On December 5, 1876, a crowd of excited theater goers packed into the Brooklyn Theater in New York City to see a heldover show called “The Two Orphans.” When the curtain rose for the final act, no one had any idea that it really was the final act, or that in less than 30 minutes, nearly 300 of them would be dead.
As “The Two Orphans” was nearing the end of its run, materials for the next two productions were already being stored at the theater. The backstage area, usually fairly open and spacious, was now packed with stored items. These extra materials made it difficult for actors and support personnel to navigate backstage and in the wings. The managers ordered that the fire buckets filled with water be removed, so people would not knock them over and spill them while trying to maneuver around all the extra set pieces. The additional flats were piled up against the back wall, blocking the fire hose apparatus.
The smaller wing, fronting on Washington Street, was the public face of the Brooklyn Theatre. Here were the public street entrances, the main and secondary box offices for ticket sales, the lobby and the staircases leading to the two balconies. The production offices were located on the upper floors of this wing.
Each of the theater’s three seating levels had its own special designation and commanded different ticket prices accordingly. There were six hundred floor-level seats in two sections known as “parquet” and “parquet circle.” Parquet circle seats were the best of the floor seats and tickets sold for a dollar fifty. Parquet seating was very close to the stage and considered to be less desirable so the cost was lower at seventy-five cents. The lower balcony, known as “dress circle.” contained 550 seats and tickets sold for one dollar. The “family circle,” made up the upper balcony and seated 450 patrons. These seats were farthest from the stage and nearest the ceiling so tickets were just fifty cents. The most choice and elegant seating was in eight private boxes, four on each side of the stage. Each box held up to six seats at a premium ticket cost of ten dollars.
The theater’s architect, Thomas R. Jackson, was very conscience of safety. He designed the structure so that it could be completely emptied within five minutes in case of emergency, even though there were no external fire escapes. In addition to the public entrances and the large scene and stage doors, he built three special exits into the long wall that made up the far side of the seating auditorium at ground level. These were large six-foot-wide double doors opening onto Flood’s Alley, which in turn led to Washington Street. One set was near the rear corner, the second in the center of the wall and the third just in front of the stage. Although these doors were kept locked to thwart intended gate crashers, the ushers had keys so they could be opened easily and quickly.
The staircases were also designed for ease and safety. The main flight from the dress circle on the first balcony was ten feet wide and opened into the box office lobby. There was also a narrow emergency staircase on the opposite side of the balcony that lead to the Flood’s Alley exit nearest the stage.
The family circle had a different design than the parquet and dress circles on the two lower levels. It had only one exit staircase leading from the upper balcony. Though it was a generous width at nearly seven feet, guests still needed to traverse two full flights separated by a long corridor. As was the custom of the day, the theater’s family circle was viewed much as the steerage on a ship. Third class ticket holders were basically third class citizens. They had a separate entrance, separate box office and a separate set of stairs, so they could not mingle or interact with those patrons in dress circle or parquet.
On that fateful night in December 1876, there were nearly 1,200 people inside the Brooklyn Theatre including over a hundred theater employees and members of the acting company. The house manager reported that they had sold approximately 250 tickets for parquet and parquet circle, 360 tickets for dress circle and 400 for family circle. Not quite a packed house, but still, a very sizable crowd for a frigid Tuesday night.
The lighting for the body of the theater was provided by gaslights. The stage itself was lighted with gas-lit border lights equipped with reflectors. These lights were ignited by an electric spark and the level of light from each was controlled by regulating the gas flow. To ensure that these “open-flame” lights didn’t ignite drops, props, furniture or curtains, they were covered with a protective wire frame, intended to keep objects at least a foot away from the flame.
The fifth and final act of “The Two Orphans” involved a major setting change. This act was to take place inside an old, derelict boathouse, poor Louise’s family home. First, the drop and borders from the previous scene were raised into the fly space and the new set moved onto center stage. The set was a simple wooden frame draped with dark brown painted canvas. There was little in the way of set pieces, just a pallet of straw in the center of the “boat house.”
It was just past 11:00 p.m. on December 5. The border drop from the previous scene had been raised and the stage crew was preparing the stage for the boathouse scene. Shortly before the curtain was to rise, stage manager J. W. Thorpe noticed that a border that had just been raised into the fly space had a broken frame corner and seemed to be hanging down at an angle, as if it had snagged on something. More importantly, he saw a small fire, not much larger than a fist, burning in the torn corner. Apparently the drop had gotten caught on the protective wire cage over one of the boarder gaslights and had ignited.
Kate Claxton, star of the show, had taken her place on stage and was lying on her back upon the straw pallet. Also on stage were two other actors, Henry Murdock and J. B. Studley. Waiting in the wings for their entrance cues were Mary Ann Farren and Claude Burroughs. Everyone had taken their places. Everything was ready to go. The audience was waiting.
Thorpe was unable to get to the fire hose that was behind the stored flats on the back wall and the fire buckets had been removed. He thought that the fire could be easily extinguished, and not wanting to disrupt the play, he directed two nearby carpenters to put the fire out and for the curtain to be raised for the final act.
Waiting to start the scene, Kate heard a rumbling sound “as if the roof were coming down” as the two carpenters, armed with long poles, were attempting to beat the fire out over their heads. Kate, looking up as she lay on her bed of straw, could see sparks floating down from the flies. But the curtain went up and she began the scene, delivering her first few lines without hesitation. As she lay there, Lillian Cleaves knelt just behind her on the other side of the canvas, out of sight of the audience, and whispered, “Save yourself, for God’s sake! I am running now!”
More sparks and tongues of flame drifted down and were now in full view of the audience. Mary Ann Farren came on stage and knelt next to Kate, as if she were playing her roll, but instead whispered that the fire was steadily gaining. The audience, seeing the smoke and flames jumped up and began to lunge about as panic overtook them. A few, who were seated closest, tried to crawl up onto the stage. J.B. Studley, one of the actors on stage, tried to take command of the situation by addressing the audience directly. He stepped to the edge of the stage and shouted out at them that, “The play will go on and the fire will be put out. Be quiet. Get back in your seats.” The crowd began to quiet and some returned to their seats.
Kate, in a further attempt to quiet the crowd, stepped forward and tried to tell the audience that the fire was part of the play and to remain calm. Within seconds, it became apparent that this could not be true as sparks continued to rain down. As she spoke her last words, a burning piece of wood fell to the stage at her feet and all attempts to calm the crowd were abandoned and panic took over, on the stage and in the audience. Most of those in the stage area made their way to the large stage doors and out to safety, a route blocked from audience members by the growing fire.
As the crowd attempted to flee en masse, head usher Thomas Rochford was able to unlock the emergency exit onto Flood’s Alley at the rear of the floor seating area. Audience members in the parquet and parquet circle easily found their way out through that exit or to the Washington Street foyer. However, when Rochford opened the rear exit door, a rush of fresh air reinvigorated the fire and it rushed towards the back of the auditorium and up toward the balconies.
The story was quite different on the dress circle level. Almost no one knew of the emergency stairs on the opposite wall from the main staircase. In a panic, people will nearly always try to exit the same way they entered. And so, those in the dress circle all headed toward the main staircase that would take them directly into the Washington Street lobby and then out into the street. This should have been a simple process, but for the panic. As the frenzied crowd rushed toward the stairs, it quickly became jammed. Some stumbled and fell, and others piled on top of them. Feet were tangled up in the balusters. Still others pulled and clawed at those in front, trying to climb over the mass to get to safety. Escape became next to impossible.
Fortunately for these poor trapped individuals, the First Precinct Police Station was just next door so assistance was quickly at hand. Several police officers and theater employees, working at the bottom of the stairs, were able to untangle the crowd as the crush pushed them down toward the exit. Nearly everyone from the dress circle eventually made it out of the building. Almost all of their injuries stemmed from falls or the massive crush, rather than from the fire.
An anonymous witness described the scene in the dress circle balcony for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “With few exceptions, the audience in the orchestra [floor seats] rushed headlong toward the doors. Those in the dress circle followed suit, and the most fatal and appalling evils resulted. Bereft of calmness and self possession...the panic stricken throng dived headlong forward, using brute force to escape the disaster which was still comparatively distant, and which was only converted from an ordinary accident into an awful calamity by that very ruthless and reckless haste. The weaker went down before the charge of the stronger, and women and children were the sufferers, as usual. In the body of the theater and in the corridor scores were crushed and jammed almost to death, and many were thrown to the floor and trampled on.”
In the family circle, conditions were far worse. The seating area with the most people had the poorest evacuation possibilities. Within seconds, all 400 of the family circle patrons moved toward their only exit. As in the dress circle, the stairs became immediately jammed with bodies packed in so tightly that almost no movement was possible. Down below, the fire was raging, sending heat and smoke toward the ceiling where it collected in the upper balcony. In a short time, those who were trapped up next to the ceiling began to collapse, unable to breathe in the thickening smoke and hot gasses.
In the Washington Street lobby, District Engineer Farley and fireman Cain along with several policemen and theater janitor Mike Sweeny, had finally succeeded in clearing the dress circle stairs. They made their way up to the dress circle balcony but found no signs of activity. They then opened a connecting door to the family circle stairs. Met with thick black smoke, they were unable to continue any further. They shouted up but got no response. They heard no human sound or movement upon the stairs. Believing that everyone who had been sitting in the family circle had already escaped, Farley ordered everyone out of the building. Within minutes of their evacuation, large cracks appeared in the theater wall along Johnson Street. Just under half an hour after the tiny fire was first spotted, bystanders heard a giant crash as the entire wall collapsed into the burning theater, just feet from where the fire had started.
It took only a matter of minutes for anyone arriving at the site to acknowledge that the building was lost. When Brooklyn Fire Department Chief Engineer Thomas Nevins took command just before 11:30 p.m., he understood that his job was not to save the theater, but to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings. The Dieter Hotel, nestled in the crook of the theater, was at the greatest risk. With its lower profile, the chance that floating embers and burning debris landing on the roof and setting it alight was very likely. Several other buildings in the general vicinity were also in jeopardy. Nevins ordered that fire-fighting apparatus be positioned throughout the area, on and around buildings most likely to catch and spread the fire. As for the Brooklyn Theatre, she would burn herself out without any possibility of being saved.
Several of those who had made their escape, found refuge in the police precinct next door. At some point in the night, Kate Claxton was found standing alone in the frigid street, still wearing only the thin, ragged costume of Louise, her character in the play. She seemed to be in a daze, not really aware of the chaos around her. After being led into the police station she sat quietly, only occasionally asking of the whereabouts of some of her fellow actors.
The fire raged into the night, the crowd of onlookers grew; some merely curious, others frantic with worry as they searched for friends and loved ones among the survivors. Despite the growing number of people inquiring about the missing, authorities believed that few, if any had been lost to the fire. A physical search had been done of the dress circle balcony and it was found to be empty. No one had been able to get into the family circle balcony but rescuers had found no evidence of anyone still up there. They believed they had every reason to be optimistic.
Uncontrolled until well after 1:00 a.m. when the Flood’s Alley wall collapsed, the fire began to burn down. At about 3:00 a.m., Chief Nevins made his first attempt to enter the building through the Johnson Street lobby into the vestibule but was forced back by heat and smoke. Eventually, he was able to enter the building to just inside the lobby doors where he found the body of a woman, sitting on the floor propped up against a wall. She was horribly disfigured and her legs had been largely burned away. Nevins exited the building with a new understanding that where there was one body, there would likely be many more. He kept his discovery to himself, fearing the crowd might storm the crumbling building.
No one entered the building again until well after 6:00 a.m. The fire was nearly out and nothing remained of the auditorium except for a very small portion of the vestibule (seating area) nearest the lobby doors. The entire structure had collapsed into the cellar. Chief Nevins decided it was time to take in a recovery party.
The first sight that greeted them was a mass of charred and tangled debris in the cellar toward the rear of the auditorium. As they descended into the rubble, they made a grim discovery. The tangle of debris was in reality a tangle of human corpses. They had fallen into the cellar when the family circle balcony and staircases collapsed. Though their bodies were horribly burned, they had fallen victim to the smoke and heat long before the flames had reached them.
News rose from the smoldering crater that as many as twenty people had perished. The search, and body removal continued but by 9:00 a.m. the number had risen to nearly seventy. Within two more hours, twenty more were added to the growing total. By early afternoon the true depth of the tragedy became apparent as the estimation surpassed two hundred.
It would take nearly three days to remove all the bodies from the building’s wreckage. Some had been scattered when the balcony collapsed and became tangled in the debris. The task was made particularly difficult by the extremely poor conditions of the remains. Recovery became problematic as many body parts disintegrated at the slightest touch. Some bodies simply fell apart when rescuers tried to lift them from the floor of the cellar.
The crowd around the ruins grew throughout the day. Worried, distraught, and sometimes frantic people wandered from person to person, officer to officer, imploring of anyone who would listed for information about some missing person. In several cases, the only reason someone might have been thought to have been at the theater was that they didn’t come home that night, didn’t appear for work the next morning, or simply hadn’t been seen since the previous evening.
The city morgue filled quickly. An unused market was found nearby on Adams Street for the overflow. In the end, the market floor provided the best location for the victim’s remains and shreds of clothing, jewelry and personal items that survived the inferno. Identification was going to be difficult as most faces were burned beyond recognition. In many cases, the damage from the fire was so great that even gender was not evident. The victims who were identified were largely done so by personal items found on or near the bodies.
With the large open market space of the temporary morgue, human remains, extracted from the theater, could be prepared and arranged for viewing in the hopes of possible identification. A steady flow of mourners passed through the office of Kings County Coroner Henry C. Simms, requesting passes to enter the morgue. As they moved up and down the rows of the dead, they were guided by an official because so many had collapsed or passed into fits as they saw something they recognized on a particular body. As each individual was identified, their body was removed to their home or that of a family member. This procedure ensured a fairly rapid and simple reduction in the mass of human bodies laid out upon the floor. Regrettably, it also ensured that mistakes in identification would surely be made as well.
Brooklyn fell into a period of mourning. Funerals were held all over the city. Several neighborhoods and organizations held memorial services for the victims of the fire. Prayer vigils and special church services and masses were performed for those who died and their friends and families.
Nearly 100 of those who lost their lives in the Brooklyn Theatre fire could not be identified. The City of Brooklyn secured a large plot in the Green-Wood Cemetery to use as a mass grave. A large arch-shaped common grave was dug for those who remained unidentified and for families who couldn’t afford to pay for private burials. One hundred and three people, in donated coffins trimmed in silver, were laid to rest in the common grave, arranged with their heads towards the center of the arch. Over two thousand mourners braved the bitter cold to attend the graveside service and mourn the victims. After two hours of speeches, ceremonies and music performed by a sixty- voice German choir, fresh soil was shoveled over the long lines of coffins creating a large burial mound topped with a floral crown and cross. Later, the mass grave was marked with a thirty-foot-tall granite memorial, engraved with a brief history of the disaster. The memorial, also purchased by the City of Brooklyn, was placed atop the mound.
The final number killed would fluctuate for several days. It was hard to determine how many complete bodies could be made up from the piles of arms, legs, heads and torsos, and impossible to account for the body parts that had burned completely away. Henry Simms, the Kings County Coroner announced the death toll as 293 on Friday, but later scaled that back to 283. The number engraved on the memorial marker erected in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery was 278. That number is by no means definitive however as researchers have estimated the true number is likely nearer to 300. Regardless of the final count, the horrific tragedy could not be denied, nor its impact on a stunned city.
Three years after the Brooklyn Theatre had been reduced to ashes, Haverly’s Theatre was built on the same site, but was torn down just eleven years later. The next structure was a simple office building, used by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle until it went defunct. The approximate site is now a lovely wooded park-like seating area just north of the New York Supreme Court Building. Sadly, there is no marker of any sort, recalling or commemorating the terrible tragedy that had taken place there.
For the first two days, while the recovery efforts were continuing, much of the work going on inside the ruin and guard duty around the crumbling structure was done by the Brooklyn Police Department. Many of these men had been working around the clock with very little rest. They were near exhaustion and there were few officers on their regular patrol of the city. It was noted in the Brooklyn Union that: “The city is comparatively uncovered, and if New York thieves should make raid it would, no doubt, be highly successful.”
One hundred members of the Thirteenth Regiment of the New York National Guard presented themselves to the Brooklyn Police Commissioner, offering their services to take over for the police officers, that they might get some rest and return to their regular duties protecting the city. The Fourteenth Regiment did likewise and it was determined that they would rotate duties every twelve hours until the work was completed. The Fourteenth Regiment would have the night shift, starting at 6:30 p.m.
Those long nights in the frigid December weather must have worn heavily on the men of the Fourteenth. At first, they kept busy, as there were still crowds of mourners, curiosity seekers and scavengers. Soon enough, the crowds began to thin down to almost nothing after the bodies had been removed and the novelty of the tragedy had worn off. The long, dark vigil had gradually become a quiet one. The men walked or stood their posts and chatted quietly when they had occasion to pass each other.
But the nights were not completely quiet. As the guardsmen spoke in hushed tones, their attention was on occasion called to the cellar floor, where they reported hearing the soft sound of a woman’s sobs. This would continue until someone would call down for the woman to come out; that it was dangerous, especially at night, and that no one was allowed inside. Two of the men went so far as to venture into the building to find and escort her safely out. They later described what they saw as the dark, shrouded shape of what they thought was a woman. She was walking through the debris, bent over and weeping, as if she were looking for something. She stopped here and there as if to peer into some cavity, then moved on. One of the men climbed toward her to entice her away from the danger, but she simply vanished as he got closer. They knew that there was no other way out and that she hadn’t gone past them. They left the cellar area frightened and confused, but wondering if a poor lost soul was left searching for someone she had gotten separated from on that terrible night. The mysterious apparition appeared two more times over the next week, then was seen no more.
This story is an excerpt by Rene Kruse from the book AND HELL FOLLOWED WITH IT by Troy Taylor and Rene Kruse.