On this day: the Brooklyn Theatre fire

brooklyntheatre_from_johnson_street_looking_eastbrooklyn-theatre-from-johnson-street-shortly-after-december-5-1876-fire

The destroyed theatre. X

One of the worst building fires in US history occurred in New York on the 5th of December, 1876. At least 278 – but possibly more than 300 – people were killed when a fire broke out at the Brooklyn Theatre during the final act of The Two Orphans.

The blaze began on the prompt side of the stage (the side where the stage manager sits). It was noticed part of the set had caught fire. Sets for more than one production were backstage at the time, meaning it was impossible to get the fire hose to extinguish the blaze.

 harpers-weekly-brookyn-theatre-fire-cover-1876

Harper’s Weekly cover reporting on the fire. X

The performers onstage were made aware of the fire, but continued with the show for a short time, worried about causing a panic. Stagehands tried to extinguish the flames, but the fire continued to gain ground.

Despite being close to the flames, several members of the performing company took to the stage to call for the audience to be calm, so that people could escape the theatre safely.

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One of those performers was Kate Claxton, who was later described as:

‘the nerviest woman I ever saw … [She] came out with J. B. Studley, and said the fire would be out in a few moments. She was white as a sheet, but she stood up full of nerve.’ X

Most of the deaths occurred in the highest, cheapest seats, where several hundred people sat, and where the narrow exit became blocked and people trampled each other. Many succumbed to smoke inhalation.

brooklyn_theatre_floor_plan_2brooklyn-theatre-floor-plan-2-published-in-the-new-york-tribune-december-7-1876

Floor plan of the theatre, published two days after the fire. X

By the time firemen arrived at the scene nobody responded to their calls, and cracks had begun to appear in the building.

Less than half an hour after the first flames were spotted, much of the theatre collapsed.

brooklyntheatre_from_johnson_streetruins-of-the-brooklyn-theatre-as-viewed-from-johnson-street-shortly-after-the-fire-markings-of-the-gallery-stairway-can-be-seen-on-the-far-wall-angling-down-from

The theatre in ruins. X

Several years after the disaster, Kate Claxton reflected that it had been a mistake to continue the play, and that the curtain should have been kept down and the performance cancelled so the audience could have evacuated before they were made aware of the fire.

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