In 1811 Richmond was small by American standards, with a population of just under 10,000 people, about 40 percent of whom were enslaved African Americans. The city was divided into three wards—Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe—with most people living in Madison Ward, near the city’s center. This is where the Richmond Theatre was located, on the corner of H (later Broad) and Twelfth streets, in a neighborhood called Court End, just north of Capitol Square.
In the 1780s Thomas Wade West and a partner, John Bignall, had renovated the former Quesnay’s Academy building to make a theater there. It burned in January 1798 and John Marshall, then Chief Justice of the United States, led a fund-raising effort to rebuild. A new three-story brick theater was constructed on the same site and opened on January 25, 1806. It stood approximately ninety feet long, fifty feet wide, and thirty feet tall, with a capacity of about 500 people.
At the time of the 1811 fire, the Placide and Green Company was nearing the end of a run that began in August. The group had been formed in 1794 out of the merger of two South Carolina theater companies: one operated by West, an Englishman, and the other by Alexander Placide, a Frenchman. West died in 1799, and his widow, Margaretta Sully West, ran the group until 1804, when John William Green took over. In 1811, the Wests’ son, Thomas C. West, was a prominent player in the company, as was Elizabeth Hopkins Poe. In the autumn, the twenty-four-year-old English-born actress had contracted what may have been pneumonia and died on December 8 in her Richmond boarding house. She left behind three children, among them the future poet Edgar Allan Poe. In the weeks before the fire her illness and death had provoked an outpouring of sympathy and charity for the theater company.
Placide and Green played several nights a week at the Richmond Theatre. On December 26, the program featured two full-length plays separated by an intermission of four short, light musical numbers. The first play, The Father; or, Family Feuds, was an English translation of Le Père de famille (1758) by Denis Diderot. The translator, Louis Hue Girardin, operated the Hallerian Academy, Richmond’s largest school for children. Sentenced to death during the French Revolution, Girardin had escaped to America, where he married Katherine “Polly” Cole, from Albemarle County. The second play, Raymond and Agnes; or, the Bleeding Nun, by M. G. Lewis, was a pantomime, a British form of theater, generally reserved for the holiday season, that involved music, slapstick, gender-crossing, and audience interaction. Pantomimes were considered suitable for the family and attracted many parents with their children.
December marked the opening of a new session of the General Assembly and was the height of the social season in Richmond. On December 26, more than 600 people packed into the Richmond Theatre, filling the venue about 20 percent over its estimated capacity. The audience represented more than 6 percent of Richmond’s total population and included several state legislators, a former congressman and a former senator, a bank president, at least two newspaper editors, and the newly elected governor, George William Smith.
The Richmond Theatre’s doors typically opened at six, with the entertainment beginning at seven and lasting as long as five hours. According to one witness, the fire began at “about half past ten o’clock.” The curtain had just closed on the first act of Raymond and Agnes when an unidentified voice shouted for a stagehand to raise the prop chandelier. “It was fixed with 2 wicks to it,” a later investigation found; “only one of them had been lit; yet when it was lifted above, this fatal lamp was not extinguished. Here is the first link in the chain of our disasters.”
Above the stage hung thirty-four backdrops painted with oil on hemp canvas. Lest these catch fire, the property-man ordered that the chandelier be brought down immediately, but the ropes became tangled. The actor Thomas C. West later testified to having seen the property-man issue his order a second time but he became distracted with another issue and did not follow up. West took the stage for the second act and thought nothing more of it until he heard a small commotion and saw “flakes of fire” fall around him. Multiple witnesses recalled hearing a general cry of “Fire!” followed by assurances that it was a false alarm. Thomson F. Mason told the Richmond Enquirer that at first he “supposed it was probably the falling of some ornament or lights intended to illuminate the scene,” but within four to five minutes the roof had caught fire and pandemonium ensued.
The theater’s design exacerbated the chaos. Most of the audience—518 adults and 80 children, according to ticket sales—had paid a dollar to sit on benches in front of the stage or in more exclusive boxes raised on two levels along each side of the theater. An additional 50 patrons, including some free and enslaved African Americans, had paid twenty-five cents each to sit in the gallery, or balcony. The stage and gallery had their own exits. Those Richmonders who sat in the boxes, however, were forced to navigate dark, narrow hallways and descend a single narrow, winding staircase before exiting out the front door on the south end of the building. Jedediah Allen, who sat in one of the boxes that night, told the Enquirer that had the patrons in the lower boxes jumped to the floor below and left through the stage door, “it would certainly have given room for the upper boxes, and by that means almost every soul have been saved.” Witness reports suggest that a fear of heights combined with a more general and paralyzing sense of terror caused some audience members to simply die in their seats.
Many others in the boxes crowded onto the winding staircase. Fire damage and the weight of the evacuees caused it to collapse in short order. Allen was nearby at the time. “All those that fell with the stair-case must nearly have expired with the smoke at the time, as the smoke was excessively severe,” he remembered. “I heard neither sigh nor groan uttered from any one of them.” Charles Copland had run into the theater in search of his daughter Margaret, and “here was presented to my view the most appalling sight I had ever witnessed. At the foot of the staircase there lay twelve or fifteen human beings, if not more, some of them manifestly alive, and which I disovered by the [writhing] of their bodies.” It was too dark to see faces so Copland ran his hand over dresses in hopes of recognizing the fabric of his daughter’s riding dress. He never found her and she was later declared dead.
Rather than venture down the stairs, some patrons pushed toward a few small windows. As the flames closed in, John Lynch’s hair caught on fire and people dropped from suffocation around him. Stepping over bodies on his way, he found a window and threw himself out. Edmund Pendleton Jr. had planned to wait a moment before he and his wife descended the stairs. However, he quickly became convinced “by the effect of an indescribable current of steam on my flesh, and smoke on my lungs, that I had miscalculated, and that our escape must be instantaneous or not at all, as suffocation threatened.” They, too, threw themselves out the window.
“Some got killed in the fall,” Thomas R. Joynes, a delegate from Accomack County, wrote to his brother, “and some got their legs and arms broken and some few escaped unhurt.” At least one woman jumped to safety only to be crushed to death by those jumping after and on top of her.
Attempts at Rescue
Gilbert Hunt was an enslaved African American blacksmith. Hunt’s wife’s mistress, Elizabeth Mayo Preston, was the mother of Louisa Mayo, who had taught him to read. When he heard the fire bells and news that the girl had been at the theater, he rushed to help. On his way he attempted but failed to borrow a mattress to break the falls of those leaping from windows. He found, instead, a ladder. In a recollection published in 1859, he described finding Dr. James D. McCaw standing near a window “and calling to me to catch the ladies as he handed them down.” Reports suggest that Hunt and McCaw may have saved as many as a dozen women this way until the flames forced McCaw to jump. “The scene surpassed anything I ever saw,” Hunt said. “The wild shrieks of hopeless agony, the piercing cry, ‘Lord, save [me] or I perish,’ the uplifted hands, the earnest prayer for mercy, for pardon, for salvation.”
George Tucker, who later served in Congress and was a founding faculty member of the University of Virginia, had left the performance early because his feet were cold. He returned and later claimed in his autobiography to have been “instrumental in saving several females from the flames.” While searching for his daughter, Charles Copland managed to rescue two women but felt ashamed for not doing more. Some men managed to escape only to reenter the theater in an attempt to save family and friends. This was the case with Governor Smith, who had been witnessed outside the building but was later confirmed dead inside.
Outside the theater survivors suffered from shock, many of them severely burned. Cast members wandered around dazed, while Frances Willems Green, still in costume as the Bleeding Nun, searched for her daughter, Ann “Nancy” Morton Green. Having attended the show as an audience member, apparently against her parents’ wishes, Nancy Green was the company’s only fatality that night.
Early reports numbered the dead at anywhere from 50 to 200 people, but within a few weeks the number had been fixed at 72, including 66 whites and 6 African Americans. The scholar Meredith Henne Baker has raised the total to 76 and argued that it is probably higher. Most of the victims—at least 54—were women and girls. This fact apparently prompted a newspaper in Baltimore to boast that its men would have performed better in the service of women. Thomas Ritchie, the editor of the Richmond Enquirer and a survivor of the fire himself, angrily responded that while there may have been some men “who too readily listened to the laws of self-preservation,” others acted with great courage. It just happened to be the case, he wrote, that the boxes were disproportionately occupied by women.
The great majority of the victims were wealthy, upper-class Richmonders. These included the governor; Abraham B. Venable, a former U.S. senator and the current president of the Bank of Virginia; and Benjamin Botts, a lawyer who had helped to defend Aaron Burr in his 1807 treason trial. Botts’s wife also was killed. Mary Clay, the daughter of U.S. Representative Matthew Clay, died, as did the young Sarah C. Conyers, reportedly in the arms of her beau, the Navy lieutenant James Gibbon. Conyers had attended the show with Louisa Mayo—Gilbert Hunt’s reading teacher—and Caroline Homassel, a student at Louis Hue Girardin’s Hallerian Academy. Only Homassel survived. Girardin, whose translation of Diderot was performed that night, left early, but his wife and young son perished. The Jacobs family may have suffered the worst, however. Joseph Jacobs, a local businessman, died along with his seventeen-year-old daughter, his four-year-old granddaughter, and two nieces, one of whom was a mother of four and the other just five years old.
Gilbert Hunt returned to the fire’s wreckage the next day. What he saw made him shudder: “There lay, piled together, one mass of half-burned bodies—the bodies of all classes and conditions of people—the young and the old, the bond and the free, the rich and the poor, the great and the small, were all lying there together. Some of them were so badly burned that it was almost impossible to recognize them. Others were almost uninjured; yet life had left their bodies, and there they lay, cold, and stiff, and dead.”
The theater, despite having been constructed of brick, was reduced to “nothing more than a few blackened, crumbling walls surrounded by mounds of charred bodies, bone fragments, and smoking timbers,” according to the scholar Meredith Henne Baker. She has guessed that the fire reached a temperature of more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As a result, bodies were identifiable only through patches of clothing, pieces of jewelry, or other kinds of relics. The governor—whose remains were described as “a crisped lump”—was identified by a distinctive stock buckle, which had secured his neckwear.
In the days after the fire, the city’s Common Council established committees to count the dead, bury the dead, fund-raise for a memorial, and investigate the fire’s causes. The theater company’s Alexander Placide argued publicly that an arsonist had set the fire, and indeed the delegate Thomas R. Joynes had speculated in the moment that slaves had torched the theater as part of an insurrection. It was eleven years since Gabriel’s Conspiracy, and rumors of slave uprisings persisted in and around Richmond. “But there is now no doubt that these fears were groundless,” Joynes wrote. “If there had been any intention of that kind, it would have been carried into effect when the flames were at their height, and all the inhabitants were collected there.”
The investigative committee issued its findings on December 31, or just five days after the blaze, and fully exonerated the theater company of any wrongdoing. Rather than point to negligence in allowing a lit candle to be raised, the committee faulted the design and construction of the theater. Richmonders seemed less inclined to forgive the company, a circumstance that perhaps prompted the actors to pen an open letter, published in the Enquirer on the same day. “From a liberal and enlightened community we fear no reproaches,” they wrote, “but we are conscious that many have too much cause to wish they had never known us. To their mercy we appeal for forgiveness, not for a crime committed, but for one which could not be prevented.” As part of its official mourning, the city prohibited any theater productions, balls, or other assemblies for four months, leading the players to bemoan their “sentence of banishment” and wistfully recall the support they had felt during the illness of their member Eliza Poe. The next month, twenty-one of the company’s actors and stagehands were returning to South Carolina when their sloop wrecked at sea; they all survived.
The burial committee, meanwhile, determined that the bodies could not and should not be removed from the site of the theater. On December 29 a funeral procession wended its way through the city, along the way picking up the coffins of victims who had died from the effects of their injuries. It ended with an interment ceremony at the burn site officiated by the Episcopal minister John Buchanan. On New Year’s Day services were held throughout Richmond, including at the State Capitol.
Both houses of Congress took note of Richmond’s tragedy, as did city councils throughout Virginia and the legislatures of Ohio and Massachusetts. To commemorate the event in Richmond, a committee led by Chief Justice Marshall determined to build a memorial on the theater site, perhaps above a crypt that held the bodies. As it happened, the Episcopal Church was also fund-raising for a new home in the same neighborhood, and its Association for Erecting a Church merged with the city’s committee. Proposals for a structure were taken from both the famed architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe and his protégé, Robert Mills. The latter’s design—suspiciously close to the former’s—won out, and what came to be known as Monumental Church was completed in 1814. A memorial urn and tablets with the names of seventy-two victims were incorporated into the design, and those victims’ remains are housed in a basement crypt. The distinctively white church was deconsecrated in 1965 and listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register in 1968 and the National Register of Historic Places in 1969, and as a National Historic Landmark in 1971.
At the time the deadliest urban disaster in American history, the Richmond Theatre fire captured the public imagination in part because the victims were wealthy and distinguished. According to the historian Meredith Henne Baker, later, far more deadly fires did not prompt similar memorials or legendary tales of lovers dying in each other’s arms. Two hundred years later, however, the fire has been “gradually forgotten,” according to Baker, “no more than a footnote and a crumbling white memorial that once earned the wonder of a nation.”