“’There is no danger; the flames are a part of the play.’ As she spoke,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.”
– Actress Kate Claxton as reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec.5, 1876.
Kate Claxton’s attempts to quell the incipient panic that she was afraid would rush through the audience sadly went for naught. For in spite of attempts by Claxton, and several other members of the cast to calm the theater crowd, most of them did rush for the exits, and as a result, nearly three hundred people perished that night, on today’s date, December 5, in 1876.
The Brooklyn Theater’s Exits
The Brooklyn Theater first raised it’s curtains on October 2, 1871 at the south east corner of Washington and Johnson streets, a single block
north of what was then Brooklyn’s City Hall. The proprie- tors of the Union Square Theater, Albert M. Palmer and Sheridan Shook had assumed responsibility in August of 1875, and were now in charge. By the standards of the day, the exits for the Brooklyn were not bad. The stairwells exiting the second floor were seven feet wide, and that leading from the third floor was almost as wide. Unfortunately, the fire which spread smoke to the ceiling first, lead to these escape routes being filled with panicked audience members, and thus to great loss of life.
KEY to the diagram above:
Progress of the fire: 1. A border catches fire from a gaslight border lamp. 2. Actors attempt to calm audience; they fail and panic erupts. 3. Though panic-struck, patrons evacuate the lower portions of the theater successfully. 4. The balcony suffers from clogged stairwells (orange) filled with panicking, frenzied patrons, but police and firemen restore order in time. 5. Choking, deadly smoke hits the gallery before half the people can evacuate via a single stairway (red), which has also become jammed by too many people trying to exit at once. Diagram from “Wikipedia”.
Kate Claxton Tries to Calm the Audience
It was later determined that the flames began when a gaslight being used back stage evidently caught onto some of the scenery that was therein stored for another part of the play. The performance that night with Kate Claxton (below) was of a melodrama called “The Two Orphans.” At that point in the
production, at about 11:00 in the evening, a small set was being used to represent a small little shack sheltering the orphans from the elements. There were normally paint buckets filled with water kept backstage for this very eventuality, but that night, they were not there. At first, the flame was very small. But it quickly spread. Stage hands attempted frantically to quell it, as the final act of the play had just commenced, and they were worried that the audience would panic. As the play went forward, someone whispered to Claxton from behind the set “Fire. The flies (referring to the next line of curtains)are on fire.” All of the actors then onstage heard the warning and attempted to go on with the performance. But it was impossible. Claxton attempted to calm the audience with the statement quoted above, but it soon proved impossible.
The Brooklyn Theater Audience Panics
The audience members on the first floor, as well as the members of the orchestra were able to effect their exit from the theater fairly quickly, as they had the exits right there, and had no stairs to negotiate. But at the exclamation “FIRE!” the audience members in the balcony headed for the exits and found themselves in a mad crush of panic-stricken humanity. It was a bad scene for those on the second floor, but firefighters who soon arrived and members of the theater staff were soon able to restore order and get these exits emptied. Unfortunately, such was not the case with those poor unfortunates caught on the third floor. They ran for the exits, and the smoke which quickly reached the ceiling rendered the one stairwell leading from that area nearly impassable. Human beings crushed each other to the floor, and most died from being crushed, while those who had not so perished would die of smoke inhalation.
The dead who were discovered mostly the next day were placed in coffins and stored in a nearby market building. Most of them were unrecognizable, and wound up being placed in a common grave near the theater site. Many years later, Miss Paxton would remember that terrible night in an interview with the New York Times:
Kate Claxton Remembers:
“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.”
On a much HAPPIER note:
Two important birthdays to note today –
Richard Wayne Penniman, known to the world as “Little Richard”,
was born on today’s date in 1932. American singer, song- writer, musician, recording artist, and actor, “Little Richard has brought us such tunes as “Good Golly Miss Molly”, “Tutti Frutti”, “Slippin’ and Slidin'”, and a host of other rockin’ tunes! Considered a key in the gradual move from rhythm and blues to rock and roll in the 1950s, he was also the first artist to put the funk in the rock and roll beat and was also an important contributor to the development of soul music in America.
Also born today in 19?? was my dear E-friend and confidant, the beautiful (I THINK she’s beautiful.. I’ve never seen her and she RESOLUTELY refuses to send me a picture) and recently married Sara Cuthbertson nee Batangi. She is the very PRIDE of Australia, and I am very pleased and proud to call her a friend of mine, albeit an e-mail friend whom I’ve never met in person, and probably never will, as she lives down under, and I don’t see myself ever having the ca$$$h to take a trip down there. Happy birthday to you MRS. Sara, and a long and happy marriage to you and John!!
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Darkest Hours: A Narrative Encyclopedia of Worldwide Disasters from Ancient Times to the Present by Robert Jay Nash, Nelson Hall Publ.,New York, 1976, pp. 68 -69.