It began as a gala play of Two Orphans, at the Brooklyn Theater on Washington Street in Brooklyn, but thanks to inefficient and incompetent theater staff, it ended as the third worst fire to occur in either a theater or public assembly building, in U.S. history.
The title roles were played by Maude Harrison and Kate Claxton, who was considered one of the best stage actresses of her time. The others in the acting scene were famous actors Claude Burroughs, J.B. Studley, H.S. Murdoch and Mrs. Farron. They would all play leading roles in the tragedy that followed.
The Brooklyn Theater, which accommodated 1,600 people, was built in 1871. It was an L-shaped brick building, with a main entrance to Washington Street, and a secondary entrance to Johnson Street, a smaller road that ran perpendicular to Washington Street, 200 rate to the east. One block to the north was the then Brooklyn City Hall, and one block to the south was Fulton Street, the main ferry road in Manhattan, which brought spectators from mainland Manhattan to the Brooklyn Theater. The Brooklyn Bridge was built by 1886.
The Brooklyn Theater had three floors to sit on. The ground floor is called the seating “Parquet and Parquet Circle”. It contained 600 seats. The balcony seats on the second floor were called “dress circle” seats, and there were 550 patrons. The gallery on the third floor, called the “family circle” seats, contained 450 seats.
The seat of the highest family circle, with 50 cents of pop each, was the cheapest seats in the house and they had their own cash registers on Washington Street. It also had one set of 7-foot-wide stairs, designed zigzag in the right and left corner bends, leading directly from the street outward to the third floor. The theater was set up as such that people from the seats in the family circle did not have access to the balcony below or the main floor of the theater. It turned out that this was their annulment.
Seat circles on the second floor, costing one dollar, had two pillars to enter and exit the theater. One was a 10-foot staircase leading to and from the lobby. The second was a smaller series of emergency stairs leading to Flood’s Alley, a tiny strip of dirt behind the theater. The door on the ground floor of Flood’s Alley was usually locked to prevent head-scratching cops from cunningly entering the theater.
The seats on the ground floor consisted of three price ranges. The smallest was a seat on the parquet floor, unfavorably placed sideways from the stage and cost 75 cents. Seats in a circle of parquet 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 modern and most expensive seat in the house. Each private box contained six seats. The seats in the box cost an incredible $ 10 apiece, a royal sum in the 1870s.
Lighting in the theater was provided by air jets in the lobby and lobby. Several gas nozzles covered with decorative globes were placed on the floor of the orchestra. The boundaries were set in a row along the proscenium arch, which is a rectangular frame around the stage. These lights had tin on the side facing the audience, and were covered with wire mesh. Above the light on the side were thin pieces of cloth that served as a landscape. Some of these pieces of cloth hung motionless near the light on the side.
As a precaution, buckets of water were usually kept on the side of the stage in case the muted scene caught fire. And there’s a backstage hose for the fire hose that was connected to a two-and-a-half-inch water pipe.
On December 5, 1876, approximately a thousand people attended the Brooklyn Theater. About 400 people sat in the seats of the upper circles of the family (the exact number was never determined). 360 people sat on the seats in a circle of dresses, and 250 people on the seats with parquet and parquet.
Edward B. Dickinson, who sat in the middle of the parquet floor about five rows from the stage, thought the floor in the hall was no more than halfway. However, Charles Vine, who sat in the highest seats in the family circle, considered it “one of the largest galleries” he had seen for a long time at the Brooklyn Theater.
At the Brooklyn Theater, everything was fine until a brief break between acts four and five. During this time, the curtain was drawn, hiding the stage, and the orchestra played during the intermission. People in the parquet circle heard loud noises behind the curtains. But this was not considered unusual.
A few seconds before the curtain came down, stage leader J. W. Thorpe saw a small flame coming from the lower part of the droplet scene hanging near the central border light. Thorpe later said the flame was the size of his hand. Thorpe looked for buckets of water, but for some reason they weren’t where they were supposed to be. He considered using a backstage for the fire hose, but with so much scenery on the way, he decided it was faster to put out the fire by hitting it with long poles. Thorpe instructed his carpenters, Hamilton Weaver and William Van Sicken, to try to put out the fire by smoking it with two large stage pillars.
Around 11:20 p.m., the fifth and final act began. When the curtain came down, Kate Claxton, playing blind orphans, lay down on a pile of straw and looked up. B. Studley and H. S. Murdoch, took their places on the stage, in a box with an old boat on the banks of the Seine. Both Mary Ann Farren and Claude Burroughs waited with their wings to come out on stage. Miss Harrison was not in this scene, so she stood behind the scenes and watched the production.
Murdock relayed a few lines when he heard someone whisper “Fire” from the backstage. Murdock looked up at the proscenium arch and saw thick black smoke and flickering small flames. Murdock could see the fire spreading rapidly up the roof 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’re going to turn it off. Go on.”
Murdock finished his ranks, and Farren and Burroughs entered the scene from the wing. Miss Claxton was just delivering her lines to Murdock saying, “I forbid you to touch me. I will not pray any more” when the flaming parts of the ceiling fell on the stage, setting fire to Claxton’s costume. Studley hurried and put out the flames on Claxton with his bare hands.
The orchestra broke into a merry song for some reason, but did nothing to quell someone’s fear.
By that point, people in the theater realized that a fire was happening, and screams of terror began to echo against the walls of the theater. Farren and Murdock stopped acting and stood on one side of the stage, begging people to leave calmly and quickly. Claxton and Studley did the same on the other side of the stage.
Claxton shouted to the crowd, who were now standing on their feet in extremely anxious condition, “You can all come out if you can just keep quiet. We are between you and the flames! Keep cool and come out calmly.”
But the angry crowd had its own mind. People ran towards the aisles and panic ensued.
Studley shouted to the crowd, “If I have the presence of mind to stand here between you and the fire, which is right behind me, you would need the presence of mind to come out peacefully!”
Claxton later told police, “We were almost surrounded by flames now; it was madness to procrastinate longer. I took Mr. Murdoch’s hand and said, ‘Come, let us go.’ “He rested from me and ran to his locker room, where the fire was already raging … Jumping from the stage into the orchestra in hopes of coming out the front of the house just to be added to another angry, fighting mass of human beings dragging each other to death like wild beasts. “
The burning wood began to rain on stage and the actors were forced to run into the wings. Claxton suddenly remembered that there was a small hallway that led from her locker room, albeit to the basement and to the cash register. Claxton ran in succession, met Harrison, and both leading ladies escaped down the aisle in their locker room, to the bar in front of the house. Murdock and Burroughs, on the other hand, ran back to their locker rooms to get warmer clothes, to give up the cold December air outside the theater. No man made a living out of the theater.
At that time, a fire alarm was reported from the First Police Station, which was located next to the theater door. Also, a telegram was sent to Mayor Schroeder informing him of the dire situation.
Part of the theater crew ran toward the exits of Johnson Street and exited to safety. But soon the fire spread and limited access to those exits. All the remaining exits were either in front of the theater, at the main entrance on Washington Street, or through the emergency door on Flood’s Aleley.
While the crown was set in panic mode, lead attacker Thomas Rochford rushed to the back of the theater and opened a special exit door on Flood Street. Because of Rochford’s action, people on the ground floor were able to get out of the theater in less than three minutes. So, in fact, the least crowded part of the theater had the fastest escape routes.
However, the open door on the Alley flood caused a brisk flow of air into the theater, which increased the intensity of the fire inside.
The people on the second floor had two staircases from which they could escape. A seven-foot-wide main staircase, the one that led into the building, led to a lobby near the Washington Street exit. The other was a narrow staircase leading to Flood’s Alley. Most opted for speed on the main staircase, because that was the one they were most famous for. This caused the greatest proportions like homeland, because instead of going out properly, people started working on rabies. People started getting tangled up with each other. Some got stuck in the front door, and others descended the stairs toward the people below them, stopping the flow of people from the building to stop completely.
Sergeant John Cain from the adjoining First District area broke into the theater, and with the help of janitor Van Sicken, he began to unwrap the dead people to bring the crowd behind them to safety. By all accounts, almost all the people from the seats on the second floor of the clothes were able to get out of the theater alive. But the people stuck in the gallery on the third floor were doomed from the start and they knew it.
People started jumping from the family circle seat into the auditorium below. Some were injured so badly from the jump that they could not get out of the theater. The other people came down from a small third-floor window to Flood’s Alley below. One man broke through a fan opening that deposited him on the roof of a nearby police station.
But most of the people in the gallery could not be saved. After several people managed to collapse down the staircase from which they entered the building for safety outside, the gallery supports collapsed and pushed hundreds of people three floors to the bottom.
Charles Straub was sitting in the gallery by the stairs. He was sitting with his friend Joseph Kremer. Straub then said, “We barely made it down the stairs; we were crowded downstairs.”
Although hundreds of people stumbled and fell on him, Straub somehow managed to descend the stairs and out of the theater. He estimated that about 25 people from the gallery came out in front of him, and about 12 people after him. The others were trapped inside. He never saw his friend Kremer again.
Charles Vine was sitting in the gallery, but far from the only staircase. He was thinking of jumping from one of the windows facing Flood’s Aleley, but it was a drop of sixty feet and he would surely fail from that jump. So Vine hurried to the front of the gallery and decided to jump from there into the circle of dresses below. Vine cut himself badly on a chair and was knocked out for a moment. But Vine quickly regained consciousness and managed to make his way up the stairs from the second floor to the exit door below. Fiery Marshall Keady said later that he thought Vine was “the last person to leave the gallery alive.”
Fifteen minutes after the fire started, the entire interior of the theater was on fire. And at 11:45 a.m., the east wall of the theater fell with a loud grunt, burying more than 300 men, women and children under a ton of bricks and burning debris.
Thomas Nevins, a chef engineer for the Brooklyn Fire Department, arrived at the theater around 11:26 a.m. He immediately saw that the theater could not be saved and that his job now was to limit the fire to that unique structure. When firefighting accessories arrived just before midnight, Nevins used that equipment to keep neighboring buildings free of sparks and debris.
By midnight, about 5,000 spectators had gathered in the streets in front of the theater; some looked for signs of loved ones who went to the theater but did not return home One morning the wall with the Alley of the Flood collapsed, and by 3 p.m. the fire began to burn on its own. At that moment, Chief Nevins kept the fire under control. An early newspaper reported a fire that morning, but said only a handful of people had been killed.
In broad daylight, Chief Nevins led a contingent of firefighters into the building. Chief Nevins revealed that almost the entire theater had collapsed into the basement. As firefighters passed through the rubble, they discovered a horrific discovery. It seems that ordinary rubbish, in fact, was a mess of charred human bodies. Some of the bodies were intact, and some had limbs missing. They all burned to recognition. The latter was found to be almost all dead sitting in a gallery on the third floor when the fire started.
It took three days to remove the body. It was a long and arduous project, because, given their condition of coal, the bodies would disintegrate immediately.
Forensic science was in its infancy at the time, and the exact number of bodies was not possible. Initial newspaper reports said there were 275 to 400 deaths in the Brooklyn Theater fire. The coroner’s report later says there were 283 deaths, but that’s just an educated assumption. 103 unidentified bodies and body parts were buried in a mass grave at Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
The number of fires in the Brooklyn Theater fire in 1876 exceeded only the Iroquois Theater fire that 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, 28. November 1942, in which 492 people died.
A fire from the Brooklyn Theater in 1876 prompted New York City to establish safeguards that reduced the possibility of a similar fire ever recurring. Changes in the building code have banned the presence of colors, woods and building materials in the stage space. The Code also provided for the use of solid brick walls, “extending from the basement to the roof, to reduce the risk of fire spreading in the auditorium.”
Other amendments to the code stipulated that “average arches should be equipped with non-flammable fire curtains.” Other openings in the proscenium wall required a fire-resistant door. And thermally activated spray systems were needed for the flying space above the stage.
Beginning in the early 1900s, half an hour before a scheduled show, there was to be a “theater details officer” on duty in each theater. Prior to the play, the job of theatrical detail was to “test fire alarms, inspect fire doors and fire curtains.” During the play, a theatrical detail officer “wandered the theater, making sure the aisles, corridors, and fire exits were clear and accessible to all patrons.”
There are contradictory allegations about what happened to Kate Claxton after she escaped a fire at the Brooklyn Theater. One newspaper said he was seen sitting safely at the First City Station police station an hour after the fire. Another report says that three hours after the fire, a New York journalist found Claxton wandering in rapture in Manhattan City Hall. Her arms and face were swollen from the burning bubbles and she couldn’t remember going by ferry from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
Lack of months later, after Claxton recovered from her injuries, she traveled to St. Louis. Louis to appear in another play. As soon as she arrived in St. Louis, she came to the Southern Hotel. The hotel was on fire for hours, but Claxton and her brother she was traveling with made a miraculous escape, seconds before the hotel collapsed.
That actually ended Kate Claxton’s theatrical career. Fearing she was some kind of gesture, the other actors refused to appear with her on stage. And theatergoers, 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 doing the best in the sequel like we did, hoping the fire would go out without difficulty or that the audience would leave gradually or quietly. But the result showed that it was not the right path … The curtain needed be lowered until the flames are extinguished, or if it was impossible to deal with them, the audience should be calmly informed of that indisposition by a member of the Company or some unfortunate phenomenon behind the scenes forced the performance to be suspended and they should be asked to they parted as quietly as they could. By raising the curtain he created a draft that ignited the flames with rage. “
The look back is 20/20, but Kate Claxton’s later observations were absolutely accurate. The fire from the Brooklyn Theater in 1876 could have caused minimal damage if only the theater itself had not quarreled, but acted harmoniously, methodically, and calmly.