The Brooklyn Theatre Fire

On this day in 1876 occurred the second worst theatre fire in U.S. history (and New York’s worst): the Brooklyn Theatre Fire. I first became aware of this disaster in the most moving away possible: I stumbled upon a monument to the unidentified dead during one of my ambles in Green-wood Cemetery (see pictures below).

Building fires, including theatre fires, were practically routine in those days of wooden construction, flame-based illumination (candles, lanterns, gaslights), and minimal regulation. On this blog we’ve had occasion to look at several: the 1903 Iroquois Theatre Fire (the worst in U.S. history), the many fire disasters that befell P.T. Barnum, the many fires at Coney Island, and the Hartford Circus Fire.

The Brooklyn Theatre had been built in 1871, over a quarter of a century before Brooklyn was incorporated into New York City. It stood at the corner of Washington and Johnston Streets, in what is now Cadman Plaza, just north of Brooklyn Borough Hall (then City Hall). Seating 1,600, it was considered Brooklyn’s principal theatre at the time, easily accessible to Manhattan ferries, and the site of major productions featuring the top stars of the day.

On December 5, 1876 the production was The Two Orphans starring Kate Claxton. The house was at roughly 2/3 capacity (1,000 people in attendance). The timing of the disaster, at roughly 11:20pm, in an intermission between the fourth and fifth acts, is an instructive detail about how LONG an evening of theatre was back then, before the days of home entertainment. Attending the theatre was a commitment of several hours. (O, the complaints I hear from people nowadays if a show lasts longer than 90 minutes!) On the night in question, a theatrical light ignited part of the canvas set, which no one noticed until the curtain had gone up and the fifth act had started. The actors bravely attempted to calm the audience, but panic quickly ensued, and there were bottlenecks and crushes at the exits as audience members tried to flee. The number of dead was estimated to be between 278 and 300; 103 of them were unidentified. This monument to them was erected shortly thereafter.