Saturday, February 6, 2016

1811 Richmond Theatre Fire

The Richmond Theatre fire occurred in Richmond, Virginia, United States on December 26, 1811. It devastated the Richmond Theatre, located on the north side of Broad Street between what is now Twelfth and College Streets. The fire, which killed 72 people including many government officials, was the worst urban disaster in American history at the time.  A monument church was erected on the site as a memorial to the disaster.

Richmond's first theatre, a barn-like building, opened its doors on October 10, 1786 for the first time with a performance of School for Scandal.  The Virginia Ratifying Convention of 1788 was held in this building beginning on June 3 for three weeks "after first convening in the temporary capitol at Cary and fourteenth streets."  Among the many individuals in attendance were James Madison, John Marshall, James Monroe, Edmund Pendleton, George Wythe, George Nicholas, Edmund Randolph, George Mason, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. This building was destroyed by fire in 1811.

A new multi-storey brick theatre was erected around 1810 on what was at the time the north side of H Street (now Broad).  There was an orchestra section, a first balcony, and an upper balcony, with narrow doorways.

The fire started after the curtain fell following the first act of the pantomime, when the chandelier was lifted toward the ceiling with the flame still lit. The lamp became entangled in the cords used to lift the chandelier and it touched one of the items used in the front scenes, which caught fire. As soon as the boy worker who was operating the cords saw the flames, he fled the building. The flames rose up the scenery and spread from one hanging scene to the other; there were 35 such hanging scenes which could be lowered. In addition to the hangings were also the borders that provided the outlines of buildings and skies, among other set pieces; these, too, caught fire sequentially. Pine planks (with shingles over them) fixed over rafters with no plastering and ceiling spread the flames, which fell from the ceiling and spread extremely rapidly.  The impact of the fire was worsened because the stage curtain hid the initial flames from the audience.

The editor of the Richmond Standard, present at the scene, urged people to jump; he, with help from many others on the ground, then heroically saved the lives of many of those who chose to do so.

                                                                     Gilbert Hunt

Gilbert Hunt, who helped save numerous lives on the night of the fire, became the subject of a biography published to provide an income for him during his old age

Also credited with helping save lives was Gilbert Hunt, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, then a blacksmith whose shop was located near the theatre. Along with Dr. James McCaw, a physician who was attending the theatre that evening, Hunt was credited with saving close to a dozen people. McCaw would lower them from the burning second story, and Hunt would catch them. Hunt also saved McCaw, who jumped just as a burning section of wall was about to fall on him.  Today Hunt is memorialized by a historical marker on the site.  A book, entitled Gilbert Hunt, the City Blacksmith, later was published in his honor and to provide financial assistance for him in his old age.

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