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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Burning of the Richmond Theatre

By William Dunlap (1766–1839)

[A History of the American Theatre. 1832.]

A NEW play and pantomime had been advertised for the benefit of Mr. Placide. The house was fuller than on any night of the season. The play was over, and the first act of the pantomime had passed. The second and last had begun. All was yet gayety, all so far had been pleasure, curiosity was yet alive, and further gratification anticipated—the orchestra sent forth its sounds of harmony and joy—when the audience perceived some confusion on the stage, and presently a shower of sparks falling from above. Some were startled, others thought it was apart of the scenic exhibition. A performer on the stage received a portion of the burning materials from on high, and it was perceived that others were tearing down the scenery. Some one cried out from the stage that there was no danger. Immediately after, Hopkins Robinson ran forward and cried out “the house is on fire!” pointing to the ceiling, where the flames were progressing like wildfire. In a moment, all was appalling horror and distress. Robinson handed several persons from the boxes to the stage, as a ready way for their escape. The cry of “Fire, fire!” ran through the house, mingled with the wailings of females and children. The general rush was to gain the lobbies. It appears from the following description of the house, and the scene that ensued, that this was the cause of the great loss of life.

The general entrance to the pit and boxes was through a door not more than large enough to admit three persons abreast. This outer entrance was within a trifling distance of the pit door, and gave an easy escape to those in that part of the house. But to attain the boxes from the street it was necessary to descend into a long passage, and ascend again by an angular staircase. The gallery had a distinct entrance, and its occupants escaped. The suffering and death fell on the occupants of the boxes, who, panic-struck, did not see that the pit was immediately left vacant, but pressed on to gain the crowded and tortuous way by which they had entered. The pit door was so near the general entrance, that those who occupied that portion of the house gained the street with ease. A gentleman who escaped from the pit among the last, saw it empty, and when in the street, looked back again upon the general entrance to the pit and boxes, and the door had not yet been reached by those from the lobbies. A gentleman and lady were saved by being thrown accidentally into the pit, and most of those who perished would have escaped if they had leaped from the boxes and sought that avenue to the street. But all darted to the lobbies. The stairways were blocked up. All was enveloped in hot scorching smoke and flame. The lights were extinguished by the black and smothering vapor, and the shrieks of despair were appalling. Happy for a moment were those who gained a window and inhaled the air of heaven. Those who had issued to the street cried to the sufferers at the windows to leap down, and stretched out their arms to save them. Some were seen struggling to gain the apertures to inhale the fresh air. Men, women, and children precipitated themselves from the first and second stories. Some escaped unhurt—others were killed or mangled by the fall. Some with their clothes on fire, shrieking, leaped from the windows to gain a short reprieve and die in agonies.

“Who can picture,” says a correspondent of the Mirror, “the distress of those who, unable to gain the windows or afraid to leap from them, were pent up in the long narrow passages.” The cries of those who reached the upper windows are described as being heart-sickening. Many who found their way to the street were so scorched or burnt as to die in consequence, and some were crushed to death underfoot after reaching the outer door.

Add to this mass of suffering, the feelings of those who knew that they had relatives or friends who had gone to the house that night. Such rushed half frantic to the spot with the crowds of citizens from all quarters—while the tolling bells sounded the knell of death to the heart of the father or mother whose child had been permitted to visit the theatre on that night of horror.

“As my father was leading me home,” said Mr. Henry Placide, “we saw Mr. Greene, exhausted by previous exertion, leaning on a fence, and looking at the scene of ruin. For all was now one black mass of smoking destruction. ‘Thank God!’ ejaculated Greene, ‘Thank God! I prohibited Nancy from coming to the house to-night! She is safe!’”

Nancy was his only daughter, just springing into womanhood, still at the boarding-school of Mrs. Gibson; and as beautiful and lovely a girl as imagination can picture.

Mrs. Gibson and the boarders had made up a party for the theatre that evening, and Nancy Greene asked her father’s permission to accompany them. He refused—but unfortunately added his reason—“the house will be crowded, and you will occupy a seat that would otherwise be paid for.” On these words hung the fate of youth, innocence, and beauty. “I will pay for your ticket,” said the kind instructress, “we will not leave you behind.” The teacher and the pupil were buried in the ruins on which the father gazed, and over which he returned thanks for the safety of his child. He went home and learned the truth.

An instance of the escape of a family is given. The husband, with three children, were in the second boxes; his wife, with a female friend, in another part of the house. The wife gained a window—leaped out and escaped unhurt. Her friend followed and was killed. The father clasped two helpless girls to his breast, and left a boy of twelve years of age to follow—the boy was forced from the father, and to a window—sprang out and was safe. The parent, with his precious charge, followed the stairway, pressed upon by those behind him, and those who mounted on the heads and shoulders of the crowd before them—he became unconscious, but was still borne along—he was taken up, carried to his bed, and opened his eyes to see all his family safe.

On the contrary, Lieut. Gibbon, of the Navy—as exemplary in private life as heroic in the service of his country, and on the brink of a union with Miss Conyers, the pride of Richmond for every accomplishment and virtue—was swept into eternity while exerting himself to do all that man should do in such trying circumstances. He was with his mother at the theatre, and carried her to a place of safety—then rushed back to save her in whose fate his own was bound up—he caught her in his arms—had borne her partly down the staircase, when the steps gave way, and a body of flame swept them to eternity.

Friday, the 27th of December, 1811, was a day of mourning to Richmond. The banks and stores were closed. A law was passed prohibiting amusements of every kind for four months. A day was set apart for humiliation and prayer. A monument was resolved on—to be erected to the memory of the dead and the event.