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Brooklyn Theater Fire

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Title: Brooklyn Theater Fire  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: December 5, 1876, Green-Wood Cemetery, List of fires, Conflagration, Orphans of the Storm, Kate Claxton, List of accidents and disasters by death toll, Stampede, Thomas R. Jackson
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Brooklyn Theater Fire


The Brooklyn Theater Fire was a catastrophic theater fire that broke out on the evening of December 5, 1876 in the city of Brooklyn New York, United States (now a borough of New York City). The conflagration claimed the lives of at least 278 individuals, with some accounts reporting more than 300 dead. One hundred and three unidentified victims were interred in a common grave at Green-Wood Cemetery. An obelisk near the main entrance at Fifth Avenue and 25th Street marks the burial site. More than two dozen identified victims were interred individually in separate sections at the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn Theater Fire ranks third in fatalities, among fires occurring in theaters and other public assembly buildings in the United States, falling behind the 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire and the 1903 Iroquois Theater Fire.[1]

Fatalities mainly arose in the family circle,[2] a gallery of inexpensive seats high in the auditorium. Only one stairway serviced this gallery, which sustained extreme temperatures and dense, suffocating smoke early in the conflagration. The stairway jammed with people, cutting off the escape of more than half of the gallery's occupants who quickly succumbed to smoke inhalation.[3][4]

The theater

The Brooklyn Theater opened on October 2, 1871 and stood near the south east corner of Washington and Johnson streets,[5] one block north of what was then Brooklyn's City Hall.[6] It was owned by The Brooklyn Building Association, a partnership of affluent Brooklyn residents including Abner C. Keeney, William Kingsley, and Judge Alexander McCue.[7] After its destruction, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had called it Brooklyn's "principal theater."[8] Up until the last twenty months of its existence, the theater had been managed by Sara G. and Frederick B. Conway, a couple long involved in New York and Brooklyn theater and who had managed Brooklyn's Park Theatre from 1864 to 1871.[9] Sara Conway died in April 1875,[10] about a half a year after her husband. Following a brief, unsuccessful management stint by their children, Albert M. Palmer[11] and Sheridan Shook, respectively, manager and proprietor of New York's Union Square Theatre, assumed a new lease on the Brooklyn Theatre in August 1875 and managed it until the catastrophe took place.

The Brooklyn Theatre stood a block from Fulton Street, the main thoroughfare to the Manhattan ferries and readily accessible to both New York and Brooklyn residents. It seated about 1,600 patrons.[5] Both Conway and Shook and Palmer sought out upscale productions with well-known actors and actresses. The Brooklyn Theater became a well-respected house in Brooklyn's nascent theater district, which included the smaller and older Park, Olympic, and Globe theaters.[12]

The Two Orphans

Shook and Palmer were already enjoying success with their Union Square Theatre Company in New York and went on to transplant a number of their productions to the Brooklyn house.[13] Their speciality was the adaptation of French plays to the American stage.[14] The Two Orphans, presented on the night of the fire, was a melodrama about two young homeless orphans separated by abduction. One was blind and fell into poverty-stricken circumstances; the other was kidnapped into an affluent household.[15] It had been a particularly successful play, running for 180 performances in 1874 at the Union Square Theatre.[16] Originally Les Deux Orphelines, by Adolphe d'Ennery and Eugène Cormon,[14] it had been adapted to the American stage by Jackson N. Hart.[16] Shook and Palmer brought it to the Brooklyn Theatre in March 1876 after an American tour, including one performance at the Brooklyn Theatre on April 12, 1875, two weeks before Sara Conway's death.[17] The 1876 run at the Brooklyn Theatre was well received but was ending.[18] At the time of the fire, Palmer indicated that a number of Union Square Theatre productions had been scheduled for the Brooklyn Theatre and that all the scenes and properties for "Ferrsol", "Rose Michel," "Conscience," and "Colonel Sellers," as well as the wardrobe for "The Two Orphans" and a suite of furniture for "Rose Michel" had been stored on the premises.[13]

Building features

Designed by Thomas R. Jackson, The Brooklyn Theatre was constructed in 1871 according to Sara Conway's specifications.[19] Brooklyn Police Fire Marshall Patrick Keady, who would later gather testimony and construct a chronology of the disaster, thought that the structure had better means of exits than many other public buildings in Brooklyn at that time.[20]

The theater occupied an L-shaped lot, with the proscenium theater occupying the 127-by-70-foot (39 m × 21 m) wing fronting Johnson Street. The stage and scene doors opened onto Johnson Street from this wing. The scene doors were 20 ft wide (6.1 m), large enough to accommodate scenic flats and large props.[21] The stage doors were smaller, but still could accommodate people carrying heavy loads. These Johnson street doors were utilitarian and little used by the public.[22] The shorter 27-by-40-foot (8.2 m × 12.2 m) wing on Washington Street housed the main entrance to the lower floors and a separate staircase to the third floor theater gallery. They were for public use and Jackson thought that these main entry ways were sufficiently large to discharge a full house of 1,450 people in under five minutes.[23]

There were three sets of doors which Jackson designated as special exits. They led onto Flood's Alley, a small street that bisected the block from Johnson to Myrtle Avenue, running along the east side of the building.[24][25] Each set was six feet across. The southernmost door, nearest Myrtle Avenue, opened into the eastern end of the vestibule. The middle set opened onto the theater and the northern set opened near the stage edge of the parquet. It serviced a stairway that connected it with the second floor balcony.[26] These alley doors were normally locked to discourage gate-crashing.[25] The structure had no external fire escapes connecting higher storey windows to the street.

Seating, interior passages and spaces

The Brooklyn Theatre had three levels of seating. Parquet and parquet circle seating occupied the theater's ground floor and contained 600 seats. The dress circle[27] occupied a second floor balcony which seated 550. A third floor gallery, the family circle, extended to the south wall of the structure and seated 450.[28] The gallery had its own entrance[24] and ticket booth[28] and customers for this seating did not usually commingle with patrons purchasing seating for the lower floors.[22]

Furthest from the stage and up against the theatre ceiling, the family circle offered the cheapest accommodations.[29] The passageway from this third floor gallery to Washington Street followed a short flight of stairs to a platform that was set against the south wall of the theatre, then it passed through a set of gallery doors before descending a second flight of stairs, anchored to the south wall, to a second floor landing. From this second floor landing the gallery passageway descended in a third flight onto Washington Street.[22][24]

Access to the dress circle was more straightforward. Patrons entered and left the dress circle via a single flight of 10-foot-wide stairs (3.0 m) that opened into the lobby. They also had a second emergency exit along the alley side of the building, going down a flight of stairs to the northernmost Flood's Alley door, generally locked against gate crashers.[24]

Eight private boxes, four on each side of the stage and each accommodating six people, rounded out the seating, the box seats furnishing the most elegant and expensive accommodations in the house. At the time the theatre opened in 1871, seating in the family circle cost fifty cents and the dress circle cost a dollar. In the lower auditorium, parquet seating, inconveniently close to the stage, cost seventy five cents while the parquet circle cost a dollar fifty. The box seats cost ten dollars.[29]

Stage and flies

As with many 19th-century theaters, the Brooklyn Theatre's stage was a presentation platform, a prop factory and a warehouse.[30] At the back of the stage was the painter's bridge, a walkway which ran the width of the stage and which could be raised or lowered as required for painting backdrops, or drops.[31] These and borders, scenic elements painted on canvas and mounted on wooden frames, were installed in a rigging loft, a large wooden open frame equipped with the pulleys and tackle needed to raise or lower scenic elements.[32] It was suspended high in the fly space or flies, the volume above the stage never seen by the audience.[31] For a large production with many scene changes, the rigging loft could be heavily loaded with painted canvas. On the night of the fire, it contained drops and borders for The Two Orphans. and the scenery for "Julius Caesar," was stacked on the stage, awaiting pickup.[13][33] This would have some bearing on the fire's outset, when stage manager Thorpe considered getting the hose, but was hampered by scenery.[34]

The proscenium arch housed a 35-by-50-foot (11 m × 15 m) drop curtain.[35] The arch itself was not integral to the theatre but was constructed with a light weight, plastered curtain wall made of wood.[36] The drama was entirely lit with gaslight controlled by a man at a gas table, who could light a lamp through an electric spark and vary the intensity of the light through gas flow.[37][38] Arrayed on the side of the proscenium arch were gas-lit border lamps, equipped with tin reflectors that cast light backstage and onto the borders. Each border lamp was in a wire cage intended to keep the canvas borders at least a foot away from the gas lamps within.[31][37] Personnel were forbidden to ignite gaslights with matches or smoke anywhere on the stage.[39]

The fire

On December 5, 1876, about a thousand patrons were in attendance.[3] Samuel Hastings, who collected tickets at the gallery entrance, estimated that there were about 400 people in the family circle.[40] One of the theater owners, Col. Abner Keeny, said that about 360 people purchased tickets for the dress circle and about 250 people in the parquet and parquet circle.[28] Edward B. Dickinson, a patron in the middle of the parquet about five rows from the stage, thought the auditorium floor was not more than half full.[41] Charles Vine, high in the family circle, thought it was "one of the biggest galleries" he had seen in a long time at the Brooklyn Theatre.[42]

The play proceeded without incident until the intermission between the fourth and fifth act, which occurred shortly after 11 pm.[43] During this time, the drop curtain was down, hiding the stage, and the orchestra was playing for the intermission. Some attendees in the parquet circle heard what sounded like a brawl behind the curtain, shouting by men, and the working of machinery; they could easily hear it above the playing of the orchestra.[44]

Behind the curtain, the actors were taking their positions in a box set representing an old boathouse on the bank of the Seine. This was constructed of painted canvas on a flimsy wooden frame and mainly blocked the backstage and flies from view. Kate Claxton, playing Louise, the blind orphan girl, along with actors J. B. Studley, and H. S. Murdoch, had taken their places on stage within the box set and were waiting for the curtain to rise. Claxton was lying on a pallet of straw, looking up. Actors Mary Ann Farren and Claude Burroughs were waiting in the wings for their entry cues.[45][46]

Fire spotted

Around 11:20 pm,[46] while preparations for the final act were under way, stage manager J. W. Thorpe saw a small flame on the left, or prompt side of the stage.[47] The fire was coming from the lower part of a drop hanging below the rigging loft near the center stage border-light. The canvas was hanging, partially detached, from its frame and, Thorpe thought, somehow must have slipped past the wire mesh guard of the border lamp and ignited. He estimated its size to be no larger than his hand.[47] Though water in paint buckets was once kept on hand on the stage and in the rigging loft[13][48] and though a two and a half inch water pipe still serviced a fire hose backstage,[49] none of these facilities was readily available.[48] Thorpe considered the fire hose, but there was much scenery in the way. He decided that the fire would be well under way by the time the hose was in place. He opted to extinguish the flame by whatever means were readily available.[34] He directed Carpenters Hamilton Weaver and William Van Sicken to attempt to extinguish the flame. These people had long stage poles at the time and made their initial attempts at quelling the small fire by beating the flames out.

The curtains rose while backstage personnel hastened to bring the fire under control, the actors beginning the scene. After speaking a few lines, Claxton was made aware of the fire by Lillian Cleaves, another actress backstage who was standing behind the box set. She whispered sotto voce through the canvas of the boathouse that there was fire on stage and urged them to leave. Kate Claxton recalled peering up through the flimsy canvas of the box set and seeing “sparks falling and little tongues of the fire licking the edges of the drops and borders that hung in the flies.”[45]

In spite of this, the actors continued with their performance,[45] apparently thinking that any unusual behavior on their part would only induce panic.[49][50] Mrs. Mary Ann Farren made her entrance and after delivering her first lines, softly whispered, “The fire is steadily gaining.”[45]

The actors remained in character for only a little while longer, the audience growing increasingly restive. In spite of their efforts, the stage hands could not snuff the fire out; instead they had inadvertently knocked burning material free, spreading fire to the rigging loft.[5] Bits of flaming debris were beginning to fall, descending onto the box set and other properties spread around backstage. Dickinson, sitting in the center parquet, saw a thin wreath of smoke curling along the ceiling of the boxed-in scene. “Immediately afterward, one corner of the canvas ceiling was raised, and through the opening thus made I saw the flames, and saw men trying to rake the fire off the ceiling [of the box set] with long poles.”[41] With smoldering debris falling onto the stage, the actors fell out of character. Many in the audience, already restive, rose from their seats and commenced to crowd the aisles.[50]

Actors attempt to minimize the fire, then quell panic

Kate Claxton, H. S. Murdoch and J. B. Studley at first urged the audience to remain calm and be seated.[45] Thomas Rocheford, head usher, went to the auditorium when he heard someone yell 'Fire!' He later testified: "Mr. Studley and Mr. Murdoch sung out to the people to keep their seats. I also stopped quite a number going out who were making a rush. Finally a good many of them cooled down and took their seats."[51]

From his vantage point high in the family circle, Charles Vine thought that Claxton was “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."[42]

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported Claxton saying, “There is no danger; the flames are a part of the play.” The assertion was disingenuous – fire had no part in the story – and would prove short lived. “As she spoke,” the Eagle continued in its December 6 coverage, “a burning piece of wood fell at her feet, and she uttered an involuntary exclamation of alarm. This broke the spell which had heretofore held the audience.”[52]

Panic erupted, and thought turned to quelling it. J. B. Studley in particular reasoned: "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."[53] Kate Claxton echoed J. B. Studley's line, and stage manager J. W. Thorpe appeared,[34] also urging an orderly exit. But the audience was now thoroughly panicked and ignored the people on the stage.

Claxton later recalled, “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.”[45]

Claxton remembered that a private passage from the leading lady's dressing room ran through the basement to the box office, and through that she and fellow actress Maude Harrison bypassed much of the crush in the lobby.[45] Murdoch and Claude Burroughs thought there was sufficient time to grab street clothing from their dressing rooms − it was December and their stage costumes were flimsy. For want of creature comfort they became trapped and did not escape.[54] Some of the acting company left by the stage doors exiting onto Johnson Street,[51][55][56] but the fire on the stage soon became widespread, cutting those exits off. All of the remaining exits were in the front of the house, the main entrance exiting onto Washington street or the special exit doors leading into Flood's Alley.[24]

Escaping the theater

While the actors were attempting to quell the panic, the head usher, Thomas Rocheford, went to the rear of the auditorium to open the Flood's Alley special exit door on the east end of the vestibule, opposite of the Washington Street entrances, one of the three special exit doors designed by architect Jackson.[25] Since the doors were rarely used, he found the locking mechanism corroded; he was initially unable to open the doors. He found a small piece of metal in his pocket and with this was able to release the doors.[57] This action enabled the people on the floor of the auditorium to evacuate the building fairly quickly, but Rocheford's action came at a cost. The open doors furnished airflow for the fire on the stage, which immediately grew in intensity.[58]

Despite the initial scenes of despair and panic that had issued from that quadrant, patrons in the lower parquet and parquet circle were able to escape in under three minutes, having access to Flood's Alley and Washington Street exits and having no flights of stairs to negotiate. The least crowded section of the theater had the best evacuation routes.[59]

Those in the second floor dress circle had to contend with stairs. The main flight led to the vestibule and the Washington Street exit; a second led to the Flood's Alley side door close to Johnson Street. Most favored the Washington Street exit because it was the way in which they had first entered the circle and were already familiar with it. The stairway was over seven feet wide,[24] and, according to Jackson's estimates, should have emptied the dress circle in under three minutes.[23] But as Brooklyn Police Fire Marshall Patrick Keady noted later in his Special Report, instead of the orderly procession that had originally informed Jackson's evacuation estimates, everyone attempted to sally the stairs at once.[26] Anything but orderly, people jammed in the doorway and stumbled under the relentless press from people behind them. Their feet got caught in balustrades; they tripped and their panic turned frenzied. The pace on the stairs, now packed with struggling people, ground to a slow crawl. Sergeant John Cain, arriving from the First Precinct station house next door to the theater, estimated that there were about 150 people jammed on the stairs when he arrived. He was joined by Van Sicken, who had been driven from the stage, and Mike Sweeny, the building janitor, and other first precinct officers.[60] The men began untangling the people, struggling to reinstate forward motion.

Some people in the dress circle, familiar with the theater, tried to avail themselves of the other exit leading into Flood's Alley, near the corner of Johnson Street. Patrons in the first rush down the stairs found the door locked; no usher was in sight.[61] In the brief time it took them to discover that the door was locked and return to the dress circle, the stage had become engulfed and they had no recourse but to attempt to work their way down the Washington Street stairs. Fire Marshall Keady would later write that he never found evidence that the exit had been opened.[62]

Up in the family circle

Circumstances were only worse in the family circle. With around four hundred patrons seated there,[40] it was served by a single, long stairway to street level. In the stairs leading off the gallery platform, there were two right-angled turns and two long passages.[24] At six feet, eight inches, it was wider than most gallery passages of that era,[20][63] but with smoke accumulating under the ceiling and the family circle located in the highest reaches of the theater, there was an urgency for everyone to leave.[3] To complicate matters, gas pressure in the building was beginning to falter, dimming the stairway lamps.[64]


When fire entered the roof of the theater, dry and superheated, it spread with extreme rapidity. In the family circle, Charles Vine thought that less than four minutes passed from the time he saw fire on the stage to the arrival of smoke. To Officer G. A. Wessman, working to clear the crush in the dress circle, the smoke appeared as “a kind of dark blue [with] a most peculiar smell; no human being could live in it for two minutes.” As it filled the upper reaches of the theater, Wessman “heard cries and a thumping noise, as of persons falling or jumping.”[65]

Getting down the gallery stairway

Charles Straub had a seat in the family circle close to the stairway; he was in the company of his friend Joseph Kreamer. He remembered, “we could hardly run down the stairs; we were crowded down.”[66] Though at first he saw no smoke, by the time he had been carried down to the first flight, it had grown thicker. There he tripped and people fell on top of him. By then the last flight of stairs was dark and full of smoke. Straub struggled up and stumbled forward. He estimated that about twenty-five people had gotten out ahead of him. Wondrously, though he had been pushed down two flights of stairs and thought that hundreds had fallen on top of him, only about ten or twelve people came out onto the street after him. He waited around the Washington Street entrance for three-quarters of an hour, but he never saw his friend Kreamer emerge from the stairway, nor did he ever see him again.[66]

Escaping the family circle

Charles Vine, who had been beguiled with Kate Claxton's nerve,[42] was far away from those stairs. Claxton's assurances had induced him to wait in his seat for a few minutes, but the crowd growing on the stairs made him uneasy. The sight of men trampling women appalled him; the din was maddening. He thought everyone was going crazy. Heat and dense smoke had arrived.[67]

He saw that movement down the stairway had stalled, with people piling over one another. He considered jumping from one of the windows facing Flood's Alley, but it was a sixty-foot drop. He walked to the front of the gallery and decided to make his jump there. He fell to the dress circle below, severely cutting himself on a chair, but he retained consciousness and was able to run to the door.[42]

There, he encountered another scene of bedlam, this one on the stairway from the dress circle, where people were struggling over those who had fallen on the stairs. Fortunately, Vine was now nearer the Washington Street entrance, where Cain and his fellow police officers were slowly reinstating some kind of rough order.[68] He was able to gain the lobby and helped clear some of the crush around the stairs. He left the theater, carrying a woman who had been trampled underneath and “who seemed as dead as a door nail.” Fire Marshall Keady felt that Vine had been the last person to leave the family circle alive. When he had jumped, there were still many people frantically struggling to leave.[42][67]

Departing the building

Inside the lobby, Sweeny, District Engineer Farley and his firemen, Cain, and the other police officers eventually cleared the stairs to work their way up to the dress circle doors, where there was the connecting doorway to the gallery stairway. They tried going up but were stopped by thick smoke.[60] They heard no traffic on the stairway, heard no human sounds. They called up but received no response. Farley ordered one last inspection of the dress circle, but saw no activity. Nor was there any signs of life in the auditorium, now burning fiercely. To Farley the building seemed evacuated, barring a few stragglers. Not wanting to subject himself or others to any further risk, he ordered his men to quit the building.[60] Within minutes, cracks appeared on the exterior theater walls facing Johnson street, where, within, the heart of the blaze raged. At 11:45, less than a half hour after J. W. Thorpe had spied a flame no larger than his hand, the Johnson Street end of the building collapsed and an intense rush of air was drawn in, feeding the flames. Anyone who could speak of events transpiring within the building had already left.[69]

Waiting for the flames to die down

Thomas Nevins, Chef Engineer of the Brooklyn Fire Department, arrived at the theater around 11:26; he decided immediately that the theater was lost and that his job was one of confinement. Dieter Hotel, on the corner of Washington and Johnson streets, was lower than the theater, its broad flat roof was an inviting target to flaming debris. The First Police Precinct station house, south of the theater, was an old brick building with dry wooden support beams. Ramshackle wooden frame buildings stretched down the block on Flood's Alley opposite the burning theater. At that point, the prevailing wind was from the west,[56] carrying smoke and cinders east, dropping firebrands onto these old structures. The Post Office, south of the police station house, was filled with paper mail. Nevins had called in the second and third alarms while on the way to the fire; when the additional equipment arrived, he deployed the engines around the block to keep adjoining buildings free of sparks and burning debris.[70]

By midnight, the fire had peaked, drawing around 5,000 spectators.[71] It burned uncontrolled until around 1:00 am, and, in the wee hours, the walls along Flood's Alley collapsed, filling the alley with debris. By 3:00 am it began burning out. Nevins considered the blaze now partially under control.[46]

Many survivors found a temporary haven in the First Precinct station house. Kate Claxton was taken there after a Brooklyn Eagle reporter found her dazed in front of the Washington Street entrance. Dressed only in the thin theatrical garb of a penniless orphan, she huddled in the station house. The enormous disaster would occur to her only in small, incongruous pieces. Sitting quietly in Captain Smith's office, she would suddenly mourn for some lost article of clothing, her seal skin sacque or jewelry. Later on, the thought that she had lost her purse and was penniless would haunt her. From time to time people would enter and she would ask them about H. S. Murdoch, the actor who had been with her in her final minutes on the stage and who had rushed to his dressing room for outer wear. No one had seen him; she would beseech the person to go look for him. Eventually a waterproof cloak was found for her and she was driven to her rooms at Pierrepoint House.[72] Later reports put her in City Hall park, Manhattan, unable to remember how she had gotten there.[73]

Despite the large number of people inquiring after other people, the received wisdom of the wee morning hours was that most, if not all, people had gotten out alive. Among the police and fire fighters, this idea stemmed largely from the last searches of District Engineer Farley: no one had been seen in the parquet or parquet circle. No one had been seen in the dress circle. It was true that no one had physically checked the gallery, but people had called up there and received no reply, nor were there sounds of movement. The inclination was to hope for the best. True, when Charles Vine dropped himself off the gallery there had still been hundreds of people struggling on the staircase, but Vine had sought medical assistance for his deep cuts, so what he knew was not general knowledge. When the morning papers went to press, none carried news of casualties.

Shortly after 3:00 am, Chief Nevins attempted his first sally into the vestibule of the theatre; no one had been in there since District Chief Farley's departure more than three hours prior. His first attempts failed, but eventually he worked his way into the vestibule. Outside the doors leading into the lobby, he found the body of a woman, legs partially burned away, face and arms disfigured. She was sitting upright with her back against the south wall. Nevins decided that at that point there were likely many more bodies to be found. He kept the news confined to his senior District Engineers, not wishing to incur a stampede into the fragile theatre of people seeking loved ones.[70]


The next foray into the building did not occur until the daylight hours. Chief Nevins had his District Engineers organize recovery parties. With the exception of a short segment of the vestibule, the building had mainly collapsed into the cellar and burned until the wood material had been exhausted. What first appeared to be a great deal of rubbish in the cellar underneath where the vestibule had been turned out, under closer inspection, to be largely human remains, a large mass of people which had fallen into twisted and distorted positions and then burned. These were mainly from the gallery and the stairway, which, in the original structure, had been above the vestibule ceiling against the south wall of the building.

Removal of these remains would occupy much of the next three days. It was slow work; the conditions of the bodies were such that they would fall apart with only the slightest movement, and many had been mangled and dismembered. An exact body count was never obtained, given the state of forensic science in that era. With many bodies partially dismembered and scattered about by the gallery's collapse, and with faces burned beyond recognition, it was difficult to determine how many people were in a given pile of limbs, heads and trunks. The bodies could only be moved slowly. The capacity of the city morgue was quickly reached so an unused market on Adams Street was pressed into service.[74] By Friday, December 8, Coroner Simms reported that 293 bodies had been taken from the theater site. The number was by no means definitive. Later, his own Coroner's Report would cite 283 fatalities. Much later, the memorial stone erected in Green-Wood Cemetery, would reference 278 deaths.

Coroner's Report

The King's County coroner, Henry C. Simms, convened a jury on the disaster which heard testimony through December and January 1877. When it was published at the end of January 1877, it was especially harsh on the theatrical managers, Sheridan Shook and A. M. Palmer. The jury held Shook and Palmer responsible for failing to take adequate precautions against fire, failing to train stage hands in either fire prevention or the management of incipient fires, failing to establish clear chains of command in the theatre's management, permitting the stage to become cluttered with properties and failing to maintain in good working order fire fighting equipment and emergency exits that had originally been installed. The jury found lesser fault with the design of the building, observing that the five-year-old structure had better exits than many other public buildings in the city. Fault was found with the stairways leading to the family circle and the auditorium, which lacked a firewall between the audience and the stage. In delivering the verdict, the jury reported that death occurred mainly through suffocation in the dense smoke that prevailed in the gallery, likely in the few minutes after Charles Vine dropped from the family circle to the balcony below.[3] 123

Fire Marshall's Report

Police Fire Marshall Patrick Keady interviewed sixty two people directly connected with the fire in the week following the blaze and delivered his report on December 18, 1876. He had been forcibly struck by the lack of use of water in any form of conveyance, though a two and a half inch pipe serviced the hydrant near the stage.[48][49]

He was also forcibly struck by a certain laxness in the management of theatre by Shook and Palmer, especially in comparison to Sara Conway's management prior to her death. Many witnesses reported that Conway had insisted on filled water buckets to be positioned in various places back stage or in the rigging loft and kept the fire hose maintained. In contrast, Mike Sweeny could recall using the hose only once, and was not certain of its condition on the day of the fire; many of his colleagues thought the hose leaked and was up in the painter's gallery in the roof above the stage.

Later responses

While the immediate root cause of the conflagration found by Brooklyn police and fire authorities was negligence on behalf of the theater lessees, Shook and Palmer, as time went on, theater production practices that were regarded as acceptable risks in the 1870s were examined critically as the 20th century approached. Soon after the fire, New York Mirror began a campaign to eliminate or regulate many common theater practices. Its agitation eventually spurred 1880's New York City fire code revisions barring the use of the stage in producing props and scenic elements, barring paints, wood, and construction material from the stage area, and widening theater exits.[75]

Commenting on theater fires in his December 1905 address to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Society President John R. Freeman found significant antecedents in the Brooklyn Theater Fire to the then-recent Iroquois Theater Fire, the 1881 Vienna Ringtheater fire and the 1887 Exeter Theater Fire: stages crowded with scenery, an onrush of air from opening doors or windows, scant smoke vents over the stage, this giving rise to an outburst of smoke from under the proscenium arch with concomitant deadly effects upon upper gallery occupants.[76] These observations, made twenty nine years after the fact, resonate with those made on the night of the Brooklyn Theater fire. Engineer Fred J. Manning, Engine Number 5, arriving at 11:22 pm, testified that the 20 ft wide (6.1 m) scene doors were about two-thirds open, with "one or two men attempting to bring something out of these doors."[55] Abner C. Keeny, part owner and contractor of the building, commenting on the fire the following morning, believed that the sudden inrush of air from the scenic entrance fanned the fire and triggered its spread from the stage to the theater at large, leading to the rapid advance of smoke onto the family circle.[56]

By the early 20th century, cumulative New York City building code changes and additions required a solid brick proscenium wall, extending from the cellar to the roof, to minimize the risk of a stage fire spreading into the auditorium. Any openings in the wall, such as the large opening made by the proscenium arch itself, required special fire blocking facilities. Proscenium arches were equipped with non-flammable fire curtains; other openings in the proscenium wall required self-closing fire-resistant doors. Heat activated sprinkling systems were required for the fly space above the stage. At this time in New York City, uniformed fire department officers became permanent attendees of every theatrical production. These 'Theatre Detail Officers' were required to be in the theater a half-hour before the performance, test the fire alarms, inspect fire wall doors and the fire curtain, and, during performances, ensure that aisles, passageways and fire exits remain clear and accessible.[77]


Reminiscing about the fire nine years later, Kate Claxton wrote:[45]

“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.”
—Kate Claxton, New York Times, November 30, 1885

In 1879, Haverly's Theatre was erected on the same site but was razed eleven years later to make way for new offices of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.[9] After the Eagle closed, in the mid-20th century, the entire block was subsumed by the urban renewal project which gave rise to Cadman Plaza. The approximate location of the theater is north of the New York Supreme Court Building in a tree-covered area.



External links

  • List of 276 known victims (reference only)

Coordinates: 40°41′42″N 73°59′24″W / 40.695°N 73.99°W / 40.695; -73.99

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