street...there would have been another archway, just this side of the white partition, at the head of the south stairs, though the artist didn't include it.

.The white partition in question, directly beneath the stairway scar, is the partition separating the lobby from the auditorium. I think the small arch on the far right side of this partition was possibly the lobby end of the passage Kate Claxton and her crew used to escape, the three larger arches are the exits from the Parquette circle. The huge pile of bodies would have been beneath the stairway scar between the white partition and the south wall.

A period photograph of the south and west walls, taken from Johnson Street, looking towards the lobby from the backstage area. Once again, you can see the scar left by the collapsing stairway on the south wall, directly above the gentleman in the light colored cape. The archway near the bottom of the stairway scar would have been the entrance to the stairs leading to the street...perspective makes the distance between stairways seem shorter than it actually was.

When they got back in the basement and really started examining the pile of bodies, they were in for a horrible shock. The bodies were piled four to five feet deep, and covered an area twenty feet by ten or so feet, if not larger. Removing the bodies was a slow, sad, and gruesome task as the bodies were so badly burned that they fell apart if you looked at them hard, much less moved them. On top of that, many of the bodies were already in pieces, inhibiting both the removal process and getting an accurate body count.

Reporters who had arrived back on the scene were quick to jot down notes and then beat feet to their offices (New York reporters had to cross the East River on the ferry) and over the next three days, newsboys on corners shouted out:


...As they hawked the 'Breaking News!!' of then day...the extra editions of newspapers...when the body counts were updated. It was obvious that it would get far, far worse...
Around a hundred and forty bodies had been removed from the cellar by four o'clock on the sixth, with at least that many still visible in the ruins.

People wondering about their missing relatives gathered both at the 1st Precinct station, next door to the Washington Street wing of the theater and at the city morgue, which filled to over-capacity well before the first day was half over. Henry Simms, Brooklyn's chief coroner, knew of an empty market only a couple of blocks away on Adams Street, between Fulton and Myrtle and he, fortuitously, also knew the building's owner. He wasted no time arranging use of the building as a temporary morgue, and before three o'clock wagons carrying the covered remains of bodies were heading for the market rather than the City Morgue.

The temporary morgue, set up in a vacant market on Adams Street, from a period newspaper article...Newspaper articles back then were far more graphic than modern articles, both in written description and illustration. The candles on each body's chest was to illuminate the face to assist in identification.

Relatives going through personal effects found with the bodies, attempting to identify their loved ones...most of whom were burned beyond any hope of finding something that belonged to them. This was the only way that the great majority of the bodies could be IDed, and 103 bodies were never identified, and were buried in a single mass rave at Green-Wood Cemetery four days after the fire, on December 9th..

  There were some truly heart-breaking episodes during the three day process of body recovery, and one of them was early on. The twelve year old brother of a 1st Precinct officer was found in the rubble, and the officer insisted on helping to recover the body...Chief Nevins and District Engineer Farley accompanied him into the gruesome pit that had been the theater's basement and helped him bring the body out. He was relieved of duty immediately after the recovery.

 The fire also resulted in a Brooklyn P.D Line of Duty Death, when 1st Precinct Officer Patrick McKeon apparently became lost, then overcome with smoke when he entered the building to make a final search. He was found to be missing, and his body was found just inside the collapse area, and was IDed because of his billy club and a Brooklyn P.D. Book of Bylaws found in a pocket of the remains of his coat.

Forensic Science was, at best, in it's infancy and more than likely still in its fetal stages in that era, which made identifying the bodies a long, drawn-out affair that was immensely painful for relatives of the victims. Identifying the bodies would not be as quick or easy as it had been a year and change earlier after the Precious Blood Church fire. There were four times as many deaths in the theater fire, and the bodies were in far worse shape.  Just as had been the case at Precious Blood, most of the identifications were made through personal belongings found with the victims, but unlike the church fire only a very few ID's were made through scraps of clothing because the majority of the bodies had burned for hours. One hundred and three bodies...a third again the total number of deaths at Precious Blood...were so completely incinerated that they were never identified, and a final accurate body count was never reached. Historically, the number of deaths has always stood at 278, but Brooklyn city coroner Henry Simms wrote death certificates for 284 bodies (This included a single death certificate for the 103 unknown bodies) and estimates of the death toll range from the oft-quoted 278 all the way up to 350.

 Four days after the fire, on December 9th, dozens of hearses lined up at the two morgues, where they loaded the simple pine caskets containing the 103 unidentified victims of the fire, then formed a
 mile-plus long procession as they drove to Green-Wood cemetery, where the bodies were to be interred in a mass grave. 

The mass grave was shaped like a Bundt cake pan, circular with a cylindrical pillar of unexcavated earth in the center, that pillar to be the foundation of a monument memorializing the victims. The coffins were placed in the grave head to foot in a 'double row radiating circle'.

An Artists rendering, included in a news article of the era, of the unidentified bodies being interred in the mass grave in Green-Wood cemetery, in Brooklyn four days after the fire. The grave was circular and shaped like a Bundt cake pan, with the caskets laid within head to foot in two circular rows. The unexcavated cylinder of earth was left  as a foundation for the memorial that the city erected to honor the victims of the fire.
So the victims...known and unknown...were buried. But that didn't mean that it was over. In fact it was far from over.
The the twin cities of Brooklyn and New York were in a state of shock, not to mention more than a little enraged. Several hundred families had gone out for the iconic 'Dinner and a show' only to be decimated by the theater fire, and people wanted to know just why this had happened. As soon as the bodies were removed and identified or buried, Henry Simms convened a Coroner's Jury that sat throughout December 1876 and January 1877, hearing testimony from several hundred survivors, firefighters and police officers, citizens who'd watched the fire, and pretty much anyone who could possibly cast some light on the cause.

After hearing all of this testimony, the Coroner's Jury pretty much slammed Shook and Palmer, casting more than a little shade at the building's design while they were at it. They noted that Shook and Palmer failed to keep fire safety equipment in good order, accessible, or even (In the case of the fire buckets) extant, that they didn't even try to train any of their stage crew in fire safety or handling incipient fires before they became major fires, and noted strongly that there wasn't even an effective chain of command in place,  

While they noted that the building had more exits than most public buildings in Brooklyn, they also noted that those exits did little good if they were locked. Then there was that deadly and circuitous route from the Family Circle to the outside. I never found anything that stated as much, but you just know someone had to have asked why an emergency exit of some kind wasn't provided for the Family Circle. And really, it wouldn't have taken that much effort or expense to have included an exterior fire escape from the Family Circle, or, for that matter, the Dress Circle. 

Of course, to be useful, the exits have to be usable, as in unlocked. As we all recall, the emergency exit from the Dress Circle proved to be worse than useless...the fact that it was locked actually almost added a couple of dozen to the death toll.

While the Coroner's Jury was hearing testimony, the Brooklyn Fire Marshall (Actually a police function back then) began it's own investigation into the fire, and they got right to the crux of the matter...why wasn't the fire hose utilized, and why wasn't the evacuation started the instant that the fire was discovered.

The reason we always hear that the hoseline wasn't used is always because it was blocked by scenery flats and/or props, and that could very well be, I don't know how much water that line would have flowed, as it was on a domestic water line and almost definitely not pump-boosted as modern standpipe systems are, but still...had Thorpe pulled that line, gotten it in operation, and started hitting the fire, he could have at least bought the occupants of the theater enough time for more...or even all...of them to get out.

There's a caveat, though...if we go with the 'Because it was blocked and inaccessible' excuse, we're assuming that the hose was indeed usable, and that it was, in fact connected to the standpipe in the first place. Problem is, it very well may  not  have been...either connected to the standpipe,  or usable. 

More detail on that little tid-bit in 'Notes'

As for why the evacuation wasn't started early on in the incident...Managers and actors both claimed a fear of starting a panic. IF they had said 'The building's on fire', that's exactly what would have happened, and in fact, is exactly what did happen. Of course, had they simply stated that there was a problem of some illness among the cast, a problem with the lighting...that wouldn't allow the show to continue, they may have gotten by with it, and the death toll would have been far lower. 

Kate Claxton actually said as much in an interview several years after the fire, stating that, had they kept the curtain closed, hiding the fire from the audience as well as at least slowing the draft that shoved the fire into the auditorium, and said there was a problem that kept the show from continuing but didn't endanger the audience, they could have probably prevented a panic and maybe even managed to get everyone out. Sadly, we'll never know if such a ploy would have worked.

The Coroner's Jury found that Albert Palmer and Sheridan Shook were primarily responsible for the disaster...not only did the two of them get rid of any and all fire safety equipment in the theater, they compounded this by locking the fire exits from the inside and refusing to train their employees in any fire prevention or first aid fire fighting protocols. Criminal charges were suggested, but both men managed to avoid them, in no small part due to their wealth...a situation that still occurs, though not as frequently or blatantly, to this very day.

The Fire Marshall's and Coroner's jury's investigations were deep, probing, and far ranging, and answered an indignant public's hunger for answers...but the public still didn't necessarily get the answers they wanted, because, first they wanted someone to actually answer for the tragedy, which didn't happen, and they wanted the Brooklyn Theater's fire-trap qualities to be an isolated situation, which it wasn't. Unfortunately, inspections of both Brooklyn's and New York's numerous theaters immediately after the fire found that all of them had problems, and some were as bad...or even traps than The Brooklyn Theater had been.

The  Coroner's Jury took these dismal inspection results into consideration when they made recommendations at the end of their investigation, and recommended several sweeping, and ground breaking changes in theater design, most if not all of which could be retrofitted to existing theaters though it would have been pretty expensive to do so.. Among them were more and wider exits, multiple, more direct exit paths from the balconies, exterior fire escapes, and brick firewalls separating the backstage area from the auditorium. 

The industry and public alike were quick to applaud these changes...but not to adopt them. Oh , sure, several theaters added some exits, and the Coates Opera House, in Kansas City, added a brick firewall between back stage and audience, but these changes were not wide-reaching. Then as now, the public demands change immediately after a disaster while owners of the venues involved in said disaster resist the changes due to cost, and the business owners knew that, as long as the changes remained recommendations and didn't become law, they could wait things out and allow our old nemesis complacency to work in their favor

While theaters burned regularly in the late 1870s (Nationwide it was estimated that between ten and fifteen burned annually between 1870 and 1880) none occurring in the couple of years immediate after the Brooklyn Theater Fire were fatal...not in the U.S. anyway...and the public fell back into that always dangerous mindset of 'It hasn't happened for awhile, maybe it won't happen again', coupled with the 'It Won't Happen To Me' mindset that's part of human nature..

And as these two mindsets took hold, the public let the theater fire slip out of their consciousness and the great majority of theater owners made absolutely no changes at all.  By the time the new Brooklyn Theater opened, on the exact same footprint as the old theater, fire safety in theaters had devolved again until things were just as bad as they'd been four years earlier.  In fact, it was theoretically still perfectly legal to build scenes and store paints and scenery back stage.

Perfectly legal, but not very smart, and the new theater (Also known as Haverty's Theater) was very possibly the safest theater in the Brooklyn/New York area simply because the The New York Daily Mirror...which had started a campaign to improve fire safety in theaters very shortly after the Brooklyn Theater Fire...was very likely watching them like a hawk. It wouldn't surprise me at all to find out that, when the new theater opened on the very lot once occupied by the ill-fated Brooklyn Theater,  The Daily Mirror reported on them in great detail, very likely comparing and contrasting the two buildings feature for feature.

Even then, the new theater still wasn't that safe. In 1881, the Insurance Times...a premiere Insurance Industry trade magazine of the era...noted that there wasn't a safe theater in the New York area, and suggested that insurance premiums be kicked way upward as a result.

But the event that finally kicked off change in theater fire safety didn't happen in the U.S. It happened in Vienna, Austria when, five years almost to the day after the Brooklyn Theater Fire, an almost exact repeat of that fire tore through Vienna's Ring Theater, killing somewhere between six hundred and nine hundred people, or between two and three times as many as died at the Brooklyn Theater.

The Daily Mirror pointed out the many similarities between the two fires...again, very likely point-by-point, and Brooklyn's newly appointed Director of Public Works ordered BFD's Chief Nevins to update and implement the long dormant Coroner's Jury recommendations with an addition that was actually more than a little ahead of it's time...all theaters were to have a 'Building Box' connected directly to the Fire Department.

It was the Mirror's harping on the subject that helped get a total rewrite of the city's building codes on the books in 1882, with numerous mentions of theaters through-out..but that didn't come about with-out a fight. Even after the cataclysmic Ringtheater fire, theater owners insisted that the changes that the new code required were just too expensive and impractical to implement, and even attempted to enlist the help of the general public by stating that the cost of implementing the changes would require them to raise ticket prices so high that the common working man and his family couldn't afford to attend a play.

Imagine their surprise when said general public and working man fully supported the new changes, higher ticket prices or not...they, rightfully, felt that being able to attend a play without having to worry about dying a horrible death before the final curtain was well worth more expensive tickets. 

These new building codes forbade the manufacture and storage of scenes back stage, forbade the storage of flammable liquids backstage (Very possibly one of the first haz-mat related laws), set minimum standards for for exit paths and doorways, made exterior fire escapes mandatory, and required an on-duty firefighter be present at every performance to inspect exits and fire equipment.

These new codes and regulations actually came at a very pivotal time. Broadway, as we know it and referred to as such, was coming into being at about the same time the changes became regulation. Without the new building codes and some serious advertising, the public may not have embraced Broadway as they did, and the Entertainment Industry...while it would have never died completely...would have likely suffered a serious slump until theater owners realized that they needed to spend the money to improve safety, whether they wanted to or not.

Of course safety improved even further as the years went by. with the addition of  innovations such as automatic sprinklers (Theaters were the first buildings to be required to install automatic sprinklers, in New York...but not the rest of the country) fireproof curtains that could be dropped to protect the auditorium from a back stage fire, smoke vents over the stage...devices that, coupled with better and more exits, should have made catastrophes such as The Brooklyn Theater Fire all but extinct, and in a perfect world, that's exactly what would have happened.

Sadly, we've never lived in a perfect world. And Theater owners still had a major lesson to learn....


The Brooklyn Theater Fire is somewhat of a paradox...while it's well known among Theater historians, Fire Service historians, Fire buffs, and history geeks in general, and there is plenty of information out there about it, I'll bet you that not more than one or two of the several thousand people daily who walk through Columbus Park or Cadman Plaza, or who walk through the doors of the King's County Courthouse have a clue that the theater ever even existed or that they're on the site of the fourth worst single building fire in U.S. History. 

Everyone's heard of The Chicago Fire and The San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Pretty much everyone's heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Most everyone's at least heard of the Coconut Grove fire. The even deadlier Iroquois Theater Fire is far better known. Most people, however, have never heard of the Brooklyn Theater Fire.

 Hopefully this post fixes that, even if only just a little...I hope that at least a couple of people who didn't  know about do.

As for research, there was almost more info than I could even use, which made researching the fire a bit complicated, but in a good way. Half the fun of writing these posts is digging up the info for them.

That being said...I still had to do some speculating on this one...OK, I had to do a lot of speculating on this one. I had to do some educated guessing on the fire-ground operations (There supposedly actually is a fire report somewhere in the encyclopedic archives of the FDNY, BTW...I just couldn't access it.) as well as the conversations among the actors and the details of the beginnings of the fire.

I had to speculate...but I bet I was at least in the ball park as to what happened.

However close I may have been to the actual events of that long ago, tragic December 5th, I hope, as always, that I made this one an informative and interesting read!

On to the Notes!


The City of Brooklyn would remain an independent city until 1898, when it, along with portions of three counties, would consolidate with the City of New York to form the five boroughs of New York City. 

As you can imagine, there were lots of politics involved with the consolidation, with strong emotions on both sides. Consolidation was voted on by the citizens of Brooklyn in 1894, and won by an extremely narrow margin. The motto 'Greatest Mistake of '98' was coined by those opposed to the consolidation, and you still hear it from old-timers today.  Even though there is no way anyone who actually remembers the consolidation could still be alive today, there are some septo- and Octogenarians whose parents were kids in the 1890s. These (18)90s kids, of course, inherited their parents opinion of the consolidation, then passed that opinion on to their own kids...the old-timers of today. And that opinion is still being passed down from generation to generation today.

This is why Brooklyn is, to this very day, still the most independent minded of the five boroughs, and why they still elect a 'Mayor', though he or she are now called the 'Borough President'. OK...all of the boroughs elect borough presidents, to act as liaisons between the borough residents and NYC's city government, but Brooklyn's residents are, as far as they're concerned, electing Brooklyn's mayor!

The history of the city and borough of Brooklyn is pretty fascinating in it's own right and is definitely worth a look.  Here's their Wiki Page to get started.


The very great majority of the Brooklyn Theater fire victims were dead long before the flames ever reached them, most of them succumbing to the effects of both toxic smoke and super-heated gasses. Even without the super-heated gasses added to the mix, the smoke from the burning paints, and turpentine, plus all of the ordinary combustibles (Wood, cloth, paper, etc) created a deadly mix that entirely displaced the breathable air in the Family Circle corridor and stairway, and was all but instant death if breathed in. Add super heated gasses that turn lungs to charred crisps the instant they're inhaled, and you have a horribly efficient mechanism of mass death. When that burst of smoke and super-heated air blasted through the corridor, it likely suffocated everyone in the tangled pile of panicked theater-goers with-in seconds, both from the effects of the smoke, and the super-heated gasses crisping their lungs as it was inhaled.

But this tends to minimize what really killed nearly...or possibly even over...300 people that night. What killed them was that evil companion to all occupied building fires, panic. The corridors and stairways were actually fairly wide...around seven feet...and should have emptied both balconies in around or even under five or so minutes...should have. But this is, of course, if everyone remains calm and calmly but quickly negotiates whatever the exit path for them might be. And that is not going to happen if a large crowd thinks they are going to burn to death. Humans are, after all, animals, and one of the instincts hard-wired into every animal from the tiniest mouse to the largest elephant, to us humans is that fire hurts real bad and will kill me, and that I must get far, far away from it as quickly as possible..There doesn't even have to be an actual fire,...people have died in panics inside crowded buildings because someone yelled 'Fire'. Or someone  thought they heard the cry of fire.

Panic removes all reason from the human mind and focuses it on survival and escape, which works great in the wide open out-doors where running away from a threat is possible, but really bites in a confined space with limited exits. In the confines of a building, everyone tries to get down the same stairway, or through the same door at the same time, and the result is always the exact same...a huge pile up of bodies, stacked like logs and jammed against each other like the contents of a trash compacter, blocking doorways and corridors. Those at the bottom of the pile can not extricate themselves, and the crush only gets worse as more people try to claw, and climb over...only to have even more people end up on top of them.

Even before this deadly pile-up forms, people fall in the midst of the stampeding crowd and get trampled...hundreds have died this way. People in panic mode trying to get out of a burning building will run slam over frail old ladies and small children alike in their ultra-focused, fear-driven quest to escape.

This has happened at every large loss of life structure fire, right up to the present day.. Every. Last. One.

This is why fire alarm systems in modern buildings are designed to notify the building occupants early in the incident. so that crowds can exit the building while the fire is small, and not a threat.

 And it's also why Kate Claxton and her troupe of actors should have done anything other than tell the theater's occupants to stay put. She even admitted as much in a later interview.

If, as she stated in that interview, they had kept the curtain closed...hiding the fire from the audience... and told the theater occupants that some illness or malfunction had caused the evening's performance to end early, everyone just might have made it out. Unfortunately, we'll never know.


Not all of the fire victims attended the play. We know for sure that at least one Brooklyn Police Officer lost his life when he became trapped while searching the building, and at least one or two other citizens lost their own lives while attempting to rescue trapped theater-goers. 


Amazingly enough, multiple rescues were made from inside the buildings, all of which were well involved, in all three of the major structure fires I've blogged about so far...The Richmond Theater Fire, Precious Blood Church, and The Brooklyn Theater Fire. Keep in mind that these fires occurred long before modern breathing apparatus and protective gear were available or even dreamed of. Of course, these rescues were all helped along by certain factors.

 In the Richmond Theater Fire, the roof was probably entirely in, allowing heat and smoke to go straight up and out of the building, and all of the rescued victims were immediately inside the main entrance to the auditorium.

In the Precious Blood Church Fire, all of the rescued victims were immediately inside one of the entrances to the building.

And in the Brooklyn Theater Fire, the trapped occupants were actually on the opposite end of the building from the fire when they were rescued, and the smoke had not mushroomed downward to fill the entire building yet. 

That points to another factor in the rescues...all three of the buildings featured open interiors with high, high ceilings that allowed heat and smoke to stay above the victims who were rescued long enough for them to breath breathable air and unprotected fire fighters, police officers, and in the case of the Richmond Theater, civilians to get inside and get to them,


I found one source that stated that the Orchestra exit was also opened by the chief doorman...a man named George Price...and that several Parquet Circle occupants did manage to escape through it. 

They could have only been talking about the emergency exit closest to the stage...but again I only found that single source, which also stated that Mr Price came close to being trampled to death for his efforts.

As the Flood's Alley wall collapsed during the fire, there really wasn't any way to confirm or dismiss the possibility. Even if the door frame had been found intact enough to determine if the door was open or not, and the door was found popped open, the force of the collapse could have done that. More telling is the Police Fire Marshall's report stating that, while the exit under the Dress Circle stairs had indeed been opened, there was no conclusive evidence that either of the two other exits was opened, and no audience members stated that they exited through the emergency exit nearest the stage.


Lets take a look at that fire hose for a second.  There's no doubt at all that, had it been accessible and usable, and had someone who even had an inkling of what they were doing put it in service in the early minutes of the fire, I wouldn't be writing this because all that would have happened would have been some soggy scenes, wet actors, and a postponed performance. But it would have not only had to have been would have had to have been serviceable as well to be useful at all. 

Wait a minute, I hear everyone saying...if it had been connected to the standpipe, and accessible, how could it not be usable?  Bear with me here...

Cotton jacketed, rubber lined fire hose, common as it is today, was just coming into use about the time the Brooklyn Theater opened. It was brand new technology, and a lot of city departments were still using leather hose into the early-mid 1870s.  I can just about bet that the fire hose in the Brooklyn Theater...which opened a couple of years before the first cotton jacketed rubber lined hose went in service in Cincinnati, Ohio...was probably 2 1/2 inch riveted leather fire hose. 

Not only was it leather (We'll get to why that's an issue shortly) we don't even know for sure it was even connected to the standpipe.

 While most of the accounts of the fire I've read make it sound as if the hose was indeed connected to the standpipe,  but blocked, (in fact that's the way I wrote the post), another source claimed that it wasn't even present, and had been tossed up into the flies somewhere. If that's the case, it was even worse than actually added to the fuel available to the fire.

A length of riveted leather fire hose, very possibly much like the hose in the Brooklyn Theater. This hose weighed 85 pounds per 50 foot length...that's without brass couplings , BTW...add couplings, and each length probably weighed closer to 100 lbs.

This is also the way the hose in the theater was likely stored when connected to the standpipe...coiled on a staff, or possibly on a reel. Leather is high maintenance. You would have to pull it off of the staff, or reel, straighten it, treat it with something like neatsfoot oil or beef  tallow then recoil it at least weekly to prevent it from drying and assuming a near permanent coiled shape. If not maintained it would dry, become permanently coiled (Or would permanently assume what ever tangled shape it was stored in) and ultimately, rot.

Also this stuff was not at all flexible. You couldn't flat-pack it the way hose was packed on hose wagons once cotton jacketed rubber lined hose became common, and indeed, the way hose is still packed on fire rigs today.  The fact that leather hose couldn't be flat-packed is why it was coiled when attached to standpipes rather than flat-packed in racks as seen today, and why early hose carts were all big hose reels.

The coiled hose illustrated in the picture, BTW, is probably on the type of small reel that was sometimes installed on 'Hand Tubs'...hand-pumped fire engines...before steamers became common, and they were installed for the exactly same reason modern rigs have preconnected attack firefighters could get a line in operation more quickly while lines were being pulled off of the hose carts and set up.

We do know that the hose hadn't been used to flow water but maybe once since Shook and Palmer took over the theater, probably very shortly after they did so.  That one time was likely a good a year and a quarter or so before the fire, at the request of an insurance company inspector, (Likely with someone from the Fire Department or Building Department present as well) to prove that there was sufficient water pressure at the standpipe, and that the hose was still usable.  

And then they, at best, left it on the reel at the standpipe untouched for over a year, and at worst, removed it and tossed it up into the flies. If it was still on the reel, attached to the standpipe, it was probably unusable. 

Why? You ask. simple...leather, as anyone who owns anything made of leather can tell you, is a high maintenance material. With their reputation RE: maintaining fire protection equipment I'd say it's a safe bet that once Shook and Palmer tested the hose, they just ignored it.

 Leather, left unmaintained, has a tendency to stiffen, become brittle, and rot. If this was indeed leather hose, as I suspect it was, and it went unmaintained for over a year, it would best...leaked like a sieve if it had been charged, and at worst, would have literally just fallen apart once it was charged, or maybe even as it was uncoiled or pulled off of the reel.. 

So if the hose had been connected to the standpipe, been accessible, and someone who had a feel for what they were doing pulled it and called for water, it's highly possible that it would have still been useless, and done absolutely nothing to control the fire.


Speaking of Sheridan Shook and Alfred Palmer, what, you may ask, ever happened to them? In a perfect world...which again, just does not exist...they would have at least been charged with something, but this never happened, in large part because of their wealth and influence. Face it, then and now, it really is all about who you know.

Sheridan Shook pretty much fell off of the radar after the fire, though I did find out that he retired from theatrical management after the fire and that he passed away in 1899, in Dutchess County, N.Y...also his birthplace. His obituary is included on his FindaGrave page and includes an interesting little note RE: his wife. It seems that they had some marital problems and separated...and as soon as this happened, the former Mrs Shook married one Mr Albert Palmer...

As for the 'Palmer' half of 'Shook and Palmer', Albert Palmer apparently suffered no ill effects of any kind, other than having shade cast towards him by the Brooklyn Fire Marshall and the Coroner's Jury. As noted above, no charges were brought against him, he continued managing the Union Theater in New York for another decade, traveled in Europe for a couple of years, managed a number of well known actors of the era as well as managing some well known traveling shows, and served a president of the Actors Fund of America...which he originated in 1882.

Oh...he even has his own Wiki Page, as skimpy as it is.


Once the investigations were complete, reports filed and hearings held, the site was cleared, leaving the Washington Street facade, and possibly the outer portion of the lobby standing. Then, as I noted above, a new theater was built, called Haverty's Theater. The new theater utilized the Brooklyn Theater's old Washington Street facade, but that was about the only thing the two buildings had in common. Though the new theater was also 'L' shaped like it's ill-fated predecessor, the new theater's main entrance was off of Johnson Street while the stage was on the south end of the Auditorium wing...where the lobby was in the old Brooklyn Theater.  The stage entrance and dressing rooms used the Washington Street entrance. With the stage being on the south end of the auditorium, and the main entrance being on the north end, off of Johnson Street, the exit paths were far shorter and more direct, especially for the Family Circle.

Haverty's was probably the safest theater in the New York area, simply because they were being watched like a hawk. It was also, like it's predecessor, considered to be Brooklyn's premiere theater. Thing is, Haverty's Theater still wasn't around but about 11 years...and no, this one didn't burn. 

The Brooklyn Daily the time Brooklyn's premiere daily paper...was looking for a site for it's new headquarters. They negotiated with the owners of the theater as well as the Dieter Hotel (Known by then as The Clarendon Hotel), bought both, and razed them to build a magnificent new eight story headquarters building, designed by architect Frank Morse.  At the same time the new Brooklyn Eagle Headquarters was being built, a huge and equally handsome new post office was built across Johnson Street, and the two buildings were often photographed together.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Building, at Washington and Johnson Streets...the former site of The Brooklyn Theater 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle was a Brooklyn icon, and it's headquarters a landmark until 1955, when the paper closed after 114 years of publication. And again, the land it was sitting on was in great demand, for both a new Kings County courthouse as well as a new public park.  The entire block bounded by Johnson, Washington, Adams, and Myrtle Streets, as well as the block south of Myrtle was purchased by the city, then razed.  A new Kings County Courthouse  was built on part of the block, with the remainder used for Cadman Plaza and Columbus Park. All three were opened in 1957. 

Of course, when the new courthouse and the parks were built, they forced some changes to the street grid as well...the south end of Washington Street became Cadman Plaza East, Fulton Street became Cadman Plaza West, and the west end of Myrtle Street, as well as the ally formerly known as Flood's Ally, were built over and ceased to exist.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle has a pretty fascinating history of it's own, BTW, one well worth plugging the name in the old Google Machine. Be prepared to spend an afternoon reading though!

To give ya a start on it: Brooklyn Eagle History from The Brownstoner  


Shook and Palmer's removal of all of the fire safety measures that the Conways had included, compounded by their refusal to train any of their employees in the basics of fire safety, was easily the worst controversy associated with the fire, but it most definitely wasn't the only controversy.

The relief efforts after the fire, as good intentioned as they indeed were, created their own bits of controversy, especially when they were being handled by the city.

 (What?? A local government mishandling funds?? Say it ain't so!!!)

Many of the men killed in the fire were their family's sole provider, and their deaths left their families all but destitute. The women who were now head of their households came to the city government seeking temporary financial help, and the city's mayor...wealthy cigar magnate Frederick W. Schroeder...jumped to the plate. One problem...he used city funds without authorization, after pledging to cut city spending. While he was digging into the city coffers, The churches and various other aid organizations were also providing relief, and several families were found to have gotten aid from multiple sources.

To make matters worse, it was found that more than a few of the 'bereaved' individuals seeking funds well...weren't. As in they weren't even vaguely related to anyone who'd even been near the theater on the night of the fire.  Even as The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported this fact, Schroeder discontinued all city aid to the families, instead using a memorial service for the deceased, held on December 12th, to call for the creation of a private aid organization so the relief efforts could be better organized, as well as asking for donations.

Political shenanigans are not a new thing by any means, and if anything, the politics of the late 19th century were even shadier than those of today. There were worries that the political 'bosses' of the era would use the disbursement of relief funds to buy influence, ignoring those who actually needed the funds while they were at it. The Brooklyn Theater Fire Relief Association (BTFRA) was organized to try and circumvent those problems while managing and dispersing relief funds.

BTFRA also asked for donations so they'd have the funds available to disperse, and, in Brooklyn, large donations were made by several wealthy individuals and corporations while hundreds of smaller donations poured in from individual citizens. The theater industry itself also took on the task of of assisting the families affected by the fire, with benefit performances being held as far away as Charleston, S.C. Money poured the tune of around $28,000 ($640,520 today.) Donations would continue to come in, in fact, and BTFRA would distribute around $50,000 ($1,143,786 today) to those in need after the fire

In order to prevent fraud and make sure all of that money went to people who actually needed it, BTFRA required individuals requesting aid to go through an application process that would have made any federal application today look simplistic. Then. once the application was completed and turned in, a home visitation was required before it would even be looked at. 

There were still problems. If someone influential didn't particularly like an individual, a word to the administration of BTFRA, accusing the recipient of, for example, excess drinking, could render them ineligible.  Each ward of the city had 'visitors'...AKA inspectors...whose job it was to investigate the recipients' home situation, and they could and often did adjust said recipients' biweekly stipend, or even declare them no longer eligible for funds based on as little as a whim. Thankfully that type of misconduct wasn't a regular occurrence, and there was an appeal process if it did occur.

There was another problem with the application process and dispersal of relief funds.  If you were a dude, you need not even apply for assistance in the first was meant for the widows and children, not the widowers. Unfortunately, with most of the families receiving assistance being poor immigrants, this practice ignored some financial realities of the era. (Financial realities, BTW, that would be even more prevalent today with the number of single parent households out there.)

All of this is not to say that the organization didn't do good work...they most definitely did. A total of 188 families received assistance, to the tune of an average of $250 per family (around $5500 today) and many families were saved from homelessness and worse by this assistance.

Not only did BTFRA assist the families of the fire victims...even after the organization dissolved after two and a half years it served as a model for the relief efforts aimed at all of the city's poor 

Of course, I was only able to hit the high points here, and only touched on BTFRA's efforts, In the same article where I found this information, there was more detail on their efforts as well as a lot of detail about the other relief efforts that BTFRA inspired, detail that's really not the scope of this post. For a more in depth look at the subject take a look HERE .  I'll also include the link down in 'LINKS'


By 1876, advertising was already a major industry, and attracting publicity was already an art form. The citizens and corporations of both the city and the nation would be more likely to show their sympathy for the victims by sending donations if they had an equally tangible subject to feel sympathy for. 

With that being said, it should be no surprise at all to find out that the media was quick to assign a face to the disaster and the relief efforts. That face was Mrs Mary Jackson, whose husband Robert died in the fire. She had eight kids (One of whom was borne shortly after the fire), and she became a media sensation, both locally and nationally, as she was interviewed numerous times about her experiences, trials, and tribulations after the fire. The wire services had been around for a couple of decades by then, and the interviews hit all of the major daily papers, making Mrs Jackson one of the earliest Media Darlings. She also sang the praises of BTFRA, saying that the aid that she received from the organization allowed her to "...Provide for my children without sacrificing my womanhood."

Needless to say, this positive publicity was a huge boost to BTFRA as well as other relief efforts aimed at assisting the fire victims, and was an early example of just how effective good publicity can be.


Controversial as the relief efforts may have been, they did show that the city was trying to do the right thing. The relief efforts turned out pretty well, actually, especially once The City of Brooklyn handed them off to BTFRA.

The city outdid themselves in another way as well, when they erected a memorial at Green-Wood cemetery to honor all of the victims.

As you recall, the grave was built in a circular 'bundt cake pan' shape, with an unexcavated island of earth in the center as the foundation for a monument.  This circle of earth stayed barren for four years as the design of the monument was discussed, approved, and finalized, then as financing was discussed, approved and budgeted, then as it was contracted out...anyone who's had to deal with local government knows the drill...really some things haven't changed that much in 140 or so years. The process took a while.

When the monument was finally erected, it measured about 30 feet tall and featured a dark grey tooled granite obelisk mounted on a pedestal consisting of a plinth, sub-base, base, die and capital. Bands of stylized leaves decorate the principal components of the monument, with the background tooled back to give contrasting shades of grey.  

Each side of the pedestal's die is rendered as a plaque, engraved with polished block letters that tell the story of the fire. 

The area encompassing the circular grave used to be surrounded by a stone and iron fence which was taken down sometime in the 1960s, after vandals damaged it, and stole a couple of sections of the iron fencing, but the monument still stands, near the entrance of Green-Wood cemetery at the intersection of  Battle and Bayview Avenues. This is the only physical reminder left of either the theater or the fire.

The memorial, along with the plaques on each side of the pedestal's die.


Legend has it that Sarah Conway was totally against building the theater where it was built. And she just may have been justified...depends on whether you believe in ghosts and such.

'A ghost story attached to America's fourth worst building fire?'  You ask.

'Certainly!...Read on' Says I.

As I noted at the beginning of this post, the group of investors who built the theater bought a lot formerly owned by St. Johns Church, said to be the pioneer Anglican Church in Brooklyn. This lot was also...allegedly...occupied by the church's cemetery. In 1869, St. Johns built a new church in Park Slope (But interestingly enough, apparently didn't make any effort to move the cemetery). They still also still owned the old building, along with the cemetery. They, in fact, had been trying to sell it for awhile, so The Brooklyn Building Association probably got it for a song. 

If the cemetery was indeed still there, The BBA probably did everything legally and maybe even ethically required to notify the families who had loved ones buried in the cemetery so the coffins could be moved, and it's said that several families did move their loved ones' remains...but not all.

Again, according to popular legend, some families were too poor to be able to afford to move the remains, and other families had either moved away or all died off, so, when the BBA tore the old church down and leveled  the lot and started construction on The Brooklyn Theater, an unknown number of bodies were still buried under it.

Sarah Conway basically freaked, stating that they were desecrating Holy Grounds, and that nothing good would come of the enterprise. While her husband didn't fully go along with the 'Desecrating Holy Ground' theory, he still wasn't all that happy with the location.

The BBA said this is where we're building the theater...and they did. And strange things began happening.

The dressing rooms were said to have been built directly over the graves, and it's said that noxious fumes would rise into the dressing rooms on a regular basis. The scenery flats hanging in the flies would sway and move and creak when there wasn't a breath of air moving, the lights would act up, and Sara Conway would not leave her apartment and go into the theater when the lights were off. 

Lets not forget, either, that the theater never was all that profitable, and Sarah Conway would readily say that this misfortune was, again, punishment from the spirits of the disrespected dead (Though I think it was more then likely because of the Conways' refusal to cast big name stars in their productions.)

Then we have the deaths of both of the Conways, about a year apart. Legend holds that, when Sarah Conway's body was discovered, some horrible apparition scared the carpenters working on scenery backstage so bad the they did a panic-run out of the scenery doors and absolutely refused to go back inside until her body was removed. 

Then, after Sarah's death we had Minnie Conway's continued misfortune at the hands of her mom's creditors.

And then of course...the fire.

OK, every one of these misfortunes could be...and very probably were...the result of things that are as un-ghostly as it comes. The ventilation was bad in the dressing rooms, there was a problem with the gas table that they couldn't quite diagnose and fix, both of the Conways became ill because of the stress of running the theater, the carpenters were just superstitious, Minnie Conway didn't have good business sense, and the theater burned for all of the reasons I've already noted...


Who am I to say that there wasn't some influence from the pissed-off souls of long buried people who had their long and peaceful rest disturbed when someone went and built a theater over top of them. 

For a much more detailed look at the Ghostly Possibilities, go HERE


The old cemetery may have caused a more practical problem. It's been suggested on a couple of occasions that at least a few of those 103 unidentified bodies may have actually been already interred bodies that were inadvertently dug up in the process of body recovery. 

Possible, perhaps...but, IMHO, not very probable.

Remember, just above, when I threw the caveat 'If it was even there' into the mix? Lets explore that.

First lets take a look at the size of the lot. The original church was built in 1827...before most of the development in the area had taken place...and was fifty feet by fifty feet. The lot wasn't but about 110 feet by 130 feet or so, and the church was right on top of Johnson Street, which it fronted on, so that left an area about 30 feet wide on either side of the church and an area about seventy feet by 130 feet to the rear of the church for a cemetery. While that doesn't leave much room for a cemetery, if you figure an area of 50 square feet per grave (Grave plus spacing between) you could still get around 150 graves in that area, and still have a strip behind the church not committed to the cemetery.

So yes, there could have been an old cemetery under the south end of the one time.

The original St John's Episcopal Church at Johnson and Washington Streets, in Brooklyn. The building fronted on Johnson Street and was pretty well show-horned onto that lot...that's probably the First Precinct station behind the church. This building was built in 1827, then vacated when the congregation built a new church in Park Slope in 1869. Looking at this pic, I can't help but wonder if the theater and Dieter's Hotel weren't built at the same time, as there definitely doesn't appear to be enough room for the hotel between the church and Washington Street., Those  trees along Washington Street, beside the church, are the same ones you can see in front of the hotel in several views of the Washington Street entrance of the theater.

Also remember the theater had a full basement, which would have been excavated deeper than the graves when the buildings were built...seems to me that the graves would have been discovered while construction was in progress.

Which causes us to take a real close look at the possibility of already interred bodies being inadvertently counted as victims. The church actually fronted on Johnson Street, and the auditorium wing of the theater was built right on top of the church building's footprint, though it was much bigger, covering the eastern two thirds or more of the lot, extending from the back wall of the Dieter Hotel to Flood's Alley, and from Johnson Street to the lobby wing. Most of the old cemetery...if it was still there...would have been beneath the south end of the collapsed auditorium.

The lobby wing, and the area under the south stairway and corridor leading to the Family Circle, where most of the bodies were found, was built over part of the area that could have once been a cemetery, so it possibly have been built on top of a few old graves.

So, yes, there could have once been a cemetery under that collapsed south stairway and connecting corridor, but...

...that full basement, which is where the bodies of the fire victims were found, again throws doubt into the possibility of already interred bodies being counted as victims. Again, any old graves should have been discovered as the basement was excavated during construction. And, if somehow any bodies buried in the cemetery weren't discovered during construction and were inadvertently exhumed during the body recovery process, they should have been in coffins, which would have made confusing them with fire victims impossible.

It's beginning to look like the cemetery...and possibly Sarah Conway's histrionics...just may have been made up by some one who really wanted a ghost story to be attached to the theater fire.


Strangely enough, the Brooklyn Theater Fire wasn't the only major fire that Kate Claxton was simply the first, and by far the worst. The second one though, is the one that caused the press to unfairly brand her as a jinx.

After recovering from the trauma of the theater fire, Kate Claxton went on tour (By then with her own production company) performing her signature role as Louise The Blind Orphan.  In late April of 1877...only four months after the theater fire...they arrived in St Louis, Missouri, to perform in that city's Olympic Theater. The show's cast was put up right across the street at the city's finest hotel, the Southern Hotel, at Fourth and Walnut Streets.  

At about 2:00 AM on April 28th, screams and calls of fire rang out as flames roared up a freight elevator shaft from the basement all the way to the sixth floor. Kate Claxton and the rest of the cast of The Two Orphans all made it out early in the fire, though Kate lost several scripts and contracts (Which she managed to recover ) and her entire wardrobe (Which she didn't).

Twenty-one would die in the fire...eight of them when they jumped to escape the flames...and several rescues were made that became the stuff of legend, and are still talked about in the StLFD.

This would have been a huge news story anyway, but then the media realized just who one of the people who escaped was. Now they could have reported that, by some miracle, popular young actress Kate Claxton had escaped the fire, and was un-injured...or they could have gone all tabloid and declared that, this being the second building that has burned with a heavy loss of life while she was inside, she was a jinx.

Wanna guess which one they chose?

The rumor that Kate Claxton was at best a jinx and at worst a possible fire-bug spread from coast to coast with-in a week, as well as stories claiming...falsely...that numerous other theaters where she had performed had also burned.

It got to the point that, when she checked into a hotel, people would stare at her as if they expected her to burst into flames herself, and on a couple of occasions people, upon seeing her, checked out of a hotel she was staying in. Though I could't find any evidence of it, it's not at all improbable that the rumors may have adversely affected attendance of The Two Orphans and any other play she may have starred in.

Then as now, people ate up any scandal about a celebrity, whether or not it was true, so every new story about 'The Fire-Jinx' boosted newspaper sales. And seeing this, publishers of the nation's newspapers...especially the more 'tabloid' like papers...churned out new stories. The fact that no actual true facts were represented in these stories often did nothing to inhibit their publication.

With-in a couple of months things got so bad that Kate Claxton bought space in several newspapers and published pleas for the public to, basically, cut her a break.  Then, on June 2nd,1877, well known political cartoonist Thomas Nast came to her defense when he published a cartoon in Harpers Weekly depicting the press as a bunch of torch-bearing winged donkeys...asses...who were spreading false rumors for their own gain. A copy of a letter that the actress had written, refuting a fake interview that had been reported in (False) detail, was also published along with the cartoon, 

The cartoon actually seemed to slow the false stories to a trickle, and Kate Claxton wrote a letter to Nast expressing her sincere and everlasting gratitude. Interestingly, other than the couple of months immediately after the Southern Hotel fire, when the bad press was at it's worst, Kate's career wasn't hurt by the rumors, and may have actually been helped...the rumors became so ridiculous that they actually backfired and caused a wave of sympathy for the actress, sympathy that was kicked into high gear by Nast's cartoon.

The Thomas Nast cartoon, published in Harpers Weekly on June 2nd, 1887, defending Kate Claxton from the 'fire Jinx' rumors...the cartoon pretty effectively broke the rumor's backs. The original cartoon also included the text of a letter the actress wrote refuting a widely circulated report of a fake interview claiming that she had predicted her own death in a fire of 'A magnitude never before seen by human eyes' Having read that letter, trust me when I say Miss Claxton was not only talented she was also very well spoken and intelligent,

She wrote Thomas Nast a very sincere letter of thanks in reply to his efforts on her behalf.

Kate Claxton had a long and successful career, though it was marred by some scandal of a kind much more familiar to followers of the entertainment industry...marital problems. (Again, some things have not  changed...)

And, still, every once in a while, an attempt to spread a new fire-rumor or fake interview would show up in a paper, enough so that she had to vehemently deny them in an actual interview in Harpers Weekly in 1887.

Kate Claxton retired from the stage in 1904, and passed away in her home in 1924. She's buried in Green-Wood cemetery, not all that far from the common grave where the theater fire victims are interred. Interestingly, as well as oddly, nothing about her fame as an actress or the theater fire appears on her gravestone...only a single line noting that she was the former wife of actor Charles A Stevenson.


Lets talk about fire photography for just a bit...a subject near and dear to my heart as I did fire scene photography for several decades.

It's interesting...but not surprising...that, while there are several photos of the Brooklyn Theater both before and after the fire, there were none taken during the fire. All of the 'fire scene pictures' are artists renditions, and this was true of pretty much every major fire...and anything else requiring action photography...up until the very late 19th century.

The reason, of course, was camera and film technology. In 1876, camera's still used either wet or dry photographic plates rather than roll film (Which wouldn't be introduced for another decade or so) and taking a photograph was actually a pretty complicated process, especially with wet plates coated with the light sensitive emulsion that created the photograph. The photographer had to coat the plate, load it in the camera, take the shot, remove the plate, and develop it all before the plate dried...a space of about ten or fifteen minutes. Field work required a portable dark room, exposure times were long, and the cameras were huge view cameras that were bulky and not exactly portable... not at all ideal, or even close to doable for fire scene photography.

Dry plates were introduced in the early 1870s, and were far superior in that they allowed for faster exposures and could be coated with the emulsion and carried around ready to use, then transported to a lab to be processed (So you can just about bet that the famed pic of the south wall of the burned out Brooklyn Theater was a dry plate image) but they still required glass plates, and big, cumbersome view cameras that resembled furniture more than photographic equipment.

Lenses were slow (A high end portrait lens with a minimum F-stop of F3.5 was considered extremely fast), shutter speeds were slow, and the exposure times required were high...cameras were basically used for portraits or stationary objects such as buildings...they just were not even vaguely set up for action shots.

 Also, note that almost all outside pics from that era were day-time shots. There was no effective method to light an outside scene for night photography. Flash powder was great for inside posed portraits (Assuming it didn't start a fire, and yes, that did indeed occasionally happen) but wasn't useful for outside shots at night and definitely not usable for night action photography.

While experiments in high(er) speed photography and sheet/roll film were both being carried out in the late 1870s, neither would become common for a decade or more. The first fire scene photographs began appearing towards the end of the next decade, and daytime fire scene shots appeared in newspapers fairly regularly by the end of the 19th century, though good night shots still had to wait for the development of good, effective, portable flash equipment,

Newspaper photography as we know it today, with small, rugged, go anywhere cameras wouldn't really take off until the introduction of the 35mm camera in 1925, and true night photography didn't really take off until flash bulbs come on the scene in 1927.


The Park Theater, originally managed by Sarah and Frederick Conway, suffered an ironic fate when it, too, burned on the evening of November 12th, 1908.

The building was built in 1860, and the upper two floors were converted to a theater in 1863. It was first an opera house, then the Conways took it over in 1864 and operated it successfully...or at least more successfully...until they opened the Brooklyn Theater.

The building passed through several owners and was a profitable house right on up to the evening of Nov 12th, of '08, when it was the oldest theater operating in the by then borough of Brooklyn.  A show had ended only an hour or so earlier, and several actors were still in their dressing rooms while theater staff counted the nights receipts, cleaned up, stowed props and scenery and took care of after-show tasks when a fire was discovered, though just where wasn't specified, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find it was, once again, backstage.

 Though the building was quickly evacuated and everyone got out without so much as a broken nail, I wouldn't be too surprised to find out that they tried to fight it before anyone either called it in or pulled a street box, because the building was apparently in full bloom when FDNY arrived.

The Park Theater, taken shortly before it burned. The theater occupied the upper two floors with the main entrance, lobby and box office probably occupying the center of the first floor, at the arched doorway. Looking at the building, you can tell how crowded it would have been...seating capacity was well under 1000. 

Also, note how close the buildings on either side are...The night it burned, FDNY did an awesome job holding it to the building of origin.

The Park wasn't but about a block from the former site of the Brooklyn Theater, so the running assignment for the fire would have probably been identical. Of course, when the Brooklyn Fire Department became part of FDNY, there were a bunch of identical company numbers, so '100' was added to all of the Brooklyn company numbers to avoid confusion, so the Engines 5,6, and 8 and Ladder 3 that rolled on the Brooklyn Theater had become Engines 105, 106, and 108 and Ladder 103 when they rolled in on the Park.

FDNY was renowned for being an aggressive department even 110 years ago, and they went right to work, likely calling for an extra alarm or two, and though the Park, like the Brooklyn before it, was a lost cause when the first engine rolled up, also like the Brooklyn, the guys held it to the building of origin.


Remember me saying that there was something interesting about Brooklyn Engine 8's fire house? That something still interesting is the fact that Engine 8's house is still around.

The original quarters of Brooklyn Engine company 8...later FDNY  Engine 108, then 208...still stands at 227 Front Street, right where it's been since 1869...and the very house that a horse drawn steamer thundered out of at a little before 11:20 PM on December 5th, 1876, third due at the Brooklyn Theater.

The station was built as Brooklyn Engine 8's house in 1869, when Brooklyn transitioned to an all-salaried department, then when Brooklyn and New York consolidated in 1898, '100' was added to all Brooklyn fire companies to avoid confusion with similarly numbered companies in Manhattan.

Then, in 1913, when the number of engine companies in New York City surpassed 100, the Brooklyn companies were again renumbered, with all Brooklyn engine companies getting '200' series numbers, and Engine 108...formerly BFD Engine 8...became Engine 208.

Engine 208 stayed right here until November 22nd, 1972, when it was disbanded to form new FDNY Engine 167.  No idea what the building's used for today, but it's obviously still kept in good repair, 

The most interesting thing about it, from a history buff's and fire buff's point of view, is the fact that, at a little before 11:20 PM on December 5th, 1876, the apparatus bay's then-double exit doors were swung open, and a big horse drawn steamer charged out onto Front Street along with a hose cart, and their crews looked south and slightly west to see a huge, already orange tinged column of smoke, as they headed for the Brooklyn Theater.


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 j
ust 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.


I had a very welcome 'problem' writing this one...with the tremendous amount of information on-line about The Brooklyn Theater Fire, I had to pick and choose, because there was far more information than I could incorporate into this single blog-post, which is already, by far, the longest post I've written so far.

There are a number of excellent sites out there about the fire, and I tried to grab the links to the best dozen or so.  The all but inevitable Wiki of the most comprehensive, information-packed Wiki pages I've read  Excellent web-site dedicated to the fire, and most particularly , to the victims of the fire, with the story of the fire, biographies of victims, and more detail on the monument.  Transcripts of several period newspaper articles, from a genealogy site, containing a huge amount of information on the fire and the victims as well as list of names of all known victims.    Parts 1 & 2 of an excellent two part series about the fire from The  Excerpt from a book about female theater managers from the 19th century, detailing Sarah Conway. An excellent and very interesting read. Green-Wood Cemetery site's article on the Brooklyn Theater Fire memorial.  Green-Wood Cemetery itself has a fascinating history, BTW...well worth exploring their site and other sites about the cemetery.  Lost New York post about the monument...I included this link as much because Lost New York is such a kick-ass awesome history site as anything else. You can get lost in this site for hours on really is that awesome!  Another excellent article about the fire, and especially the aftermath, with a very detailed description of the relief efforts to assist the families of the victims, as well as the investigation into the fire.  This link was also included in 'Notes'

A blog post detailing Kate Claxton's problems after the theater fire.  Findagrave site page on the theater fire victims, listing the names, date of birth of most, and place of burial of all of the known victims (Someone did some serious research on hats off to them.)

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