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The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876

It started out as a gala performance of Two Orphans, at the Brooklyn Theater on Washington Street in Brooklyn, but thanks to inefficient and incompetent theater personnel, it wound up being the third worst fire, occurring either in a theater or public assembly building, in the history of the United States of America.

The title roles were played by Maude Harrison and Kate Claxton, who was thought to be one of the best stage actress of her time. Others in the cast included well-known actors Claude Burroughs, J.B. Studley, H.S. Murdoch, and Mrs. Farron. All would play leading roles in the tragedy that followed.

The Brooklyn Theater, which seated 1600 people, had been built in 1871. It was an L shaped brick building with its main entrance on Washington Street, and a secondary entrance on Johnson Street, a smaller thoroughfare, which ran perpendicular to Washington Street, 200 feet to the east. One block to the north was what was then Brooklyn’s City Hall, and one block to the south was Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare to the Manhattan ferries, which brought theater-goers from the mainland of Manhattan to the Brooklyn Theater. The Brooklyn Bridge wasn’t built until 1886.

The Brooklyn Theater had three floors of seating. The ground floor was called the “Parquet and parquet circle” seating. It contained 600 seats. The second floor balcony seats were called the “dress circle” seats, and they seated 550 patrons. The third floor gallery, which was called the “family circle” seats, contained 450 seats.

The top level family circle seats, at 50 cents a pop, were the cheapest seats in the house, and had it’s own box office on Washington Street. It also had one set of 7-foot-wide stairs, designed with a zigzag of right and left angle turns, leading directly from the street outside to the third floor. The theater was set up as such that the people in the family circle seats had no access to the balcony below, or to the main floor of the theater. This turned out to be their undoing.

The second floor dress circle seats, costing one dollar, had two flights of stairs to enter and exit the theater. One was a 10-foot set of stairs that led to and from the lobby. The other was a smaller set of emergency stairs that led to Flood’s Alley, a tiny strip of dirt behind the theater. The ground floor door to Flood’s Alley was usually locked to stop gatecrashers from entering the theater on the sly.

The ground floor seating was comprised of three price ranges. The least expensive was the parquet seating, disadvantageously situated on the side of the stage, and costing 75 cents. The parquet circle seats, which were in the middle of the auditorium cost $1.50. There were also eight private boxes, four on each side of the stage, which were the most fashionable and expensive seats in the house. Each private box contained six seats. Box seats cost a whopping $10 apiece, a kingly sum in the 1870’s.

Illumination in the theater was provided by gas jets in the lobby and in the vestibule. A few gas jets covered by ornamental globes were set on the orchestra floor. Border lights were set in a row along the proscenium arch, which is the rectangular frame around the stage. These lights had tin on the side facing the audience, and were covered by wire netting. Above the boarder lights was thin pieces of cloth that served as scenery. Some of these pieces of cloth dangled precariously close to the boarder lights.

As a precaution, buckets of water were usually kept on the side of the stage in case the dangling scenery caught fire. And there was a fire hose backstage that was connected to a two and a half inch water pipe.

On December 5, 1876, approximately a thousand people were in attendance at the Brooklyn Theater. About 400 people were seated in the upper family circle seats (an exact figure was never determined). 360 people sat in the dress circle seats, and 250 people sat in the parquet and parquet circle seats.

Edward B. Dickinson, who was seated in the middle of the parquet seats about five rows from the stage, thought the auditorium floor was not more than half full. However, Charles Vine, who was sitting in the top family circle seats, thought it was “one of the biggest galleries” he had seen in a long time at the Brooklyn Theater.

Everything was fine in the Brooklyn Theater until the short intermission between the forth and fifth acts. During this time, the curtain was down, hiding the stage, and the orchestra was playing during the intermission. People in the parquet circle heard loud noises from behind the curtain. But this was not considered unusual.

Seconds before curtain came down, stage manager J. W. Thorpe saw a small flame coming from the lower part of a drop scenery hanging near the center stage border light. Thorpe later said the flame was about the size of his hand. Thorpe looked for the water buckets, but for some reason, they were not where they were supposed to be. He thought about using the fire hose backstage, but so much scenery was in the way, he decided it was quicker to extinguish the fire by beating it with long stage poles. Thorpe directed his carpenters, Hamilton Weaver and William Van Sicken, to attempt to quell the fire by banging it with two large stage poles.

At around 11:20 pm, the fifth and final act started. When the curtain came down, Kate Claxton, playing a blind orphan girl, was laying on a stack of straw, looking upward. B. Studley and H. S. Murdoch, had taken their places on stage, in a box set representing an old boathouse on the bank of the Seine. And Mary Ann Farren and Claude Burroughs were waiting in the wings for their cues to enter into the scene. Miss Harrison was not in this scene, so she stood backstage and watched the production.

Murdock had delivered but a few lines, when he heard someone whisper “Fire” from backstage. Murdock looked up toward the proscenium arch and he saw heavy black smoke and the flickering of small flames. Murdock could see that the fire was spreading quickly upward towards the domed ceiling of the theater. Murdock stopped delivering his lines, but the audience had not yet noticed the fire and smoke.

Murdock heard Claxton whisper, “Go on. They will put it out. Go on.”

Murdock finished his lines, and Farren and Burroughs entered the scene from the wings. Miss Claxton had just delivered her lines to Murdock, saying, “I forbid you to touch me. I will beg no more,” when flaming parts of the ceiling fell onto the stage, igniting Claxton’s costume. Studley hurried over and extinguished the flames on Claxton with his bare hands.

The orchestra, for some reason, broke out into a cheerful song, but it did nothing to quell anyone’s fears.

By this time, the people in the theater had realized a fire was occurring, and screams of terror began to reverberate against the theater’s walls. Farren and Murdock stopped play acting and stood on one side of the stage, imploring the people to leave quietly and quickly. Claxton and Studley did the same on the other side of the stage.

Claxton yelled to the crowd, who were now on their feet in an extremely agitated state, “You can all go out if you can only keep quiet. We are between you and the flames! Keep cool and walk out quietly.”

But the frenzied crowd had a mind of their own. People ran out into the aisles and panic ensued.

Studley yelled to the crowd: “If I have the presence of mind to stand here between you and the fire, which is right behind me, you ought to have the presence of mind to go out quietly!”

Claxton later told the police, “We were now almost surrounded by flames; it was madness to delay longer. I took Mr. Murdoch by the arm and said ‘Come, let us go.’ He pulled away from me in a dazed sort of way and rushed into his dressing room, where the fire was even then raging… To leap from the stage into the orchestra in the hope of getting out through the front of the house would only be to add one more to the frantic, struggling mass of human beings who were trampling each other to death like wild beasts.”

Burning timber began raining onto the stage and the actors were forced to run into the wings. Claxton suddenly remembered that there was a small hallway which led from her dressing room, though the basement and into the box office. Claxton ran backstage, met Harrison, and both leading ladies fled though this passage in their dressing room to the box office outside. On the other hand, Murdock and Burroughs ran back to their dressing rooms to get warmer clothing, to fend off the frigid December air outside the theater. Neither man made made it out of the theater alive.

By this time a fire alarm was sent out from the First Precinct police station, which was next door to the theater. Also, a telegram was sent to Mayor Schroeder, informing him of the dire situation.

Some of the theater’s crew ran for the Johnson Street exits, and the made it safely outside. But soon the fire spread and cut off access to those exits. All of the remaining exits were either in the front of the theater, at the main entrance on Washington Street, or through the emergency doors on Flood’s Alley.

While the crown was set in panic mode, head usher Thomas Rochford rushed to the rear of the theater and opened the special exit doors on Flood Street. Because of Rochford’s action, the people on the ground floor were able to exit the theater in less than three minutes. So in effect, the least crowded part of the theater had the fastest escape routes.

However, the open doors on Flood Alley caused a brisk airflow to enter the theater, which increased the intensity of the fire inside.

The people on the second floor had two stairways from which they could escape. The main seven-foot-wide stairway, the one in which they had entered the building, led to the vestibule near the Washington Street exit. The other was a more narrow stairway that led to Flood’s Alley. Most decided to rush for the main stairway, because it was the one they were most familiar with. This caused a logjam of the greatest proportions, since instead of an orderly exit, the people started to work themselves into a frenzy. People started getting tangled with each other. Some jammed into doorways and others fell forward down the stairs into the people below them, casing the flow of people out of the building to stop completely.

Sergent John Cain from the First Precinct next door fought his way into the theater, and with the help of janitor Van Sicken, he began to untangle the fallen people so that the crowd behind them could get down the stairs to safety. By all accounts, almost all the people from the second floor dress circle seats were able to exit the theater alive. But the people jammed into the gallery on the third floor were doomed from the start, and they knew it.

People started jumping from the family circle seats into the auditorium below. Some were injured so badly from the jump, they were not able to exit the theater. Other people lowered themselves from a small third floor window to Flood’s Alley below. One man forced himself through a ventilator shaft, which deposited him onto the roof of the police station next door.

But most of the people in the gallery had no way to save themselves. After a few people were able to stumble down the stairway from which they had entered the building to the safety outside, the supports for the gallery collapsed, thrusting hundreds of people three floors down onto the bottom level.

Charles Straub had been sitting in the gallery near the stairway. He was sitting with his friend Joseph Kremer. Straub said afterwards, “We could hardly run down the stairs; we were crowded down.”

Even though hundreds of people had tripped and fell on top of him, Straub was somehow able to make it down the stairs and out of the theater. He estimated about 25 people from the gallery had made it out before him, and about 12 people after him. The rest were trapped inside. He never saw his friend Kremer again.

Charles Vine had been sitting in the gallery, but far away from the only stairway. He thought about jumping from one of the windows facing Flood’s Alley, but it was a sixty-foot drop and he would certainly perish from that jump. So Vine hurried to the front of the gallery and decided to jump from there to the dress circle below. Vine cut himself badly on a chair and was knocked out for a moment. But Vine quickly retained consciousness, and was able to force his way down the second floor stairs to the exit door below. Fire Marshall Keady said later that he thought Vine had been “the last person to leave the gallery alive.”

Fifteen minutes after the fire had started, the entire interior of the theater was in flames. And at 11:45 p.m., the east wall of the theater fell with a loud grumbling, burying more than 300 men, women and children under tons of bricks and burning debris.

Thomas Nevins, Chef Engineer of the Brooklyn Fire Department, had arrived at the theater around 11:26 p. m. He saw immediately that there was no way to save the theater, and that his job was now to confine the fire to that single structure. When the additional fire fighting equipment arrived just before midnight, Nevins used that equipment to keep adjoining buildings free of sparks and burning debris.

By midnight, around 5,000 spectators had assembled in the streets outside the theater; some looking for signs of loved ones who had gone to the theater, but had not returned home At one a.m. the Flood’s Alley wall collapsed, and by 3 a.m. the fire had started to burn itself out. At that point, Chief Nevins considered the fire under control. The early newspapers that morning reported the fire, but said that only a handful of people had been killed.

At the break of daylight, Chief Nevins led a contingent of fire personnel into the building. Chief Nevins discovered almost the entire theater had collapsed into the cellar. As the firemen made their way through the ruins, they made a terrible discovery. What appeared to be plain rubbish, was in fact, a mangled mess of charred human bodies. Some of the bodies were intact, and some had missing limbs. All were burned beyond recognition. It was latter determined that almost all the dead had been sitting in the third floor gallery when the fire started.

Removal of the bodies took three days. It was a long and tedious project because, considering their charred condition, the bodies would fall apart instantly when they were moved.

Forensic science being in its infant stages at the time, an exact body count was impossible. Initial reports in the newspapers said there were anywhere from 275 to 400 fatalities in the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. A coroner’s report later said there were 283 fatalities, but that was only an educated guess. 103 unidentified bodies, and parts of bodies, were buried in a common grave at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

The death count in the Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876 was only exceeded by The Iroquois Theatre fire which occurred on December 30, 1903, in Chicago, Illinois, where at least 605 people died as a result of the fire, and the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston, on November 28, 1942, which killed 492 people.

The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876 did spur New York City to institute safeguards that reduced the possibility of a similar fire ever happening again. Changes in the building code barred the presence of paints, woods, and construction material in the stage area. The code also mandated the use of a solid brick proscenium wall, “extending from the cellar to the roof, to minimize the risk of a stage fire spreading into the auditorium.”

Other changes to the code decreed that “proscenium arches were to be equipped with non-flammable fire curtains.” Other openings in the proscenium wall required self-closing fire-resistant doors. And heat activated sprinkling systems were required for the fly space above the stage.

Starting in the early 1900’s, a half hour before the scheduled performance, each theater was to have a “Theater Detail Officer” on duty. Before the play started, the Theatre Detail Officer’s job was to “test the fire alarms, inspect fire wall doors and the fire curtain.” During the performance the Theatre Detail Officer would “roam the theater, making sure that aisles, hallways, and fire exits were clear and accessible to all patrons.”

There were contradicting accounts about what happened to Kate Claxton after she escaped from the Brooklyn Theater Fire. One newspaper said she was seen sitting safely in the First Precinct police station one hour after the fire. Another report said that three hours after the fire, a New York City news reporter found Claxton wandering in a daze in Manhattan’s City Hall. Her hands and face were bloated with burn blisters, and she could not remember taking the ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Scant months later, after Claxton had recovered from her injuries, she traveled to St. Louis to appear in another play. As soon as she arrived in St. Louis, she checked into the Southern Hotel. In hours, that hotel went up in flames, but Claxton and her brother, whom she was traveling with, made a miraculous escape, seconds before the hotel collapsed.

This effectively ended Kate Claxton’s theatrical career. Fearing she was some kind of a jinx, other actors refused to appear with her on stage. And theater-goers, fearing another fire, boycotted her performances.

Nine years after the Brooklyn Theater Fire, Kate Claxton shared her thoughts with the New York Times. She said, “We thought we were acting for the best in continuing the play as we did, with the hope that the fire would be put out without difficulty, or that the audience would leave gradually or quietly. But the result proved that it was not the right course… The curtain should have been kept down until the flames had been extinguished, or if it had been found impossible to cope with them, the audience should have been calmly informed that indisposition on the part of some member of the company, or some unfortunate occurrence behind the scenery compelled a suspension of the performance, and they should have been requested to disperse as quietly as they could. Raising the curtain created a draft which fanned the flames into fury.”

Hindsight is 20/20, but Kate Claxton’s later observations were absolutely correct. The Brooklyn Theater Fire of 1876 could have produced minimal damage if only the theater personal had not bumbled, but had acted in a coherent, methodical and calm manner.

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