Two hundred and two years tonight, on December 26, 1811, about 600 people settled in to their seats at the old Richmond Theater on Broad Street to watch a double feature performance of the plays The Father and Raymond and Agness. The evening’s festivities were a benefit for longtime theater company member Alexander Placide, who had been widowed with a young daughter just a few days before. Many of Virginia’s leading citizens were in the audience, including George William Smith, Governor of Virginia, and Abraham Venable, who served in Congress with Virginians James Madison and James Monroe.
Just after the first act of The Father, the chandelier, loaded with oil lamps, was raised but suddenly became tangled in the ropes used to raise it. One of them started burning. A piece of scenery hanging over the stage caught fire and quickly spread to several other scenes, which were raised and hanging from the rafters awaiting their cues to be lowered. At the moment the fire started the curtain was drawn to the audience, thus concealing the fire. A stagehand ran away as soon as he saw the flames. As the curtain went up on the second act sparks were raining down on the stage. An actor rushed out and cried, “The house is on fire!”
Common sense tells you what will happen when someone shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater; the grim events at the Richmond Theater illustrated it in real life. People began rushing for the exits. Sparks and cinders from the rafters rained down onto them, causing more panic. With doors blocked by flames, people began jumping out of windows. Gilbert Hunt, a former slave who ran a blacksmith shop near the theater, rushed to the scene and began catching people who leaped from windows. He is credited with saving about 12 lives.
Gilbert Hunt, an ex-slave, is credited with saving lives at the Richmond Theater. Years later he also saved lives in another fire at the Richmond Penitentiary.
Within ten minutes the Richmond Theater was a roaring inferno, and with as ineffectual as firefighting companies generally were in the early 19th century, there was little that anybody could do. In total 72 people died in the flames, including Governor Smith and Abraham Venable. The theater itself was a total ruin. A church, constructed partially as a memorial to the dead, was built on the site. It’s now a historic landmark, but the remains of the 72 victims of the post-Christmas horror remain, to this day, entombed in a brick crypt beneath the site.
Although 72 deaths sounds like a pretty low toll at least compared to various other horrific fires over the years, such as the 1944 Hartford Circus fire (168 deaths) or the Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston (492 dead), the Richmond Theater Fire was, as of 1811, the single largest-casualty urban disaster in the history of the United States up to that time. A Christmas nightmare, indeed.