The 1811 Richmond Theater Fire
December 26 is the 201st anniversary of the tragic Richmond Theatre fire in Richmond, Va. The fire broke out during the evening performance when an oil lamp ignited pieces of stage scenery, sending the packed house of 600 running for the exits. But the theater, built long before fire safety regulations, couldn’t accommodate the escaping crowd, and in the end, 72 people were killed. Horrific accounts of the event appeared in newspapers across the country.
Harriet Otis, daughter of U.S. Senate Secretary Samuel Allyne Otis, was living in Washington, D.C. at the time. On December 28, 1811, she wrote:
Papa came home at noon with the sad intelligence of the destruction of the Richmond theatre by fire, in which many noted and interesting people perished—among others Lieut Gibbons [James Gibbon, U.S. Navy] who was here a little while since—so little while, that I felt a sensation of horror at hearing he was no more—the particulars of this horrible catastrophe I do not yet know.
Two days later, she had a little more information:
Every tongue utters some new circumstance of horror respecting the Richmond sufferers—Poor Gibbon! hard as seems his fate well may his mother, rescued by him, exult in such a son—He had saved her and rushed back to save Miss [Sallie] Conyers a lady to whom he had long been attached—his efforts were vain and they both perished.
Bostonian Sophia (Sewall) Wood didn’t hear about the fire until January 7. While newspaper reports had overestimated the loss of life, Sophia was deeply affected by the story:
This eve heard of a most melancholly heart-rending account of a dreadful fire at Richmond in Virginia. The Theatre burnt to ashes & 150 Persons fell victims to the flames. This news, so distressing we cannot contemplate unmoved. Oh! but how littlecan we feel for those sufferers & yet how much.
Religious leaders were soon speculating about metaphysical causes. Was the fire a punishment from God for the institution of slavery? For theater-going and other “vices”? The MHS holds a number of sermons preached shortly after the fire, one of which boasts the colorful title: Repent! repent! or likewise perish!...on the late calamity at Richmond, Virginia.
Sophia Wood took a similar line:
Good often arises from the most calamitous events & tis to be devoutly wish’d, that this signal distress, will direct the minds of the disapated inhabitants of V___a to that divine sun of truth & religion, without which our lives are blanke here & the prospect of the future is indeed melancholly.
Harriet Otis, however, hesitated to pass judgment. On January 5, she described a sermon by Senate chaplain John Brackenridge that drew parallels to a Biblical story:
Mr Breckenridge warned us in a very good discourse not to think that “those Jews on whom the tower of Siloam fell were sinners above all others”—Alas who could be so dead to compassion as to pronounce such a sentence on the Richmond sufferers.
The Richmond Theatre building had been entirely consumed, and in 1814 Monumental Church was constructed on the site as a memorial to those who died.
- “Look out for boms”: The Trial and Execution of Sacco and Vanzetti
- Descriptions of Eclipses: "Every body was looking and little was done"
- Gertrude Codman Carter’s Diary, August 1917
- Politics of the Plate: Food Propaganda from the World Wars
- A Revolutionary Reunion: Lafayette and John Adams
- This Week @ MHS
- Dr. Lincoln R. Stone, Civil War Surgeon
- John Randolph of Roanoke
- This Week @ MHS
- From Fenways Past
- Winslow Homer’s Civil War reporting for Harper’s Weekly
- This Week @ MHS
- Gerry E. Studds Papers Available
- “A stain of depravity”: John Quincy Adams on Lord Chesterfield
- A Treasure Rediscovered: The Civil War Sword of Robert Gould Shaw, 54th Regiment
- Around MHS
- Around the Neighborhood
- Blog Info
- Civil War
- Collection Profiles
- Collections News
- Education Programs
- Exhibitions News
- From Our Collections
- From the Reading Room
- From the Reference Librarian
- MHS in the News
- On Loan
- Readers Relate
- Reading the Proceedings
- Recent Events
- Research Published
- Today @MHS
- August 2017 (8)
- July 2017 (12)
- June 2017 (13)
- May 2017 (10)
- April 2017 (10)
- March 2017 (12)
- February 2017 (10)
- January 2017 (9)
- December 2016 (11)
- November 2016 (10)
- complete archives