Hundreds Die In Fire At The Brooklyn Theater – 12/5/1876

US History |


Suppose you hear two different news stories that deal with the loss of human life. One story talks about a person dying as a result of a fire in their home. Obviously, one would think this is a sad incident and if it could have been prevented makes it even more tragic. The next story is about a fire breaking out in a dance club where many young adults die in the fire or later from severe burns. Does this story make an individual feel more compassion toward this story than the previous or the same since both focuses on a loss of life?

Whatever your answer may be, think about that the hundreds I mentioned that died in a club because of a fire was a statement of fiction; the fire did not take place in a club that claimed young adults but in a theater that killed people of various ages. Nearly 300 individuals on December 5th, 1876 were killed at the Brooklyn Theater because of a fire while hundreds more suffered injuries. Tragically, some of the victims were trampled to death due to the panic that took place while others died from a combination of smoke inhalation and burns.

Starring Kate Claxton and Harry S. Murdock, the play The Two Orphans was being shown on the night of December 5th at the Brooklyn Theater. The theater was extremely popular during this time and it was located at the corner of Washington and Johnson streets; it was constructed five years prior and all of its’ 900 seats were occupied. Around the time of the performance starting, behind the stage extra scenery that was kept in the fly space was ignited by a gas light. By the time stagehands had become aware of the rapidly spreading flames, the play was reaching its’ midpoint. Tragically, the fire spread due to the lack of water buckets or fire hoses at hand; the audience and cast had no idea of what was happening.

Suddenly, someone screamed “FIRE” and although Murdock tried desperately to calm the crowd down, chaos erupted especially in the rear and balcony of the theater. Without any fire escapes present, the only exit from the balcony was a narrow staircase filled with panicked patrons; many were trapped or crushed as a result of the stampede. Witnesses noticed Murdock rushing to his dressing room to change and then to attempt to wiggle out through a tiny window. Unable to escape, the floor eventually gave way and he fell to his death in the basement.

Sadly, it was too late for the hundreds of people by the time fire fighters showed up at the theater. The entire structure was almost destroyed as the fire burned on throughout the night and when rescuers finally went in to investigate, all they saw was bodies melted together by the intense heat. Identification was an issue for about one hundred bodies that were burned beyond recognition; a huge grave was established at Green-Wood Cemetery. Roughly 295 passed away and the city of Brooklyn later built a granite memorial that was thirty-feet-high in honor of those who perished.          

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