When the newspapers came out the morning after the Brooklyn Theater fire, headlines shouted, “No Fatalities!” However, the reality was much different. With a building touted as having the best fire exits in the city by the fire chief, what happened to cause this catastrophe?
On December 5, 1876, the crowds were thick in the Brooklyn Theater. A mass of patrons were in the family circle sitting area for .50 seating. They were watching Two Orphans, a popular French play adapted for American theater. It had already had 180 performances and was ending its run at the Brooklyn Theater.
The theater was lit by gaslights controlled by a man at a gas table. There were gas-lit border lamps that had tin reflectors that cast light backstage and onto borders. Personnel were forbidden from igniting the gaslights with matches or smoking near them. In fact, the original managers/builders, Sara and Frederick Conway were very cautious of fire safety. Thomas R. Jackson, the architect and contractor made the building according to Sara’s specs.
Patrick Keady, the Brooklyn Police and Fire Marshall, said that the structure had better exits than most public buildings in Brooklyn. The exits were large. The scene doors were 20 feet wide. The stage doors were large enough to accommodate heavy and wide loads. The public entrance was large enough that a packed theater of 1,450 people could evacuate in less than 5 minutes.
Approximately 1,000 people were attending Two Orphans on December 5, 1876. Samuel Hastings, the ticket collector, estimated that 400 people were in the family circle, 360 people purchased tickets for the dress circle, and 250 people for the parquet circle.
The play was going well until the intermission between acts 4 and 5 at 11pm. The curtain was down, hiding the stage, and the orchestra was playing. Attendees later said that they could hear what they thought was a fight behind the curtain. Men were shouting and machinery could be heard over the orchestra.
By 11:20pm, actor JW Thorpe spotted the first flame. It was only the size of his hand, and was flickering from the lower part of a canvas drop hanging from a rigging loft near a center stage border light.
Water in paint buckets were usually kept in the rigging loft and a fire hose with a water pipe were available backstage, but neither were close enough to quickly extinguish the flames. This ended up being a fatal decision.
Carpenters Hamilton Weaver and William Van Sicken were directed by Thorpe to extinguish the fire. They tried beating it with a stage pole. While this was happening, the 5th act began. Behind the curtain, actress Lillian Cleaves whispered through the set from backstage that there was a fire. The actors ignored her, and kept the performance going.
Another actor, Mary Ann Farren, entered the stage and said her line. Afterwards, she whispered to the actors on stage, “The fire is steadily gaining.” Yet, they continued with their play.
The actors kept the play going as flames licked the ceiling and smoke lingered along the roofline. The audience could see the fire at this point, but the actors pleaded for them to stay seated and calm. Smoldering debris began falling onto the stage.
Two actors, Kate Claxton and Maude Harrison, were the first to evacuate by going through the dressing room to the basement box office to escape. Claxton said, “We were now almost surrounded by flames. It was madness to delay any longer. I took Mr. Murdoch by the arm and said ‘Come, let’s go.’ He pulled away from me in a dazed sort of way and rushed into his dressing room, where the fire was raging.”
Two other actors followed Claxton and Harrison, but stopped at the dressing rooms to change; they didn’t make it.
The Family Circle was even worse than the main level. At the time of the fire, 400 people were sitting in the Family Circle with only a long hallway and staircase to escape. The hallway was wider than most of that era, but it didn’t matter when smoke and gas pressure were accumulating until the lights went out.
The fire eventually reached the roof and spread rapidly.
Charles Straub, a theater goer, was sitting in the Family Circle with his friend Joseph Kreamer. Straub recounted, “We could hardly run down the stairs; we were crowded down.” Straub fell down the stairs and kept getting pushed. Eventually, he was pushed to the bottom of the staircase and could escape on the street level. He waited at the Washington Street exit for 45 minutes for Joseph Kreamer, but he never saw him again.
The last known person to make it out of the Family Circle alive was Charles Vine. Vine chose to stay seated through the mayhem. He didn’t move until it was too hard to breathe. When he did decide to leave, he jumped from the Family Circle to the level below. He cut himself severely on an iron-backed chair and went unconscious. When he woke up, he walked through the Dress Circle door. Along the way, he saw a dead woman who was being trampled and carried her out. He felt it was disrespectful to leave her there. Vine was the last to make it out of the Family Circle alive.
The following day, the news let the community know that there were NO FATALITIES. This information was based on the final check of the day that District Engineer Farley completed at 11:45pm. No one was found in the search.
However, at 3am, he completed another search and a woman was found burned in the lobby, and he knew that there would be many more bodies found. By the end of the search, 278 bodies were found, 103 were too badly burned to be identified.
Related: Fires in History - Iroquois Theater
Who was to blame for this catastrophe? The original owners didn’t cut corners. They were almost obsessive with fire safety. What went wrong?
When Sheridan Shook and A.M. Palmer took over management of the theater, fire safety was no longer a priority. They failed to train stage hands in fire prevention and management. They didn’t create a clear chain of command for an emergency.
The only issue found with the actual building was the failure to add a fire wall in the stairwell leading from the family circle to the auditorium.
Police Fire Marshall Patrick Keady interviewed 62 people connected to the fire. The lack of water usage during the fire shocked him when water was readily available. There was a hydrant near the stage, and when the previous owner managed the theater, water buckets were required to be positioned throughout the backstage and rigging loft.
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The fire event went to court, and the jury found that the building had better exits than most public buildings. The issue was management.
The New York Mirror went on a campaign to regulate theater practices that could cause a fire. The campaign went on to help create the 1880 New York City Fire Code that barred the use of the stage in producing props and scenic elements. Paints, wood, and construction material were barred from the stage. Also, exits were required to be widened.
While this fire was devastating to the New York Community and theater scene, it now serves as a reminder to never be lax. The building was adequately protected (for 1876) from fire, but a lapse in fire safety training resulted in the death of 278 people.